By Ranjit Gupta
Even though Iran had signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1967, it had been pursuing a clandestine nuclear programme since the mid-1980s, which became public knowledge in 2002 through defectors. The program was put on fast forward during President Ahmedinejad’s period.
On-off negotiations with the IAEA and Western countries, an escalating sanctions regime particularly since 2006, Iran’s economy sliding into deep depression rapidly, rising possibilities of Israeli military action, etc., failed to persuade the contending parties to reach any solution. A progressively deteriorating security scenario – post Arab Spring – in West Asia seemed poised to worsen further.
Oman as a Mediator
Oman has traditionally had a close relationship with Iran both during the Shah’s time and after the 1979 Revolution and has acted as a conduit between the US and Iran. According to well founded speculation Oman had been mediating secret interaction between the US and Iran for several months before Rouhani’s presidency. Sultan Qaboos visited Iran during 25-27 August 2013, three weeks after Rouhani became the President adding credence to reports that he had carried a communication from President Obama to Rouhani.
Developments under Rouhani
A moderate cleric, a quintessential insider and personally close to Supreme Leader Khamanei, Dr.Hassan Rouhani, with a more conciliatory approach to the world and greater transparency on the nuclear program, was elected Iran’s President in June 2013 by an absolute majority after a 72% turnout.
Providing further reassurance to the US, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who spent 12 years studying in the US and is well known and liked in the West, was appointed Foreign Minister; he was made responsible for negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. The choice of new incumbents for the Head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Ambassador to the IAEA and to the UN reinforced the positive message.
Syria, US and Russia: The Iran Angle
Despite intense criticism both domestically and internationally, Obama held back from military intervention after the August 21, 2013 chemicals weapons attack in Syria. On 9 September 2013 Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposed that Syria should agree to place its chemical weapons under international control, dismantle them, and agree to the destruction of the entire stockpile. Syria immediately accepted the proposal and acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention on 12 September.
On 14 September, the US and Russia reached an agreement relating to the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. The implementation of the agreement is underway under the auspices of OPCW and monitoring of the United Nations. Since Syria is Iran’s closest ally, Obama’s commendable restraint was the absolutely essential reassurance that Iran needed at a critical juncture that the US is sincere in the overtures being made to reach a solution to the nuclear issue.
As Eisenhower after Korea and Nixon after Vietnam had done, Obama in his second term is determined to avoid new military engagements abroad and focus on rebuilding the nation’s economy and international esteem. All American troops are likely to be withdrawn from Afghanistan before the end of this year. In his 2014 State of the Union address he said “In a world of complex threats, our security depends on all elements of our power …including strong and principled diplomacy”. The Obama Doctrine according priority to diplomacy bodes well for a troubled world and is also in sync with the American people’s views.
Towards a geopolitical breakthrough?
All the above factors have made a substantive thaw between Iran and the West. There has been an unprecedented meaningful interaction between the two sides. On 26 September 2013, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met the Foreign Ministers of the P-5+1 on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. On 27 September, President Obama spoke on the phone with President Rouhani and discussed Iran’s nuclear program and said that he was persuaded there was a basis for an agreement.
Significantly choosing to speak in English, Iran’s Foreign Minister outlined a detailed proposal to representatives of the P 5 +1 on Oct 15-16 at Geneva. All parties declared they were very satisfied with these first formal negotiations since the Rouhani’s election. After intense 4 day negotiations, on Nov 24th morning agreement on an interim framework toward reaching a long-term comprehensive solution to Iran’s nuclear program was announced. This came into effect from 20 January and is valid for six months. Under this deal, the IAEA has confirmed that Iran began curbing uranium enrichment, suspended its most sensitive nuclear development work, and placed its nuclear sector under heretofore unprecedented international scrutiny.
In return the EU and the US have eased some sanctions allowing limited increases in exports of oil and petrochemicals and released $4.20 billion of Iran’s frozen oil assets. The atmospherics of negotiations during January-March have remained very positive. In the meantime the Iranian Foreign Minister had a rare and encouraging one-to-one meeting with the US Secretary of State and similar meetings with the other five Foreign Ministers at Munich on the sidelines of the annual Security Conference in early February. The UK has posted a CDA in Tehran; Foreign Ministers of Belgium, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the EU Foreign Policy chief Katherine Ashton have visited Iran.
Negotiations are going to be difficult and challenging and success cannot be assumed but the world is on the anvil of a spectacular geopolitical breakthrough.
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS and Former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman