Commentary

Iran Deal Ruffles Feathers

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

The interim agreement on freezing Iran’s nuclear program has sent ripples across the region, where it has been received with a mixture of cautious optimism and skepticism. For the time being, most Arab countries have welcomed the deal (at least publicly). The agreement would see Iran receive some sanction relief in return for suspension of some aspects of its nuclear program, as well as more extensive inspections of its nuclear facilities. The Iranians appear to believe that the deal does enough to recognize the country’s right to develop a peaceful nuclear program and feel that the easing of the sanctions regime will help the country’s economy. Meanwhile, the Israelis and some other regional observers fret that the agreement amounts to capitulation and gives Iran the upper hand in the region. Regardless of the feelings one has on the deal, what everyone agrees on is that the real test will come over the next six months as the P5+1 and Iran pursue a comprehensive and permanent agreement.

Even though many of Iran’s Arab neighbors have reason to be concerned about the final outcome of the negotiations, the initial reaction has been one of encouragement. Following news of the agreement, the Khaleej Times staff reported that “The UAE Cabinet on Sunday welcomed the preliminary agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme. The Cabinet expressed hope that the agreement would represent a step forward to a permanent agreement that would preserve the stability of the region and protect it from tension and the danger of nuclear proliferation.”

Similarly, according to a Gulf Times report, the government of Qatar “welcomed the agreement reached at Geneva talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany on Tehran’s nuclear programme. An official source at the Foreign Ministry, in a statement to the official Qatar News Agency (QNA), described the agreement as ‘an important step towards safeguarding peace and stability in the region. The State of Qatar calls for making the Middle East a nuclear weapon-free zone,’ the source said, stressing Qatar’s keenness on the stability and security in the region. He noted that the agreement was consistent with Qatar’s permanent stance ‘that supports resolving the nuclear issue through negotiations and peaceful means’.”

The Khaleej Times editorials is especially bullish on the negotiations in Geneva, characterizing them as a ‘triumph,’ albeit still expressing some caution about the implementation stage of the agreement: “The Geneva deal is the first of its kind featuring the United States and Iran, which for the last three decades were locked in confrontation.  The credit for this breakthrough goes to both the nations’ presidents who walked the extra mile to strike a note of confidence despite the checkered history....In the case of the Western powers, especially the U.S., they too must be feeling relieved for making inroads into the best guarded sector in Iran and easing concerns over the country’s weaponry ambitions. The deal, though signed, however still has a long way to go. Now it needs strict implementation and a periodic review so that more features could be added to it to broaden the scope of understanding.”

Even among the Gulf countries that have initially welcomed the deal, there is fear that the nuclear deal “will boost Iran’s regional desires…. Sunni-ruled Gulf monarchies feel let down by their U.S. ally and want good relations with their Shia neighbor Iran but also fear the Geneva nuclear deal will boost its regional ambitions, analysts say.... ‘In principle, the Gulf states want good relations with Iran,’ Saudi analyst Jamal Khashoggi said. ‘But the (Geneva) agreement has reduced the Iran problem to the nuclear level only, while its regional interference is of key concern to these countries. [Gulf countries] fear Iran will see this accord as encouragement to act with a free hand in the region’.”

The skepticism surrounding the deal is even greater in Israel, where the country’s Prime Minister as well as a number of organizations have decried what they see as the willingness of the P5+1 countries to put Israel’s survival at risk. However, as Rebecca Shimoni Stoil points out in an article for the Times of Israel, not all are critical of the Geneva deal: “The Anti-Defamation League expressed deep concern Sunday about flaws in the nuclear agreement with Iran that was announced 12 hours earlier, but indicated that it would lobby hard to make sure that a final agreement would ‘ensure Iran is incapable of building a nuclear weapon.’” But Stoli then adds that “Across the political spectrum, J Street quickly welcomed the announcement, arguing in a statement that ‘the accord has several very important provisions that will effectively freeze Iran’s program and begin to roll it back.’...Americans for Peace Now was equally enthusiastic about the agreement. APN President and CEO Debra DeLee responded in a statement that ‘anyone who cares about U.S. national security, the security of Israel, and stability in the Middle East should likewise welcome this agreement.’”

In an op-ed for the Yedioth Ahronoth, Shoula Roman Horing argues Mr. Obama’s pursuit of an agreement with Iran at all costs is more likely to lead to war than regional peace: “President Obama had to choose between dishonor and war, and he chose dishonor. Now we will have war. He has dishonored U.S. allies in the Middle East, including Israel and the Persian Gulf states, by abandoning their security concerns regarding a nuclear Iran by believing that appeasing Iran is the only way to avoid war....The promise of ‘containing’ a nuclear Iran by convincing them not to use the nuclear weapon will not work since the threat of nuclear attack will be enough for Iran to dictate oil prices, as well as the oil supply to the U.S. and Europe. Then, the only option available to the U.S. and the world will be to fight Iran, perhaps resulting in a nuclear war which could destroy the oil supply and many countries in the process.”

The Jerusalem Post editorial also expresses the view that, from Israel’s perspective ,“The nuclear agreement signed in Geneva between the P5+1 and Iran over the weekend is a ‘bad deal.’ Simply put, the deal does not roll back the vast majority of technological advances Iran has made in the past five years that have drastically shortened what nuclear experts call its ‘dash time’ — the minimum time it would take to build a nuclear weapon if Iran’s supreme leader or military decided to pursue such as path....At its best, the deal signed in Geneva might temporarily slow Iran’s progress toward nuclear arms capability. More likely it will provide the US and other western nations with a false impression that headway has been made while providing cover for the Iranians as they plod forward toward nuclear capability.”

One of the problems many critics of the deal suggest is the great uncertainty surrounding Iran’s intentions. At least, that is what Al Hayat’s Elias Harfoush argues in a recent op-ed for the pan-Arab daily: “The Iranian regime wants western governments to deal with it like a normal regime that respects the protocol of inter-state relations and rejects the use of force against its neighbors or intervention in their affairs. Zarif talks about Tehran's desire to build a comprehensive order, based on Iran's respect for neighboring countries and non-intervention in their affairs. But this talk does not find an echo in the other Iran, in whose name the minister does not speak: the Iran of the Revolutionary Guards and their arms in the region, such as Hezbollah, the Abul-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, and other organizations that represent the real tool of Iran's expansion in the Arab world, to spread a state of sectarian conflict that is growing in the countries of the region.”

Another concern has to do with the nature of the interim agreement itself, with Ron Ben-Yishai pointing out that “Greatest danger is that interim agreement will become permanent, leaving Iran as 'threshold country'…. The agreement signed early Sunday in Geneva between the world powers and Iran is a reasonable agreement and even a good one — as long as it really is an interim agreement which will be effective for the six months of negotiations....But if the reasonable interim agreement turns into a permanent agreement, as Israeli officials fear, it's a bad and even dangerous agreement. It will allow Iran to remain what it is today, ‘a nuclear threshold country,’ which can ‘break through’ and acquire material for a nuclear weapon within six to eight weeks.”

However, despite Tel Aviv’s protests to the contrary, some would suggest the real culprit for the situation is Israel itself. Writing for the Saudi Gazette, Ray Hanania reminds us that Iran is not the only country pursuing or already with nuclear capabilities: “When it comes to nuclear weapons, Iran, Israel and hypocrisy are all wrapped up together....This hypocrisy is what allows Iran’s dictators to survive in this world. Israel is the textbook of hypocrisy and double standards. It permits rogue nations like Iran and Syria to conduct themselves with impunity. In a fair and balanced world, the West would actively push to free the people of Iran from the religious tyrants there. But in a fair and balanced world, they would push for democracy and freedom and nuclear non-proliferation in Israel, too.”

Finally, as Trita Parsi suggests, the real tragedy this time might not be the conclusion of an interim agreement, rather the temerity and the vision to come up with a viable permanent one: “it is also clear that the real hurdles to an enduring deal will not be encountered now, but after the first agreement has been concluded. This is partly because Washington's ability to give concessions has not been truly tested yet....Unfortunately, negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program have in the past passed the first hurdle, only to fall apart during the second step, when a final deal must be concluded. Eagerness and pressure to reach a first deal, combined with lack of common clarity on what exactly had been agreed upon, contributed to this....The key to success in Geneva this week is balance. Negotiators on both sides must resist pressures from various outside interests to change the basic parameters of the deal, lest they repeat the mistakes from 2003-05.”


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