An official from Iran's Atomic Energy Organization speaks on his mobile phone in front of uranium enriching centrifuges at an exhibition of Iran's nuclear achievements at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran on April 20, 2009. (Reuters photo)
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
As the deadline looms for the announcement of some sort of nuclear deal between the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany on the one hand and Iran on the other, there has been much agonizing in the Middle East and in the US of how this may be a bad deal for the Gulf countries, Israel and the US. Bad because US President Barack Obama is allegedly being too soft in the negotiations with the Iranians, in the hope of reaching a landmark agreement that will be a lasting legacy of his presidency, even if it is detrimental to American interests.
First we had the shameless appearance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before the US Congress on March 3, lecturing American politicians on the dangers of a bad deal with Iran. Nancy Pelosi, minority leader in the House of Representatives, visibly displeased by his remarks said his speech was “condescending” and “an insult to the intelligence of the United States.”
Then we had the letter written by 47 Republican senators on March 9 addressed to the leaders of Iran warning them that any nuclear deal reached between Obama and Iran, that was not approved by the US Congress, could be revoked by the president who is elected to office in 2017, and that Congress could modify the terms of the agreement.
For sure the growth of the Iranian nuclear program, and the discovery of a secret, military component of it in 2002, has led many critics to be wary of Iran’s true intentions. No one really doubts that the country needs nuclear energy to produce electricity, just as Gulf countries are investing in nuclear energy for the same reasons. By doing so, both Iran and the Gulf countries will be able to divert much less crude oil to produce electricity, and be able to export that oil where they can get much more money for it.
In 2006, Iran had only 164 centrifuges that it uses to produce uranium. Today it has more than 15,000. Jeffrey Lewis, a director at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in the US, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine recently that the reluctance of American hawks to reach a nuclear deal with Iran over the past ten years is what has allowed, in part, the Iranian nuclear program to expand so aggressively. “One of the most frustrating things about following the past decade of negotiations is watching the West make one concession after another – but only after the Iranians had moved so far forward that the concession had no value. The people arguing now for a ‘better’ deal at some later date are the same people who in 2006 said 164 centrifuges was way too many and, that if we just held out long enough, we’d haggle the Iranians down to zero. Look what that got us,” writes Lewis.
If the deal is agreed to, Iran would freeze its nuclear program at current levels for the next ten years, allow more intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the US and the UN would lift many of the economic sanctions that have made life so difficult for all Iranians. Some critics are worried that the Iranians are only bluffing in the current negotiations, claiming that their only goal is to get the sanctions lifted, and that as soon as they are the Iranians will ramp up their nuclear program once again. In order to avoid this happening, the US could lift some of their sanctions temporarily for six months, subject to inspections of Iranian nuclear installations. If they passed, then the sanctions would remain lifted for a further six months. That way the threat of the sanctions returning, and the use of regular inspections, could be a good way to keep the Iranians on their toes and make them stick to the agreement. It would also allow the US to retain the stick of sanctions, which are notably easier to lift than to impose.
For sure, Iran’s continued expansion of influence in the Arab world, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen is extremely worrying to the Gulf Cooperation Council member states and is unacceptable. Already in Iraq, a vast network of Shia militias from Iran have been deployed to ostensibly fight the menace of the Islamic State forces, but many see it as a strategic move to effectively make Iraq a satellite-state of Iran.
In the end, a nuclear deal with Iran, even one that is not liked very much by all parties, will be better than no deal. A deal allows the continued presence of IAEA inspectors in Iran and keeps Iran engaged with the rest of the world and the expectations that come with it of acting reasonably responsibly. We all know that a nuclear deal will not necessarily mean renewed diplomatic relations between the US and Iran, as the Supreme Leader of Iran still believes that America is the Great Satan. So all of us in the Gulf can breathe easy again and not worry that a nuclear deal with Iran will suddenly eclipse the relationship that the US has had with Gulf countries for decades.