Much has already been said about the interim deal signed between the E3+3 and Iran in Geneva last month. In all likelihood, the deal will be looked back upon either as the harbinger of a resolution of the Iranian nuclear file, or as the latest, and perhaps the most brilliant, Iranians stalling tactic after more than two decades of duplicity. But whether one agrees with those who decry the agreement as a “modern Munich,” or with those who hail it as an accomplishment of historic proportions, or somewhere in between, there is no doubting its importance. Beyond the deal’s technical aspects, it points to a number of significant shifts in the international arena that should not be overlooked.
First, by allowing Iran to continue to enrich uranium to 5%, the international community has tacitly acknowledged Iran’s right to enrich uranium in perpetuity. This de-facto recognition, despite US arguments to the contrary, cannot be underestimated. In doing so, the E3+3 has altered both the spirit and the application of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Going forward, Iran, and other nations for that matter, will be able to argue that enriching uranium independently is an integral part of their right to nuclear technology under the NPT.
Second, the way in which the interim agreement was reached is indicative of gaps in perspective between the United States and its traditional regional allies on how they view the changing dynamics of the Middle East and how to adequately address them. Since the advent of the Arab uprisings the Obama administration’s Middle Eastern policy has been the cause of consternation among regional allies. The manner in which the US withdrew its support from President Mubarak, the ambivalence as to the nature of Morsi’s removal from power and, most recently, the backchannel that led to the Geneva agreement, which was reportedly established even before Rouhani’s election all strengthened this perception. Instead of informing its allies about the deal and reassuring them that their concerns were being addressed, Israel and Saudi Arabia only discovered the Oman backchannel later. By choosing this tactical route, President Obama has perhaps appeared keener to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran at the expense of the US’s traditional allies. Only time will tell if this change is an historical anomaly or a pattern that will take hold for the remainder of his second term.
Finally, international diplomacy surrounding both the Iranian nuclear issue, and the Syrian crisis suggest a global balance of power that is shifting away from Western powers and becoming more diffuse. Iran’s bargaining position vis-à-vis the E3+3 on the nuclear issue is no doubt a result of its shrewd negotiating abilities, the so-called “bazaar mentality.” However, it is also a result of Russia’s reassertion of itself in international affairs, of the West’s lack of desire to get bogged down in military entanglements following the experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq, of the consequences of the global financial crisis, and of Iran’s perception of itself as a country with a great, imperial history and an even greater future. In a world of shifting alliances and weary powers, Iran’s nuclear programme and this interim agreement should be viewed as one part in a greater geopolitical puzzle, one in which Iran will now seek to reposition itself vis-à-vis its neighbours – friends and foes alike – and the international community as a leader of the non-aligned movement. In the long run, we will most likely see an Iran that is trying to recast itself and strengthen ties with its regional counterparts while simultaneously trying to undermine their ties with their Western allies.
How we respond to these challenges, to this evolving international reality, is one of the great challenges of our times.