Alphen, Netherlands. 24 November. On the face of it the agreement between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Russia and US plus Germany) group of nations is one of those moments in geopolitics which could re-order security both regionally and globally. Iran has agreed to slow efforts to enrich uranium to weapons-grade in return for the relief of some $7bn worth of sanctions. With inflation running at around 40% per annum in Iran and the regime under growing domestic pressure Tehran clearly has a need to end its domestic isolation. However, if this interim agreement is in six months hence to be confirmed as a permanent agreement it will need to pass two verifiable tests. Does the agreement reflect a fundamental shift in Iran’s foreign and security policy posture? Is the Middle East made safer (and by extension the world) by this agreement?
First the deal. In return for the easing of sanctions Iran has agreed to give International Atomic Energy Authority inspectors daily access to the Natanz and Fordo nuclear sites. Sunday Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif tweeted (a sign of the times?) that under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Iran has an “inalienable” right to enrich uranium. Technically he is correct as a state may indeed enrich uranium up to 5% beyond which weapons research can commence.
Does the agreement reflect a fundamental shift in Iran’s foreign and security policy posture? Critically, the test of Iran’s bona fides will not simply be adherence to this agreement but whether Tehran’s regional strategy also shifts. That would mean a markedly less hostile posture towards Israel, including less support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, less interference in the Syrian civil war (and other neighbouring states) and less interference in the Gulf. As yet there are no signs of such a shift. Rather, President Obama seems to be gambling that this agreement could bolster President Rouhani and the ‘moderates’ in the Tehran regime and might in time build sufficient confidence to engender a shift in Tehran’s strategy.
Is the Middle East made safer (and by extension the world) by this agreement? That depends. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have condemned this agreement. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has called it an “historic mistake” and that Israel reserves the right to defend itself. Sunday morning the leaders of several Gulf States flew to Riyadh for talks with the Saudi leadership which has also privately condemned this agreement.
Critically, if Iran is not seen to observe and more importantly held to observe this agreement then Saudi Arabia could well take forward already advanced talks with Pakistan for the development of a nuclear capability. If that happened then the nuclear genie would be well and truly out of the bottle and the NPT would finally be seen the world over as a busted arms control flush.
So, is this agreement worth the risk? Yes but. Yes, in that any attempt to break the deadlock with Iran could if successful help eventually (and I stress eventually) lead to an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians which is the cornerstone conflict in the Middle East. However, France was absolutely right to insist on as tough a verification regime as possible. Indeed, my own sources have told me that the talks three weeks ago came close to agreeing a very soft accord that would only have encouraged those in Tehran who believe that in the wake of Syria debacle Obama is so politically weak at home and so desperate for any foreign policy success that he would agree to anything. It is in such ignorance that Tehran could make a dangerous miscalculation.
For the Europeans at the table there is also serious food for thought. Let me for once pay tribute to Baroness Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy sort-of-supremo. I have in the past been very critical of the Lady from Lancashire helped I might add by comments made to me by some of those close to her. However, she has proven to be an able chair supported ably by diplomats from Britain, France and Germany. If this is a way Europeans can begin to exert real influence then it could help end Europe’s interminable strategic shrinkage.
However, one of Ashton’s weaknesses is that she hails from the old CND (anti-nuclear) left of the old British Labour Party. She has singularly failed to understand that Europe’s much-talked about soft power only makes sense if there is credible hard military power that underpins it. If she and others in the Euro-elite believe this accord is proof that Europe can exert influence thought soft power alone then she and the rest of Europe are at some time in for a rude awakening.
As I wrote in a previous blog – Europe must together speak softly but work out how to carry a bigger stick!