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How nuclear talks help Iran dominate the Middle East

By Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
web posted March 3, 2014

The Interim Nuclear Agreement: A Matter of Interpretation

On February 18, 2014, about three months after the signing of the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 group, talks began in Vienna on reaching a final agreement. Both Iran and various Western actors expressed pessimism, and there were increasing reports that the half-year allocated for arriving at a final agreement will not be sufficient.

From the signing of the interim deal to the opening of the Vienna talks, Iran and the United States waged a verbal war over different interpretations of the deal's terms and its future implications for the scope of Iran's nuclear program. Not surprisingly, Washington highlighted its achievements in containing the program, while Iran pointed out – as domestic criticism of its concessions intensified – that it had "not agree[d] to dismantle anything" and that the word does not even appear in the agreement's text. All Iran had consented to was to limit uranium enrichment to 5 percent. The holes and unclear wording in the nuclear deal have allowed Iran to make its own interpretation of many of its stipulations, while stalling and evading crucial issues such as strict supervision of certain elements of the program and the status of research and development once a permanent agreement is signed.

A Campaign of Media Deception

Meanwhile, Iran has continued its charm offensive, led by its two "superstars," President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The two were especially in evidence at the economic conference in Davos and at the security conference in Munich. Both officials gave wide-ranging interviews to the Western media, which continues to portray them as heralds of a new Iranian approach that began when Rouhani was elected. Iran is essentially implementing a sophisticated media deception campaign, just as Rouhani is continuing to pursue nuclear deception. Having been a nuclear negotiator in 2003, Rouhani moved on to the presidency in 2013 and is prepared to lead Iran to the nuclear finish line.

In one interview with the German media, Zarif implied that if the Palestinians were to reach an agreement with Israel, Iran would accept and even recognize Israel. These words were headlined in the world media as another indication of Iran's "new thinking" and changed foreign policy. Yet, whereas Zarif sweet-talked the German public, he and other Iranian officials flatly denied the words' ostensible import and affirmed that there had been no change in policy toward the "Zionist regime" – avowals that the world media simply ignored. As Zarif himself put it:

Iran's position regarding its refusal to recognize the Zionist regime has not changed at all, and no part of my words can be taken to mean this....What I said in these interviews aimed to explain the reasons for prolonged crisis in the Middle East due to the violation of the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people, in particular their right to determine their own future, form an independent government and for the displaced people to return to their motherland. We have insisted on these in all negotiations and interviews, and said that they should not seek excuses to justify the crimes of the Zionist regime....Of course such mischievous acts are not unusual, given how desperate the Zionists feel in the face of the Iran's active foreign policy. However, domestic political circles and media are expected to avoid spreading rumors.

Deputy Foreign Minister Hassan Qashqavi, who rejected media reports about Zarif's statements as untrue, said: "In a phone conversation that I had with Mr. Zarif, he completely rejected the remarks attributed to him and declared that Iran's stance about the [Zionist] regime is what has been repeatedly announced by the country's diplomacy apparatus and this stance has not changed." Iranian Majlis members wanted to summon Zarif and grill him over his interviews with German media in early February, where he termed the Holocaust as a "horrifying tragedy" that "should never occur again." Majlis member Qasem Ja'fari has maintained that Zarif said in those interviews that "the recognition or failure to recognize Israel has nothing to do with us....Zarif's statements are contradictory to the principles of the political system because Imam Khomeini termed the Zionist regime [Israel] a cancerous tumor and the supreme leader (Khamenei) has called it a bastard and, to date, the [Islamic] political system has sustained high costs to confront the recognition of that regime." In any event, Zarif did not appear at the slated Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee meeting to answer Majlis members' questions.

A Historical Hostility

As the Vienna talks approached, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei – just as he had before the round in November – expressed pessimism but said he was not against holding the talks. Khamenei again attacked the United States and its "historically hostile" stance toward Iran, which, he claimed, has not changed. Khamenei made similar remarks on February 11 for the thirty-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution. On several occasions Khamenei, along with Foreign Ministry spokesmen, asserted that the nuclear issue is nothing but an ongoing pretext for the United States, which will find another pretext even if it is resolved. He said the Foreign Ministry's mission – that is, the nuclear talks – would continue and Iran would not renege on its promises, even though "I say that the thing is unnecessary and the talks will not lead anywhere....But the Foreign Ministry people will continue the effort." Khamenei took that opportunity to aver that Iranians' massive turnout for the Revolution Day processions had dealt a "crushing blow" to U.S. policy and goals and exposed its "real face," including the fact that it will never renounce its hostility and hatred toward Iran.

Despite the attacks on the United States by the Supreme Leader and other Iranian officials, and apparently to support the Iranian diplomatic effort in Vienna, Khamenei published on his Twitter and Facebook accounts (social networks are off limits to ordinary Iranian citizens) a summation of his statements about nuclear weapons being in violation of Islamic law. Iran claims that Khamenei has even issued a fatwa prohibiting the possession and use of such weapons. This, however, is part of Iran's public-diplomacy campaign, and in reality he has never published any such fatwa. Among other such declarations, a post by Khamenei on Facebook asserts:

Nuclear weapons are neither a security provider, nor a source of consolidation of political power but rather a threat to both. The events of the 1990s proved that possessing such weapons would not save any regimes including the Soviet Union. Today as well, we know countries that are faced with fatal torrents of insecurity, despite having nuclear bombs.

Amid the euphoria over a possible improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations since the signing of the nuclear interim agreement, the Iranian leadership has made clear that it opposes introducing any additional issues to the talks and that renewing ties with Washington is not even on the agenda. Iran also stresses that the talks with the West are solely confined to nuclear matters and will not encompass such issues as its missile program or its human rights practices. Human rights organizations that monitor Iran have in fact reported a dramatic increase in the number of executions since Rouhani was elected.

Symmetry with a Superpower

In recent weeks Iran's domestic discourse has increasingly referred to Iran as an auspicious regional alternative to the longstanding U.S. presence in the region. Iran is seeking to create symmetry (even if symbolic) in its relations with the United States and to make clear that Iranian power – like American power – extends far beyond its borders. Iran has even dispatched a "battle group" of ships toward the United States' maritime borders. As the commander of Iran's Northern Navy Fleet, Admiral Afshin Reza'i-Haddad, put it: "Iran's military fleet is approaching the United States, and this move has a message....For the first time, Iran's Northern Naval Fleet is moving towards the U.S. maritime border." The "battle group" consisted of a destroyer and a helicopter-carrying supply ship.

Officials of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have been emphasizing Iran's strategic status, along with its stability compared to other regional states that are undergoing the impact of the Arab Spring (or Islamic Awakening, as Iran calls it). Hassan Salami, deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guard, proclaimed recently in a series of interviews that Iran is at a historical turning point, facing complex challenges both for itself and for the world of Islam. Geostrategic and geopolitical developments are affecting the international and regional arenas, including Iran, and undermining the old order crafted by Western powers. Salami asserted that the new – that is, Islamic – order is rooted in Islamic ideology, which is pushing out the Western, capitalist one. He cited Hizbullah as an example, calling it "an organization permeated with faith and ideology....Today no equation can materialize in the Middle East without taking Hizbullah into account." On the other hand, he claimed, the United States is losing its footholds in the region, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq. As for Iran, Salami emphasized that it aims to make the most of its geopolitical status. "The potential and propitious location of the Persian Gulf are completely in the hands of Iran and this fact can instill fear and deter its enemies....We have the ability to influence the minds of our enemies....Every time we talk about our capacity and our geopolitical and geostrategic status, we stir up anxiety in the world."

America's Dwindling Assets

On another occasion, Salami ridiculed America's waning regional status and lauded Iran's Islamic ideology, the spread of which among the regional states had ultimately led to the U.S. decline. As for the nuclear negotiations and the possibility that the United States would attack Iran, Salami said Iran was cognizant of all the possible scenarios of a U.S. attack, and that its intelligence had identified areas where Iran's response would shock the Americans:

All of the operational sites of the enemy in the region, on every level, location and scope, are within our fire range. We have absolute control over the enemy's vital interests. Anyone who wishes to speak with our nation in threats or humiliation must know that we know no geographical boundary in our fight against them and we do not limit the scope of the confrontation to any border. We will strike them so that they fall apart from the inside. The nuclear negotiating team [or "nuclear men" as Salami puts it] must recognize the fact that they are sitting against powers with evident weaknesses and, as such, we have no fear. We demand that our nuclear negotiators remain firm and have faith, strength and ability to handle national interests. Iran's military strength is exceptional, devastating and aggressive, and is a tremendous strength for our foreign policy and nuclear negotiating team.

Salami's words are part of Iran's emerging discourse about its improving geostrategic status. In the Middle East that is now taking shape, Iran's ally Bashar Assad has managed to survive for more than three years thanks to Iran's ongoing support; Iraq, from which U.S. forces have withdrawn, is on the verge of dissolution; and Afghanistan is still unstable with U.S. forces set to depart toward the end of 2014.

The Next Big Thing

The Arab Spring has further weakened the Sunni Arab camp, which is waging a rearguard battle amid the reconstitution of the Middle East. Making use of Hizbullah and other factors, Iran has been exacerbating the instability in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf states, and also in North African countries affected by the Arab Spring. Iran does not lack challenges of its own, such as the seeping of the Syrian civil war into Lebanon, the damage to Hizbullah, and the strengthening of global Sunni jihad and al-Qaeda elements on its eastern border and in Syria and Iraq. Iran, however, is trying to use the Sunni jihad for leverage vis-à-vis the West that, in turn, can bolster Assad and Hizbullah.

Iran is also making much of the fact that foreign corporations, particularly in the energy sector, have been streaming back toward the Iranian market. Iran has been highlighting the visits by delegations from West European countries, proclaiming that the wall of the sanctions has collapsed. Iran thereby pokes fun at the ongoing American claims that the "architecture of the sanctions" remains in place and can easily be revamped. Thus, the only U.S. policy that had proved successful – the tightening of the sanctions – is now falling apart. Iran's international legitimacy is on the rebound, while the delegitimization of Israel keeps intensifying. From Iran's standpoint, then, the nuclear talks are creating an atmosphere where the economic pressure will subside, as Iran meanwhile gains time to fill in the missing pieces of its nuclear program. Some of the frozen assets have already been transferred to Iran as promised.

Iran's foreign policy is gaining momentum. That includes its attempts, as in the foreign minister's visits to the Gulf states, to portray itself as "the next big thing in the region" (in lieu of the United States) and to persuade the Gulf states to align with Iran while they can still do so peacefully and come under its security umbrella.

Iran hopes to wield power over the entire "event horizon" in the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia, and even in the arena of international crises (despite its exclusion from the Geneva 2 talks on the Syrian imbroglio, which in any case have failed). In Afghanistan, Iran is trying to create a security framework with Karzai, while urging him not to enter such an arrangement with the United States and instead to wait for its departure. In this way, too, Iran seeks to expand its influence in the region.

The nuclear talks enable Iran to present itself as sharing the same status as the main international power brokers. This, in turn, helps it portray itself as a regional – sometimes even international – superpower, and to augment its role on the world stage. Moreover, the talks allow Iran to keep developing those parts of its nuclear program – essentially, the military component – that have not yet come to full fruition, while Iran makes "concessions" in areas such as uranium enrichment where it already has a proven capacity. Thus Iran is hewing to its strategy of nuclear progress. From Iran's standpoint, the culmination of that progress – which means having a bomb, even if it takes time – will put the final seal on its regional and international status.

Meanwhile, regional developments, and particularly the lack of significant enemies in its geostrategic domain, enable it to conduct the nuclear talks at a relaxed pace. That approach is only further encouraged by the ongoing, evident feebleness of the United States and the West in trying to resolve the Syrian crisis, which has become a battlefield between Saudi Arabia and Iran and a bloody manifestation of the Sunni-Shiite rift. Thus, Iran foresees no substantial danger as it keeps marching toward its strategic goals. As President Obama and his administration keep pursuing the policy of "active passivity" that they have devised, America's status in the region only continues to decline. ESR

IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Terrogence Company.

 

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