The inauguration of moderate Rouhani administration is taken so favorably among the media and experts, and some of them even expect détente with Iran. The appointment of Mohammad Zarif to the foreign minister, who has close personal ties with American political corridors, intensifies such a welcome trend furthermore. It is understood that Iran’s sanction hit economy is leading towards a possible diplomatic thaw with the West. But it is premature to assume that Iran is turning into a peace-oriented state. Ever since taking office, President Hassan Rouhani has not denied his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadenejad’s notorious remark of “wiping out Israel”. In addition, Iran is taking some actions to challenge the West, while nuclear talks are ongoing. Also, the Geneva process is not necessarily technically complete to stop Iran’s nuclear ambition, which raises critical concerns among France, Israel, and Gulf Arabs.
First, let me mention Iran’s geopolitical power game against the West, in parallel with nuclear negotiations. Prior to the Vienna talk from December 9 to 12 to proceed the Geneva process, Rouhani agreed the cooperation pact with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. At the bilateral talk, Rouhani demanded Karzai that all foreign troops in Afghanistan pullout completely (“Afghanistan agrees to pact with Iran, while resisting US accord”; FOX News; December 8, 2013). Currently, Afghanistan’s BSA negotiation with the United Sates is deadlocked, because Karzai overturned the approval by Loya Jirga, and demanded that the American side reconsider legal jurisdiction to US soldiers in case of misconduct, supply better weapons to the Afghan forces, and specify the duration of military presence in Afghanistan (“Afghan President Hamid Karzai says he’ll delay signing of U.S. accord on troops”; Washington Post; November 21, 2013).
Jarad Morzai, Spokesman at the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Afghanistan would pursue good relations with both Iran and the United States (“Afghanistan rejects reports on Iran’s support to Afghan militants”; Khaama Press; December 15, 2013). Meanwhile, Iran denounces the US-Afghan BSA because it extends foreign troop presence beyond 2014 when the NATO mission in Afghanistan ends (‘US-Afghan security pact detrimental for region’; Press TV; December 3, 2013).
Iran makes another move to irk America. While the talk between Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad ended chilly over drone attacks, Iranian Petroleum Minister Bijan Zangeneh and Pakistani Petroleum Minister Petroleum and Natural Resource Minister Shahid Abbasi announced that both countries would resume the pipeline project in Tehran. The United States objects to the deal for fear of hollowing current sanctions against Iran. To satisfy appetite for gas from Iran, Pakistan ignores infrastructure aid by the United States in return for continuing the sanction (“Pakistan Wants to Accelerate Iran Natural Gas Pipeline”; Diplomat Magazine; December 11, 2013). Iran’s thrust into Pakistan and Afghanistan suggests that the détente with the United States has yet to come.
Syria is another geopolitical issue interconnected with nuclear talks. Iran is at odds with the West as it sponsors the Assad regime, recruits militia to fight in Iraq, and allies with Hezbolloah to expand influence in Lebanon and deter Israel. This is defiance to UN-backed Syria conference to be held at Montreux in Switzerland on January 22. While Rouhani is exploring nuclear deals to ease sanctions, the Revolutionary Guards harness his efforts to aid terrorists. Andrew J. Tabler, Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, comments “A deal on the Iranian nuclear program isn’t going to work if you cede the hard-liners the Levant”. On the other hand, “Iran’s position on Syria is that the alternative to Assad is more dangerous to both U.S. and Iranian interests than the status quo”, according to Karim Sadjapour, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (“On Iran and Syria, Tests of Diplomacy Intertwine”; New York Times; December 19, 2013). The problem is, whether it is possible to consider nuclear negotiations and Iran’s geopolitical defiance separately.
In addition, Iran’s Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan announced that the Iranian forces improved accuracy of longer range ballistic missiles with laser technology, when the Vienna process started. The US Department of Defense is critically concerned with rapid technological progress in Iran’s missile accuracy (“Iran Asserts Dramatic Gain in Ballistic-Missile Precision”; Global Security News; December 9, 2013). Those missiles are formidable enough to pose threats to Gulf emirates and Israel. Why does Iran have to improve their missiles, if they are seriously committed to stop the nuclear project?
Current Iranian economy is bitterly hit by sanctions. Oil export dropped 60% in the past two years. GDP shrank 5 to 6%, and inflation and unemployment rose 45% and 35% respectively. Vasil Nasr, Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, argues that world powers seize this opportunity to advance nuclear negotiations with Iran rather than imposing pressure on them (“Iran’s Economic Crossroads”; New York Times; December 4, 2013). Iran has every reason to ask world powers to lift sanctions in return for accepting UN inspection. However, it is dangerous to assume that Iran will abide by global nonproliferation norms simply for the sake of the economy. Technically speaking, Iran can cheat the deal. In addition, the nature of the Iranian regime must be questioned.
Under the Geneva agreement, Iran must stop uranium enrichment beyond 5%, accept UN inspections, and stop operation at the Arak plutonium plant. In return, P5+1 will ease sanctions on Iran’s oil and petrochemical export, and establish financial channels to facilitate humanitarian economic transaction. Also, no further nuclear related sanctions will be imposed by the United States, the EU, and the UN Security Council (“Full Text of Iran-5+1 agreement in Geneva”; Global Security News; 24 November 2013). The problem is, Iran can continue to enrich uranium, and there are gaps in understanding the agreement between Iran and the West. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the deal was a historic mistake to make Iran another North Korea as it admits Iran to enrich uranium (“Iran agrees to curb nuclear activity at Geneva talks”; BBC News; 24 November 2013). In view of common threats, Israel turns to Saudi Arabia for possible strategic partnership. Iran sponsors Hamas in Palestine and Lebanon, Assad in Syria, and Shiite dissidents in Gulf emirates. In addition to this, both Israel and Gulf Arabs worry that the United States is proceeding cooperation with Iran at the expense of them (“Iran nuclear deal triggers anxiety for Israel and Gulf”; BBC News; 25 November 2013).
Geopolitics is not the only reason for such distrust to the Obama administration among America’s Middle East allies. Prior to the Geneva negotiation, secret talks between the United States and Iran were held in Oman. Despite concerns raised by Israel and Gulf Arabs, British Prime Minister David Cameron said the deal "demonstrates how persistent diplomacy and tough sanctions can together help us to advance our national interest" (“Secret talks helped forge Iran nuclear deal”; Guardian; 25 November 2013). Are the things so optimistic? As a stakeholder of the Geneva process, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius raises concerns with the second phase of the agreement “to curb global financial penalties against Iran if the Middle Eastern power restricts certain elements of its nuclear program”, because "It is unclear if the Iranians will accept to definitively abandon any capacity of getting a weapon, or only agree to interrupt the nuclear program" (“French Foreign Minister: Iran Might Not Give Up Nuclear-Arms Potential”; Global Security Newswire; December 19, 2013).
Actually, a similar deal was proposed in 2005, which allows Iran to enrich uranium while restricting the number of centrifuges. But the Bush administration and the European Union rejected it (“An enriching dialogue with Iran — with limits”; Washington Post; October 18, 2013). Is the Geneva deal a retreat from 2005? The Senate Foreign Relations Committee led by Democrat Senator Robert Menendez introduced the bipartisan Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act on December 19 to impose further pressure, in order to wipe out Iran’s capability to produce nuclear weapons completely (“Senators Introduce Bipartisan Iran-Sanctions Bill”; Global Security Newswire; December 19 2013).
We must explore Iran’s strategic intention as well as technical problems. Is Iran moving toward another North Korea? Patricia Lewis, research Director of International Security at Chatham House, and Gideon Rachman, Chief Foreign Affairs Columnist at the Financial Times, deny such a viewpoint in an interview on November 28. Both of them insists the following points. Unlike North Korea, IAEA has full access to Iran’s nuclear facilities. In addition, they argue that Iran does not want poverty and isolation, which North Korea has been accepting for decades. Nor, did Iran threaten to withdraw from the NPT. See the video below.
However, Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican prospective for 2016 presidential nominee, pointed out that Iran had made rapid progress in uranium enrichment technology, and spent a lot to develop nuclear weapons and long range missiles. In his view, only tough pressure has made Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei accept the nonproliferation talk, and it must be continued until Iran gives up the capability to make nuclear weapons completely (“Rubio: Keep heat on Iran on nuclear talks”; USA Today; October 15, 2013).
Also, the nature of the Iranian regime is critical. As Michael Rubin, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argues, “Seldom does the Iranian government place the wellbeing of its population above its own revolutionary ideology. The Supreme Leader considers himself the Deputy of the Messiah on Earth. Sovereignty comes from God; what the Iranian people may think is beside the point” (“Bad Iran deal worse than no deal”; CNN Global Public Square; November 12, 2013). Despite tighter agreement, we must still be careful that Iran can turn into another North Korea. The focal point is whether to impose certain limits on Iran’s nuclear program while easing sanctions, or eliminate the potential of Iran’s nuclear weapon through tightening sanctions.
Even if Rouhani looks moderate, Iran is still improving nuclear capable missiles, and shows geopolitical ambition from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, the Gulf, Afghanistan, to Pakistan. The nuclear project is deeply interconnected with their revolutionary ideal of exporting Shiite theocracy. They may use this temporary détente to finance to proceed the project later on. In addition, we must watch closer, whether the Obama administration can override bipartisan objection to the Geneva agreement. The failure to manage this will move Obama furthermore to lame duck.