Yassamine Mather assesses the latest extension of negotiations between Iran and the 5+1 powers
On November 24, for the second time in a year, Iran and the 5+1 world powers failed to reach an agreement over Tehran’s nuclear programme, and the deadline for finding a ‘comprehensive’ deal had to be extended yet again.
In his press conference US secretary of state John Kerry would not discuss the reasons why the talks failed to come to an agreement, arguing, as all bourgeois politicians do, that confidentiality was “essential to allow the discussion to continue”. Eighty million Iranians have suffered for decades from the devastating effects of US and UN sanctions, and they will continue to be the main victims of the US’s determination to whip Iran into line. Yet, after days of media hype, hope and despair, they are not allowed to know why they have to face continued hardship.
Irrespective of the spin put forward by both sides, for the peoples of Iran this is a serious blow. Economic isolation has crippled the country’s economy. Since the Geneva interim accord signed in 2013 Iran has been the ‘beneficiary’ of so-called ‘sanctions relief’. However, according to figures declassified this week by the US administration, during the first half of 2014 Iran received $4.6 billion in cash and non-oil exports, $2.4 billion less than the anticipated $7 billion in economic relief. The news could have been worse though – there will be no new EU sanctions until the summer of 2015 at the earliest.
The EU has announced it will extend the suspension of sanctions specified in last year’s joint plan of action. The most important aspect of this is the provision of tanker insurance, allowing the sale and transport of Iranian crude oil and other petrochemical products. None of this will make up for the devastating effects of more than seven years of severe EU sanctions – not to mention three decades of US sanctions. So, Iran will continue to be plagued by spiralling inflation, lower oil prices and a constantly falling currency.1
So why did the talks fail? Contrary to what the rightwing press in Britain and the US are saying, this had nothing to do with Iran’s lack of transparency. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors have had unobstructed access to the country’s nuclear plants throughout the last year, and witnessed the destruction of 20% enriched uranium. Iran’s nuclear programme is certainly more transparent than Israel’s – a country that is not even a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and has never allowed inspection of its facilities.
Different interpretations of NPT regulations lie at the heart of the current dispute. On the one hand, there are the non-aligned countries and their literal interpretation. The Brics states (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) believe the NPT allows for the development of what is known as fuel cycle capabilities. In fact Brazil and South Africa, who have given up nuclear weapons capability, are allowed to enrich nuclear material, and the Iranian president and foreign minister have always based their negotiating position on this interpretation. On the other hand, the US and its allies are adamant that specific rules should be imposed on certain countries. In this interpretation of the NPT, initiated in the early 2000s by the Bush administration, the intention is to impose an international ban on the transfer of fuel cycle technologies to countries that do not already possess them. The Obama administration did not challenge this interpretation when it came to power and has in fact followed in the footsteps of George Bush, insisting on changes to NPT conditions to enable more intrusive and proactive inspections in specific states. The restrictions imposed on Tehran definitely fall into this category.
According to The New York Times, one of the sticking points was a US insistence on unannounced inspections. Negotiators wanted an agreement that gives inspectors the right to freely roam around Iran. From 2003-06 inspectors did a lot of that, under an IAEA agreement which commits states to the opening up of facilities and sites that have long been kept off limits.2 As Mohammad Seraj of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards responded: “This will mean they will get permissions for reconnaissance flights over our country and that their inspectors can enter anywhere, even the presidential palace.”
If the political framework for an agreement is not reached by January 2015, when Republicans take control of the US Congress and Senate, it will be very difficult to stop motions demanding further sanctions against Iran. Such moves would no doubt encourage those in Iran who want to withdraw from talks and make further demands in terms of the right to enrich uranium.
Hours after the talks ended in Vienna, US legislators, urged on by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, called for further sanctions against Iran. Nevertheless, asked if Congress would approve any agreement with Iran, Obama said: “I’m confident that, if we reach a deal that is verifiable and assures that Iran does not have breakout capacity, not only can I persuade Congress, but I can persuade the American people that it’s the right thing to do.” In the light of recent gains by the Republicans, it is clear to see that he has a real job in hand.
This time round, Iran’s negotiating team led by foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had the support of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. This was demonstrated in Friday prayers throughout Iran on November 21. Prayer leaders (the overwhelming majority of whom are ardent followers of Khamenei) expressed support for the ‘heroic efforts’ of the negotiating team. In one sermon, Zarif was referred to as waging jihad on behalf of the Islamic Republic. I am not sure that this is what he wanted to hear before meeting Kerry and the P5+1 in Vienna.
However, the negotiations have powerful enemies both in Iran and the US, as well in the countries of the Persian Gulf and, of course, in Israel. Who are these forces and why are they opposed to the negotiations?
Inside Iran, now that Khamenei has put himself and his allies on the side of the negotiating team, they are easy to identify. They are first and foremost the clerics, bazaaris and bureaucrats who have made huge fortunes from sanctions-busting. More sanctions means more profits – billions of dollars worth, often kept in foreign currencies, meaning that a run on the Iranian rial would be of little consequence for them. Their political voice in Iran is the daily Kayhan.
Other opponents of the talks are to be found in the US Republican Party: they have Middle Eastern allies, not least in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Persian Gulf emirates. These rentier states are eager to weaken Iran, especially in view of its ‘arrogance’ in Syria and Lebanon. The Saudis and their Persian Gulf allies are determined to stop a deal – sections of the Iranian press blamed a meeting in Vienna airport last Sunday between John Kerry and the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, for the failure of the talks.
Then there is Israel, the country that offers no transparency whatsoever when it comes to its nuclear arsenal – in fact it denies having a nuclear programme, even though everyone knows it has an array of nuclear weapons. As negotiations were taking place in Vienna, Netanyahu went on a media offensive, making clear that Israel will never accept any deal. He compared the Islamic Republic with Hitler’s Nazi Germany: “There is no reason that it be allowed to keep thousands of centrifuges that will enable it to enrich uranium for a nuclear bomb in a short time.”3
All the above – Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states, as well as US neoconservatives – share a common interest: support for a rainbow of dubious opponents of the Islamic regime, from royalists to the ‘regime change’ left.
Representatives of this Iranian opposition were present outside the talks in Vienna. However, they were clearly ashamed of their position, which in reality means support for more sanctions, more misery for the majority of Iranians. They chose to hide their faces, as they stood under banners proclaiming, ‘No nuke for Iran’. Many are professional stooges, beneficiaries of imperialist funding under the guise of supporting gay liberation, religious freedom, national rights for minorities – all and any worthy cause. Unfortunately though, their aims are quite contrary to their purported politics – their main concern is securing continued funding.
Inside Iran itself, the millions who have suffered from sanctions have different priorities. In an unofficial poll carried out last week, over 80% expressed a wish for a speedy resolution of talks. A popular fear is that protracted negotiations will allow hard-liners to sabotage negotiations and convince the supreme leader to end his support for president Hassan Rowhani.
The end of the talks coincided with Chuck Hagel’s resignation as US defence secretary. The official announcement does not explain the reasons for his departure, but differences over Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the Afghanistan exit plan are mentioned. Hagel had urged a firmer stance regarding Bashar Assad, with more support and direct intervention to support opposition forces. Obama administration officials expressed “annoyance over a sharply critical two-page memo that Mr Hagel sent to Ms Rice last month, in which he warned that the administration’s Syria policy was in danger of unravelling because of its failure to clarify its intentions toward president Bashar al-Assad”.4
When Hagel was appointed two years ago, no-one envisaged the US getting drawn once again into military action in the Middle East, but in the remaining two years of the Obama presidency the secretary of defence will have to deal with the redeployment of US military personnel in Iraq, air strikes against Islamic State, as well as the training and equipping anti-Assad and anti-IS Iraqi peshmergas.
In an interim agreement signed last week between Ankara and Washington, Turkish military forces will train fighters of the Free Syrian Army – it is already training supporters of the Kurdish Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. And here lies the problem. US intervention has so far not only failed to defeat IS: it has guaranteed new recruits from the FSA for the jihadists. Further arming the FSA will create additional risks, however. Such moves are precisely the reasons why IS has become so powerful. Defeating it, while trying to bring down Assad at the same time, not to mention teaching Iran a lesson, are definitely beyond the capabilities of the current world hegemon.