By Farhang Jahanpour
After 36 years of hostility between Iran and the West and 13 years of nuclear negotiations, first involving Iran and the European Troika (Britain, France and Germany), followed by the P5+1 (the above countries plus the United States, Russia and China), it seems that finally one can start to be optimistic and hope that a long, dark chapter will come to an end.
The next few days up to the end of March are the most crucial days in this long road, but after many ups and downs and many false hopes the end may be in sight. To be sure, nothing is certain until the final announcement has been made. Still powerful forces are hard at work to prevent the success of the talks, but there is some room for optimism. The important point to bear in mind is that talks with Iran were never only about Iran’s nuclear program.
The victory of the Islamic revolution toppled the staunchly pro-Western Mohammad Reza Shah who was acting as the gendarme of the region on behalf of the West, and replaced him with intensely anti-Western Ayatollah Khomeini who wanted to spread the Islamic revolution and replace the existing order with a religious theocracy. The revolution created the biggest upset in the history of the Middle East since the end of the First World War, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Sykes-Picot division of the Middle East among various European colonial powers.
With the start of the Cold War and the rise of the American superpower, the Middle East was divided between the two blocs, with some countries such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Algeria leaning towards the East and other countries such as Iran, Turkey and Persian Gulf monarchies leaning towards the West. Despite occasional upsets, that situation had remained fairly stable until the victory of the Iranian revolution.
When the revolution started and there was fear of a leftist takeover of the country, Henry Kissinger said that if Iran joined the Soviet block it would upset the balance of power in the world in favor of the Soviet Union. With its unique geopolitical position straddling the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, its vast mineral resources, large educated population, its regional domination, and its revolutionary ideology, Iran could certainly change the map of the Middle East. The taking of American hostages by militant Iranian students added to Western fear of Khomeini’s Iran.
Less than a year after the victory of the Iranian revolution, on Christmas Day 1979, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan and got closer to the warm waters of the Persian Gulf and its oil resources that acted as the jugular vein of the global economy.
With the help of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the United States organized Afghan Mujahidin, Muslim zealots whose name literally means Jihadi warriors, and thus started a long and deadly war against the Soviet Union that ultimately resulted in the defeat of Russia and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
However, it gave rise to the Taliban who shielded Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, which launched the attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001.
On the other hand, the United States encouraged Saddam Hussein to attack Iran and provided him with economic, logistical and military support, including chemical weapons. Later on, as the Iraqi army was on the verge of collapse, the United States joined the war on the side of Saddam in the Persian Gulf by reflagging Kuwaiti and Saudi ships, sank a large part of the Iranian Navy and destroyed Iranian offshore oil platforms, and finally shot down an Iranian passenger aircraft killing all 290 passengers and crew.
That war lasted for eight long years and killed and wounded at least a million Iranians and inflicted huge economic costs on the country.
Nevertheless, shortly after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, a move that necessitated a major war to dislodge him. Persian Gulf countries bore the major cost of the liberation of Kuwait, but the instability created as the result of those events still continues.
The sanctions and attacks on Iraq continued non-stop until they culminated in the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, perhaps the worst possible foreign policy blunder in US history. After the death and injury of tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the destruction of Iraq and undermining its social fabric, the world is still suffering from terrorism and instability emanating from the ruins of Iraq.
The 2011 “Arab Spring” provided a ray of hope for ending the despotic regimes in the Middle East and the establishment of more democratic governments. Initially, the uprisings resulted in toppling the Tunisian, Egyptian and Yemeni dictators. Elections were held in Tunisia and, despite the recent terrorist attack on tourists in Tunis, Tunisia has at least survived as a fledgling democracy.
In Egypt, however, President Hosni Mubarak’s fall produced the very first democratic election in Egypt’s long history, but the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi did not last long. It was toppled by a military junta, which killed thousands and imprisoned many thousands more, and the dream of democracy died with the coup.
As the Arab Spring got closer to Saudi Arabia, Saudi rulers tried to undermine the calls for greater democracy and openness by describing the uprisings as sectarian conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, although the same could not be said about Tunisia, Egypt or Libya by any stretch of the imagination.
The result has been the Saudi invasion of Bahrain and lately Yemen, providing support for NATO attacks on Libya that has produced a failed state, and supporting terrorists in Syria, which has killed upward of 220,000 people and as many as nine million refugees, and the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Meanwhile, in the midst of all this chaos, despite their early revolutionary zeal, Iranian clerics have gradually moderated their policies. Under President Mohammad Khatami, Iran reached an agreement with the European Troika for keeping a very small number of centrifuges, and Iran even suspended uranium enrichment for over two years. The Bush Administration opposed the agreement and ruled that Iran could have no enrichment on her soil.
In 2003, President Khatami even made an amazing offer to the United States for a grand bargain that would have settled all contentious issues between the two countries, including the nuclear program, relations with Israel, cutting support for the Lebanese Hizballah and HAMAS, and having normal relations with the United States. The Iranian offer, which was communicated to the Bush Administration by the Swiss ambassador in Tehran who was in charge of US interests in Iran, was contemptuously dismissed by Vice President Dick Cheney, even without answering the letter.
Meanwhile, American sanctions on Iran have continued and since 2003 on the excuse of Iran’s nuclear program they have been intensified. Despite the fact that the IAEA regularly reported that it had detected no diversion in the Iranian nuclear program towards military uses, the United States persuaded the IAEA Board of Governors to refer Iran to the UN Security Council, and incredibly Iran’s file was put under chapter seven of the Charter.
In addition to Security Council sanctions on Iran, the US Congress and US Administration, as well as the EU, imposed unprecedented crippling sanctions on Iran. About 150 billion dollars of Iranian assets in foreign banks were frozen and Iran was denied access to them. Iran was cut off from the use of SWIFT, thus preventing Iran from having banking transactions with foreign banks and Iran’s oil exports were halved.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of the Central Asian countries to the West, at great extra cost, the United States prevented pipelines being laid from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azarbaijan through Iran for the export of their oil and gas to the West. As a result, the countries east of the Caspian Sea have turned to China, which receives the lion’s share of their resources, and some of them have even joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and are once again united with China and Russia.
Iran’s isolation – winners and losers
However, the continued demonization of Iran has suited many countries.
Israel has been one of the countries that has benefited most from Iran’s estrangement from the West. By describing Iran’s non-existent nuclear bomb as an “existential threat”, and as the result of constant incitement against Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has successfully diverted world attention from Israeli expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, and launching deadly attacks against Palestinians, especially in Gaza. Meanwhile, he has a receptive audience in the US Congress that has legislated huge increases in military assistance to Israel in order to protect it against the alleged Iranian threat.
By exaggerating the extent of Iranian meddling in neighboring countries, Saudi Arabia and the rest of Persian Gulf littoral states have also suppressed dissent at home and have tried to forge closer links with the West. Meanwhile, they have benefited greatly from the rise in the price of oil during the past few decades due to instability in the region.
They have also provided the most lucrative market for Western arms merchants. Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries have become the biggest customers for American weapons, and they have also provided bases for US forces, in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE and Iraq since the US invasion of that country.
Although relations between Turkey and Iran have been correct and even friendly, Turkey has benefited greatly from Iranian isolation, by bypassing Iran for oil and gas pipelines and becoming a hub for oil transit. In the absence of a friendly Iran, Turkey has served as the point of call for most Western countries, at least until the deterioration of Turkey’s relations with Israel, which has automatically also resulted in a cooling of relations with the West.
Russia and China have made great gains as the result of cool relations between Iran and the West. In the absence of US firms, those two countries have become the main customers of Iranian oil, agricultural products and mineral resources and the main providers of Iranian military and civilian requirements.
At the moment, China is Iran’s biggest trading partner and the two countries hope to raise their trade exchanges from $52 billion a year at the moment to more than $60 billion by next year, and to increase it further to $200 billion in 10 years. China has agreed to provide $13 billion funds for Iran’s Sabalan, Lordegan, Bushehr and Masjed Soleyman petrochemical projects.
Similar agreements have been reached with Russia for the purchase of half a million barrels of oil a day from Iran and the exchange of goods in return. At the same time, Russia has agreed to build at least two more nuclear reactors in Iran, and there are six more reactors under discussion. Iran and Russia have also resumed talks for the resumption of the sale of S300 and even S400 air defense missiles to Iran. During Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu’s recent visit to Tehran, the two countries said that they would resolve differences over the delivery of those advanced systems.
In addition to Iran losing hundreds of billions of dollars as the result of Western sanctions, European countries have also lost a lucrative market in Iran.
Traditionally, Germany was Iran’s biggest European trade partner, followed by France and Italy. However, as the result of Western sanctions trade between those countries and Iran has been reduced to a trickle.
The United States has also been another major loser in the sanctions. A report published in 2014 calculated that the US economy lost between $134.7 and $175.3 billion in potential export revenue to Iran between 1995 and 2012. Additionally, the report concludes that “each year,” the US loses “between 51,043 and 66,436” job opportunities as a result of sanctioning Iran.
To that should be added the cost of wars that America has waged as the result of instability in the Middle East due to shutting Iran out of all regional equations. According to a study conducted by Harvard University, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will cost the United States between $4-6 trillion in the long term, constraining the government’s budget for decades to come.
However, in addition to all these financial costs, one should add the incalculable human losses in Iran and the region.
In view of the above list of the winners and losers, it is not surprising that many countries are opposed to an Iranian-US rapprochement. In addition to Netanyahu’s personal intrusion into American politics, his friends have also been very active in trying to prevent a deal between Iran and the West. Each day, one hears one or other neocon friend of Israel calling for the bombing of Iran.
A few days ago, Senator Lindsey Graham called for strikes on Iran not only on their nuclear sites, but also “their navy, their army, their air force, their offensive capability.”
On 26 March, the hawkish former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, wrote an Op-Ed in New York Times entitled: “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran”.
Fearing an agreement with Iran, Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, sponsored a bill that would call for the Congress to do a quick vote on an agreement well before any legislation to implement the agreement was actually required. Earlier on, 47 Republican senators sent a letter to “Iranian leaders”, warning erroneously that no nuclear deal would be valid without congressional approval, and that the next president could revoke it with a stroke of a pen.
In view of such constant and intense opposition to a nuclear agreement with Iran, it would be truly a miracle if an agreement could be reached. However, there is a glimmer of hope that we are at that stage. If this happens, President Obama would have earned his Nobel Prize, and both he and Secretary of State John Kerry should be congratulated for their hard work, insight, courage and perseverance.
Let us hope that the last obstacles will not derail a historic agreement with Iran that could prove a turning point in relations between Iran and the West, and more importantly provide an opportunity to hard-pressed Iranians who are longing for greater freedom and democracy and greater interaction with the outside world.
The consequences of the failure of the talks could be a continued and intensified period of hostility between Iran and the West that might ultimately lead to war. That outcome should be prevented at any cost.