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What Choices after the Iran Nuclear Deal?

16 October 2015

By Eyad Abu Shakra

Most Arab commentary and analysis about the nuclear deal agreed by the P5+1 with Iran focused on its political aftershocks on the Arab World. It was obvious to most analysts and commentators that what looked like a long TV soap opera had two ''star'' actors: Iran and the United States; the other countries involved were more or less ''extras'' whose task was nothing more than to give the deal a façade of international legitimacy.

All along the real dialogue was taking place between Washington and Tehran. And all those involved realized this fact without having to spell it out.

What was especially interesting, in addition to the ''length'' of the soap opera and claims that there was no guarantee of success, was Washington's insistence that the negotiations were limited to Iran's nuclear program, without touching on other political regional problems; and repeating—at the highest level—that the two were separate issues.

It is interesting since regional objections to Iran's nuclear program have never highlighted the geological–seismic dangers of having nuclear installations in a country prone to devastating earthquakes like Iran—although raising such an issue is worthwhile, more so after the Fukushima disaster in northern Japan. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries would be absolutely right to be concerned about possible leaks from the coastal Bushehr nuclear plant.

In fact, in November 2013, an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.3 struck Bushehr province. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that 80,000 people experienced strong tremors while several million felt light shaking. The earthquake was felt in many countries around the Gulf, including Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. At least 37 people were killed and an estimated 850 injured as a result of the earthquake.

What really worries the Arab Middle Eastern countries, however, is the nuclear program's military use in the service of Tehran's regional policies. These worries are shared by these countries, as well as Israel, and probably Turkey too. But what has been heard and read from top American officials, led by President Barack Obama, points to Washington's willingness to accept a ''nuclear Iran'' in the foreseeable future; and what has been achieved is linked to the two elements of trust and goodwill.

At this point one might argue that trust and goodwill are necessary in politics, but are not sufficient in the absence of solid guarantees. Indeed, the long history of dealing with Iran's nuclear program has neither encouraged trust nor shown any aspect of goodwill. Even after the approval of the deal the chants ''death to America'' and ''death to Israel'' were resonating in the streets of Tehran in response to rousing Eid sermons. As this was taking place against the US and Israel, the speeches and actions against the Arab states were much more sinister and belligerent.

Parallel to the wars being overseen by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, Tehran's media—including those in Arabic—are engaged in unabated anti-Arab campaigns of incitement, vilification, and false accusations, intensifying Sunni–Shi'ite sectarian tensions and provoking racial, local, and tribal animosities.

In spite of Washington's apparent keenness to reassure, first the Israelis and then the Arabs, that the nuclear deal will not adversely affect there relations with the US, any wise observer can feel that the element of trust is no more, and that pre-deal relations are different from post-deal ones.

Why have we reached this stage? And is the current situation irreversible?

The most likely answer to the first question is that what have brought us to where we are now are President Obama's political convictions.

The US president, a man with a clear-cut ideological identity, is fully convinced he is doing the right thing. He is less influenced by his assistants and advisers than his predecessor President George W. Bush, who was very much the ''influenced'' party by the Neocons, who had a comprehensive viewpoint of politics and an active and effective team that was then implementing this viewpoint throughout the decision-making positions in Bush's administration.

The nuclear deal, the subsequent opening of doors to Iran, and the eventual normalization of relations with it, are very much Obama's brainchild. Thus, expecting any change from his side between now and November 2016 would be absurd.

Coming to the second question—on whether the deal is now final and irreversible—well, I believe the answer will come from Iran and not the US. Much will depend on how Iran handles the deal, given the nature of its regime, its power structure, its political ''dualism,'' the internal power struggle between its competing wings, its contradictory doublespeak, and the limits to its maneuvering.

This regime, as I am told by someone who knows it more than I do, knows what it desires but not necessarily the best way to achieve it. Indeed, the opposite is true, because being overconfident, the regime infrequently goes overboard, tries to be too clever, and refuses to respect its commitments. Some observers believe Obama's unreserved enthusiasm for the deal may encourage Tehran to exploit every detail and any opportunity to gain additional political, strategic, and financial concessions without fear of being thwarted.

In the meantime, Washington is now working hard to ''market'' the deal through a kind of PR campaign, directly as well as through international friends such as the UK, who are attempting to sugarcoat the deal for Israel. Regarding the Arab countries, however, they are now awaiting the outcome as ''the War against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria'' suddenly takes center stage, while post-1920 political entities are facing collapse under the welter of escalating religious and sectarian conflicts.

For some reasons of its own the Obama administration has chosen to separate the technicalities of the nuclear deal from the political environment that surrounds and interacts with it.

Yet the people of the Middle East, despite the many problems afflicting them, still possess a good historical memory and enough survival instinct.

This means they will try to acclimatize with an unhappy period with minimum losses. But if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far succeeded in bringing his message to the American public thanks to Israel's powerful friends in Washington, the Arabs can only depend on themselves and defend and cement their national unity.

Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with the newspaper since 1978. 

 

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