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Iran’s nuclear deal a suspicious affair

Israel gets the better of Tehran after putting on an Oscar-winning show in opposing the talks while secretly coordinating them in the background

Gulf News

Notwithstanding the multilateral agreement over Iran’s putative nuclear military programmes, an emasculated Tehran accepted strict interim terms, following extensive secret bilateral negotiations with Washington. Reality finally sank in largely because of the post-2008 cyber-attacks that disrupted Iran’s uranium processing capability even as the accord threatened to permanently alter regional security arrangements.

Although few commentators made the link, National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden confirmed to Der Spiegel a few weeks ago that the US and Israel collaborated on the matter and, more importantly, succeeded in crippling Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Indeed, the US/Israeli Stuxnet cyberweapon — a computer worm that literally shook Iranian centrifuges to pieces — was so successful that Tehran re-evaluated its plans to replace several thousand costly machines at a time when its economy was in dire conditions.

As it turned out, Iran only agreed to stop enriching uranium above 5 per cent, and dilute its stock of uranium enriched to 20 per cent. The latter was a significant concession although it was not clear how large that stock was. Still, doing so addressed a major proliferation concern, a key French condition.

Consequently, no new increases of low-enriched uranium are expected over the course of the next six months, an issue that will require further negotiations.

Moreover, as Tehran pledged not to instal new centrifuges to replace the estimated 8,000 inoperable machines, this vow was a confirmation that several Stuxnet hits were effective.

Without enrichment capacity and with intrusive nuclear inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), including daily visits to some facilities, Iran’s nuclear ambitions were severely curtailed. Even more telling was Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s concession that his country would not fuel or try to commission the heavy-water reactor at Arak, or even build a reprocessing plant that could produce plutonium from the spent fuel, again for the duration of the interim accord.

In exchange for these important allowances, the deal promised to remove several economic sanctions and release between $4-7 billion (Dh14.6-25.7 billion) in Iranian oil revenues from frozen accounts. In other words, Iran will get its own funds, along with a suspension of various restrictions that had prevented it from trading in gold, petrochemicals, car and aircraft parts and a few other items.

Under the circumstances, the hailed victory was particularly hollow, since the restrictions were far more intrusive than many assumed.

In fact, the ubiquitous presence of IAEA inspectors will now ensure that Iran completely abides by its commitments, something that Israel’s assassination-of-nuclear-scientists-plan failed to accomplish to date. Challenged Israeli leaders huffed and puffed all weekend long but the acting was worthy of an Oscar given what transpired and what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knew. He and US President Barack Obama exchanged several telephone calls and, more importantly, their respective advisers coordinated what was on the table and what transpired under it.

Indeed, Israeli officials were aware, and approved, of the secret talks between American and Iranian diplomats in Oman and other locations as the capable deputy secretary of state, William Burns, and Jake Sullivan, a foreign policy adviser to Vice-President Joe Biden, met with their Iranian counterparts. The Associated Press reported that at least five meetings were held starting March 2013, which meant that the first overtures occurred when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president.

This caveat put to rest the canard that the US saw the election of the reformist Hassan Rouhani as a window of opportunity. Instead, embarking on serious discussions of Iran’s nuclear programme three months before Rouhani was elected, confirmed that the US felt no compunction about extending lines of communication as it pursued its interests. Washington cooperated with Iran under the Shah, continued doing so under Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, and was likely to do likewise under any other leader. To believe otherwise was to underestimate American political flexibility.

Of course, the rapprochement between Washington and Tehran upset the proverbial security applecart in the Gulf region, with leading Arab Gulf States misreading what actually transpired in Geneva. Most saw the accord as a further Western, especially American, compromise after the flip-flop over Syria. It was not.

What was comical was President Bashar Al Assad’s quick hailing of the “historic accord,” unaware that the inevitable strangulation of Iran was nearly identical to the treatment that stripped Syria of its strategic chemical weapons. To be sure, that intrusive deal prevented cruise missile strikes and heightened concerns among US allies — for not bombing — though what the Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia, wished to accomplish there was still possible even if it required more assertive steps.

To be sure, it was worth underscoring that the openly expressed goal—to accelerate Al Assad’s downfall — was eminently doable, and stood a better chance after these two recent agreements, provided certain decisions were made.

Such an outcome necessitated the transfer of effective arsenals, something that Arab States and Turkey were reticent to introduce, no matter various pressures on all regional governments. Unlike Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, all of which backed the Al Assad regime with arms, men, and expertise, Arab Gulf states provided financial support and some weapons, which were useful but not sufficient. In the post-2013 period, the choices were either to embark on the political bandwagon, that is, support the long-delayed Geneva 2 negotiations now scheduled for January 22, 2014, or accelerate the transfer of the kind of weapons that would make a difference on the battlefield.

Still, and while this nuclear agreement will inevitably influence the Syrian stalemate, equally serious challenges lie ahead, since a potential final agreement will not end Iran’s aspirations for a nuclear weapons capacity six months hence.

Simply stated, Iran was too far into its four-decade-old programme to give up and, in time, is destined to become a nuclear power. That outcome was something that Western powers and Israel accepted no matter the rhetoric. Naturally, such a reality would not be a particularly comforting outcome to Arab Gulf States, whose own military investments to reach parity with Iran will now delight and benefit cynical arms merchants. In the meantime, and pernicious sentiments aside, Arab Gulf leaders are likely to display patience. Both to appraise the accord as well as the intentions of its signatories, and to better prepare for the day after.