The remarks by the European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini at the Chatham House, London, on Tuesday to the effect that a nuclear deal with Iran is “at hand” are to be taken as the most definitive indication so far at a high level that a historic compromise between the United States and Iran could be taking shape. Indeed, she added the caveat (which we know already) that “a series of internal domestic political dynamics” would need to be handled with care and she listed three — the sparring between the White House and the Republican-dominated US Congress, Israel’s elections (March 17) and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
Mogherini is an old ‘Iran hand’, having pioneered the West’s thaw with Iran in her capacity as Italian foreign minister. She visited Tehran repeatedly to position Italy ahead of any other European country in the outreach to Iran — and the Iranians on their part valued her friendly approach. But Mogherini’s assessment also helps to decode the evaluations by US Secretary of State John Kerry at a testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington yesterday and a media briefing by senior American officials earlier on Monday regarding the outcome of the talks, which took place this weekend in Geneva.
In his senate testimony, this is what Kerry said in his opening statement: “The fact is that on Iran, sure, it’s controversial and may have some risks. But we are daring to believe that diplomacy may be able to provide a better alternative to ridding Iran of the possibility of a nuclear weapon than a war, or then going first to the threats that lead you to confrontation. So we are trying. I can’t make a prediction what the outcome will be, but we’re leading in that effort to try to help make that happen, together with our P5+1 partners.”
It exudes optimism, no doubt. Kerry’s emphasis during the Q&A on the senate floor was on setting negotiated, verifiable limits to Iran’s nuclear activity (which rejects the Israeli demand of a complete cessation and rollback of the Iranian program.) Kerry refused to concede veto rights to the Congress over a deal with Iran, arguing that the lawmakers would anyway have a say in due course when the lifting of Iran sanctions comes up for legislation.
The senior officials from the American side who briefed the media at Geneva also reiterated that a complex deal is being negotiated on the premise that “we would have a one-year breakout time for a double-digit number of years.” That is to say, a deal with a time frame of ten or fifteen years (or whatever, but involving a minimum of 10 years) will be predicated on the surety (secured through the underpinning of a verification and monitoring mechanism monitored within the framework of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) that ensures Iran will need at least one year to ‘cheat’ –that is, even if it proceeds to go back on the deal and clandestinely make a nuclear weapon.
The unnamed US officials outlined the thinking: “I think it’s a very straightforward fact, and the whole purpose of this is to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, and over a period of time, can ensure the international community that its program is exclusively peaceful and get to the point where it is treated as any other non-nuclear weapon state of the NPT. That will take some time.”
In sum, President Barack Obama’s calculation will be that the US Congress will be faced with a fait accompli since the international opinion so heavily favors an Iran deal, especially among the US’ European allies, and, secondly, the easing of the 35-year old US-Iranian enmity would create its own dynamics in the Middle Eastern politics, which would work to the advantage of the US regional strategies on a variety of issues affecting vital American interests such as the threat posed by the Islamic State, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and so on.
Read this insightful AP analysis on the Geneva talks, and it is clear that both Israel and Saudi Arabia will be mighty upset about what is likely shaping up as a basic understanding by end-March that will be filled out by June 30th with “annexes of excruciating detail.” Of course, this has never really been exclusively about nuclear non-proliferation. Obama knows – and the Iranian leadership too – that there is a large geopolitical backdrop in which the talks focused on the nuclear issue are taking place.
Equally, there is an intense awareness in Tehran regarding the ‘big picture’ of the power dynamic in the Middle East. The editorial in today’s Iran Daily underscores the self-confidence of the leadership in Tehran that Iran’s finest hour in international diplomacy is nearing. It has been truly a very long-patient, tenacious waiting through three decades — peace with honor, fairness and equality.
To be sure, the US diplomacy will be on a roller coaster ride with two of America’s most important Middle East allies – Israel and Saudi Arabia — in a near term. But the odds are that the advantages of the deal (and Iran’s integration with the western world) will incrementally work on Israel and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the sheer audacity of what is being attempted is itself mind-boggling, given the tortuous history of US-Iran relations. Obama is turning out to be one of the most underestimated American presidents of modern times. Cuba – and now Iran.