Commentary

A Chilly Regional Reception for Iran Talks

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

The initial round of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program has ended unsuccessfully. Still, enough progress has been made that when the P5+1 representatives meet the Iranian representative on the 20th of this month, many suspect a deal will be struck. It is perhaps this kind of optimism that has many in the Arab world as well as in Israel concerned about the potential concessions that the West is prepared to make to accommodate some of Iran’s demands.

Last week’s negotiations received some cautious support from a few voices in the Arab world, including Khaleej Times, which in its editorial urges the parties involved in the discussion to reach a commonly agreed deal: “It seems the Iranians have stuck to their words and this time around want a substantial quid pro quo, which they would be able to take back home as proof of their achievement. But taking into account the radicalism that rules the roost in Tehran, it remains to be seen how this euphoria in Geneva is reciprocated. Meanwhile, the onus is on Washington to rein in Israel that has been angered by the talks of lifting the sanctions on Iran and prevent it from jumping the gun....It’s incumbent upon the P5+1 and Iran to seal a deal to help restore stability and tranquility in the entire region.”

Many argued that the P5+1 had a good hand to play and should therefore hold out for maximum concessions from the Iranian delegation, with the Jerusalem Post editorial going so far as expressing a preference for no deal at all: “The U.S. and other P5+1 members should not be concerned about taking too tough a stance. The Iranians face serious domestic pressures. Their economy is a shambles with skyrocketing inflation and unemployment and low growth. Oil exports, their main source of income, have been severely curtailed. The Iranians are in desperate need of relief....Thankfully, the proposed nuclear deal was not signed in Geneva this weekend....As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry noted recently, a bad deal would be worse than none at all. The agreement considered this weekend in Geneva was precisely such a bad deal.”

There does seem to be a fear among a few observers that the Obama administration might not be up to the task of conducting advantageous negotiations against a seasoned Iranian team.  Al Hayat’s Elias Harfoush, for example, is concerned that Mr. Obama’s perceived weakness on the domestic front might be exploited by the Iranians: “Iran does realize Obama’s desire to reach a settlement to this matter. Therefore, it is ready to play the game of gaining time…. In this endeavor, Tehran is relying on the fact that the American president will not be staging any kind of confrontations in order to prove the seriousness of the American decision, even if this would ultimately hurt America’s reputation and regional relations. And because Tehran is aware of Barack Obama’s weakness, it is now taking advantage of the unprecedented regression in the American president’s popularity by proposing a deal that will further enhance his weak position.”

In an op-ed for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth,  Shoula Romano Horing takes a different tack in his criticism of the American strategy, decrying the Obama administration’s pressure on Jewish groups in the U.S.: “The Obama administration is pressuring Jewish organizations to stall action on the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act, a vital economic sanctions bill that has already passed the GOP-controlled House of Representatives with broad bipartisan support and is currently awaiting further action by the Senate Banking Committee....The Jewish organizations must say no to Obama’s outrageous pressure and follow the lessons we were forced to learn from our history that appeasing and accommodating evil lead only to more evil toward our people....Hopefully, the Jewish organizations that care about Israeli survival are aware of the potentially disastrous consequences for Israel of giving Iran more time.”

But the opposition to and criticism of this most recent round of negotiations, for some Arab commentators, has more to do with Iran’s policies in the region, rather than just about the nuclear program. In a recent editorial, Arab News made an argument in favor of expanding the scope of the negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, to include the ongoing crisis in Syria: “The reason Tehran is talking is not because it has a new, apparently more amenable president in Hassan Rowhani but because the entire rule of the ayatollahs is threatened by economic collapse....That is why Rowhani has been authorized by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to launch his charm offensive…. Yet surely the international community is missing an important opportunity here: Linking Iran’s vital support for the Assad dictatorship with sanctions? Why is the Obama administration content to treat the two issues as entirely separate, whereas in fact they are completely interlinked?”

Arab Times’ Ahmed Al-Jarallah accuses the Iranian regime of spreading conflict in the regions, suggesting: “The Iranian nuclear program is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of its relationship with its neighbors and the world. Perhaps, the problems and predicaments caused by Tehran’s regime over the last three decades are much more dangerous and serious than the nuclear weapon. This weapon has become a burden for them rather than a source of strength.... It is important for Iran to stop its high-rate uranium enrichment activity. However, it is more important to cease its ‘enrichment’ of sedition and sectarian division. In this region, we are not used to such incidents as we have not witnessed them for centuries.”

Then there is the obvious question, asked by the National’s editorial, about the implications a future deal on the Iranian nuclear program would have on the Gulf states: “U.S. allies in the Arabian Gulf have good reason to be wary of Iran, and the sudden blossoming of ‘smile diplomacy’ between the U.S. and Iran has naturally created much concern....The devil is in the details, and for now, at least, an actual agreement and its implementation are still purely theoretical. Still, the game is well worth the candle. An Iran certifiably devoid of nuclear weapons and reintegrated into the world economy is a goal worth pursuing....This is, of course, all just a castle in the air until a deal is reached and put into effect. A deal could be dangerous, which is why we in the Gulf would need solid guarantees about regional security, but the right one could have advantages for all.”

Finally, Hassan Haidar’s op-ed for Al Hayat, highlights the real reason for the skepticism with which these talks have been received, i.e. the sense and the suspicion that behind the new façade of moderation, Iran has not changed: “Iran is working on two interwoven tracks. On one track, it is taking advantage of the mutual exchange of positive signals between itself and Washington in order to spread the notion that it now has extensive clout in the region and complete freedom to deal with its affairs, under the pretext that the Americans are now on the verge of recognizing its influence in the region and its sponsorship of Shiite footholds in some of its countries. On the other, it is taking a series of escalatory steps in our region, meant to inflame existing regional tensions, with the aim of increasingly embarrassing the United States vis-à-vis its allies and of pressuring the latter to go along with what it views as American regression.”


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