The deal struck in Tehran on Monday, May 17, could largely defuse the international crisis over Iran’s nuclear activities — if it is accepted by the international community. It must be counted a considerable contribution to the peace of the region and should be widely welcomed.
The architects of the deal, Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will win plaudits throughout the developing world for their mediation, particularly among those who resent American pressures and detest Israel’s unashamed militarism, not least Iran itself and most of its Arab neighbors. Turkey’s activist Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is understood to have played a crucial role in the successful outcome.
Hammered out in 18 hours of negotiations with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the agreement provides for Iran to transfer 1,200 kg of low enriched uranium — some 58% of its stock — to Turkey within one month, and to receive in exchange 120kg of higher-enriched uranium for medical purposes within one year. As Turkey itself is not equipped to enrich Iran’s uranium to the required level, Russia and France are expected to do the job.
Iran has declared that it will submit the agreement formally to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) within a week. Tehran has, however, left no doubt that it intends to continue enriching uranium for peaceful purposes, as it is entitled to do under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which it is a signatory. Both Lula and Erdogan have indicated that they believe Iran has a right to atomic energy.
It seems clear, therefore, that hopes of forcing Iran to abandon uranium enrichment altogether have so far not succeeded.
The deal has been greeted with skepticism and hostility in the United States and among some of America’s European countries, who tend to dismiss it as a delaying tactic. The New York Times quoted a senior administration as saying that the agreement “is not a solution for the core of Iran’s enrichment program.”
Indeed, Washington has interpreted the Tehran agreement as an act of defiance of its global authority, an argument which carries weight with other permanent members of the Security Council. Reluctant to see the initiative in important matters of international security slipping from its hands, the Obama administration has persuaded the permanent members of the Council to circulate a tough draft resolution demanding that Iran suspend uranium enrichment, and adding a long list of restrictions on Iranian military, commercial and financial activities. It remains to be seen whether this maneuver can succeed.
Israel’s hawkish leaders will be particularly enraged by the Tehran agreement. With high drama and talk of another holocaust, they repeatedly portrayed Iran as a threat to the entire world and pressed for “crippling sanctions” to put an end to its uranium enrichment. They made no secret of their intention to resort to military strikes if sanctions failed to have the desired effect.
On 10 May, Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s deputy prime minister, said the Israeli air force had mastered the necessary techniques for an attack on Iranian nuclear sites — only the latest of Israel’s many explicit threats against the Islamic Republic. As the Middle East’s only nuclear power, Israel is evidently determined to neutralize a potential regional rival and eliminate any challenge to its military hegemony. It is particularly anxious to prevent any restriction on its unrivalled freedom to strike its neighbors at will
Israel could now be robbed of a pretext for military action. Its propaganda campaign, evidently intended to draw the United States into armed confrontation with Iran, may have to be reconsidered. With the Afghan war on his hands, as well as unfinished business in Iraq, U.S. President Barack Obama has made it clear that he is against opening a front against Iran.
The sanctions route — led in shrill terms by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton — was meant as an alternative to military action. The aim was to dissuade Israel from any rash military initiative, which might risk drawing in the United States or exposing its troops, bases and Middle East interests to Iranian retaliation.
By putting pressure on Iran, Washington also hoped to soften Israel’s stance in the proximity talks with the Palestinians, which Obama’s envoy George Mitchell had managed, after persistent efforts, to get started. All these calculations have proved vain and will now have to be reviewed. Obama’s foreign policy in these crucial areas has so far been a failure. But this has not yet been recognized in Washington, where the tendency is to dismiss the Tehran agreement and keep the emphasis on tough sanctions.
Several other significant consequences flow from the Tehran agreement. Iran has consolidated its relations with Turkey and Brazil, two rising global powers. It will feel far less isolated on the international scene. Turkey, in turn, can claim a diplomatic triumph to add to its many foreign policy successes of the past year, engineered by Ahmet Davutoglu. He has vastly improved relations with Syria, Iraq and Iran, as well as with a score of other countries in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia, boosting political and trade ties. Relations with Israel, however, have turned distinctly sour.
Brazil’s Lula da Silva, very popular at home because of his promotion of reforms and economic growth, has irritated Washington by drawing close to such anti-American leaders in Latin America as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and now to the Iranian President. Before arriving last week for the crucial talks in Tehran Lula declared: “I must now use everything I have learned over my long political career to convince my friend Ahmadinejad to come to an agreement with the international community.” Such sentiments will be hailed in the developing world but are likely to irritate Washington further.
What Lula and Erdogan have shown, however, is that, in dealing with proud and prickly nations like Iran, showing respect, friendship and a willingness to engage in dialogue, however difficult and time-consuming, can yield far better results than sanctions, threats and military confrontation. President Obama seemed to have understood this when he entered the White House in January 2009, but to have since reverted to more traditional American arm-twisting.
Meanwhile, Turkey is deepening and strengthening its relations with all its neighbours, emerging as a key player in the Greater Middle East. A straw in the wind was the launch in April of Turkey’s new Arabic language TV channel — TRT Arabic — which is expected to do far better than its competitors: the American-backed Alhurra, BBC Arabic, France 24, Deutsche-Welle-Arabic and Arabic Russia Today
The opening ceremony of the new Turkish channel was marked by an emotional speech by Prime Minister Erdogan in which he stressed the history, culture and religious faith shared by both Turks and Arabs. His use of Arabic idioms and poetic verses brought his audience cheering to their feet.
If the Tehran agreement sticks, it can only further enhance Turkey’s beneficent regional role as a mediator and peace-maker. The intractable Arab-Israeli dispute is in urgent need of its attention.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press). Copyright © 2010 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global.