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Bronner writes: "For the first time since the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of the Iranian Republic more than 35 years ago, the United States and Iran have talked with one another in civil tones rather than bellicose rhetoric."

Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. (photo: EPA)
Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. (photo: EPA)

Closing the Deal: America, Iran, and the Nuclear Treaty of 2015

By Stephen Eric Bronner, Reader Supported News

02 September 15


or the first time since the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of the Iranian Republic more than 35 years ago, the United States and Iran have talked with one another in civil tones rather than bellicose rhetoric. The result was the treaty of 2015 concerning the future of nuclear energy (and perhaps the prospect of a nuclear weapon) in Iran that was born of compromise and attempts to allay suspicions on the domestic front in both countries. Historical context for the signing is crucial. Intense mutual distrust began following the prominent role played by the United States in overthrowing the democratic regime of Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1953 (primarily for nationalizing its oil companies) and installing the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, hated by the populace as both an American puppet and a decadent despot. US-Iranian relations consequently plummeted when in 1979 he was overthrown by the first successful Islamic revolution that was led by Ayatollah Khomeini.

The Shah and his family sought refuge in the United States as, more for symbolic than practical reasons, the American Embassy was occupied amid chants of “Death to America” and others demanding the annihilation of Israel. Hostages were taken, attempts to free them failed, and the United States stood humiliated before the rest of the world as Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter as president. While the new theocratic republic took shape, relations between the United States and Iran deteriorated further. American support for the invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq only strengthened earlier feelings of national hatred and mistrust. This misguided attempt at geo-politics identified the United States with a brutal aggressor in a war that lasted from 1980 to 1988 and cost the lives of nearly a million soldiers and civilians. Worse: the borders basically remained unchanged, thereby generating frustration and incessant rumors of a Western conspiracy directed against one country or the other along with a revanchist spirit in both. With its support of Iraq, where Saddam’s Sunni government was repressing the nation’s Shia majority, and its hostility to both Syria and Iran, as well as its close ties to Saudi Arabia, it appeared that the United States had made the geo-political decision to side with Sunnis against Shia in a simmering conflict with regional implications.

As if to confirm the point, the United States and its European allies soon introduced sanctions that economically isolated Iran from the West, strangled what there was of its indigenous bourgeoisie, and ultimately led the republic to embrace a nuclear strategy. It also heightened the domestic power of the Mosque and the Revolutionary Guards. Anti-American and anti-Israeli demonstrations took place throughout the country. Economic miseries in Iran were meanwhile blamed on the United States and Israel, which then labeled Iran a “rogue” state and a participant in President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.” Holocaust denial and extremist rhetoric only seemed to validate this impression.

Ironically, the situation only grew worse with the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Little sympathy was spent by Iran on the plight of its former enemy. Yet simply bombing Iraq, thereby leaving Iran as the dominant Islamic power in the region, made little strategic sense. It seemed only logical if these invasions were merely the first steps of a larger plan to assert American/Israeli hegemony in the Middle East; indeed, this standpoint only gained new support in Iran and elsewhere following the implosion of Syria. Iran seemed the only nation left capable of opposing the United States (and Israel) – and it felt surrounded. American troops were stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq; American nuclear technology had been sent to India and Pakistan. American military packages were given not only to Israel (whose nuclear arsenal contains between 300 and 400 weapons) but also to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. Iran was thus left economically isolated and militarily encircled, demeaned for its imperialist ambitions and wild anti-Semitism, and denied the right to develop its own nuclear program by the only nation ever employ atomic weapons in wiping out Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II.

Given this history, the lack of support from a single Senate Republican, and the disaffection of many Democrats, it was amazing that President Barack Obama was able to move forward this treaty between Iran and the five nations in the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1). An earlier attempt had taken place in Paris in 2004. But the United States did not participate, while the bellicose rhetoric opposing the treaty by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad turned him into a celebrity at home and strengthened the anti-Western right wing of Iranian politics. Negotiations thus came to nothing, and Iran effectively became an outcast. That changed with the initiatives taken by President Obama and the new regime led by President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif.

The contours of the deal forged by Kerry and Zarif are overloaded with detail but relatively easy to grasp: Iran cuts its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium and virtually eliminates its low-enriched uranium, refuses to build heavy water facilities, and drastically reduces its centrifuges for 15 years. Uranium enrichment is limited to domestic uses, and the International Atomic Energy Agency is given access to agreed-upon sites. In exchange, the United States and Europe immediately lift their sanctions, thereby allowing an estimated $150 billion in investments and trade to flow into Iran.

Once again, Iran would not be allowed to produce weapons-grade fuel for 15 years; it would permit on-site inspections by international agencies; and, in exchange, the P5+1 would allow low nuclear enrichment for domestic purposes and lift all sanctions with all due speed. Critics among Democrats from large urban areas like Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who vote liberal on virtually every issue except Israel, right-wing evangelicals, and a Republican Party dominated by the Tea Party, as well as Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and a phalanx of Zionist interest groups led by AIPAC, began a sensational and well-funded campaign to subvert the treaty in Congress. They raised fears about what a nuclear bomb in the hands of Iran might mean for Israel, how the allowed centrifuges would enable Iran to build a bomb ten years down the road, how on-site inspections were worthless, and how the United States had been bamboozled or – worse – had indulged in “appeasement,” thereby imperiling its security, its geo-political interests, and its longstanding alliance with Israel. In short, right-wing opponents blasted the Obama administration for having given away too much.

As Machiavelli knew, important political treaties of this sort are rarely needed between friends. They reflect instead the mistrust existing on both sides, along with the belief that their interests are being served. That is the case here – or, better, it is the case in a particularly exaggerated form. Iran and the United States have longstanding grievances, very different political systems, and very different cultures. But they both are enmeshed in regional conflicts that are complex and volatile. Nuclear energy was only the tip of the iceberg, though distinguished scientists were employed on both sides to reach a compromise on the issue. Especially in the United States, however, it has become acceptable to counter scientific opinion with little more than the ideological opinions of politicians with no scientific expertise whatsoever. The nuclear treaty is a complex document that runs 160 pages, and the shrill insistence of one or another opponent (also usually lacking experience in international conflict resolution) that somehow he or she could have brought home a better deal (naturally without specifying any new provisions) was simply bombast. Iran and the other nations (allied with the United States) said repeatedly that they would not renegotiate and that they would conclude the treaty with or without American support. After all this time, and all the false starts, the choice was never between a better deal and this one but between the one on the table and no deal at all.

The deal offered a way to reintegrate Iran into the world community. Its insularity from the West and even the Sunni branch of Islam following the Revolution of 1979, and the intensifying political tensions with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, fostered a paranoid atmosphere that benefited the Revolutionary Guards and the orthodox Shia establishment. Such pillars of reaction share the same provincial and xenophobic attitudes as their American counterparts among Republicans, the Tea Party, and those Zionist lobbies obsessed by existential threats to Israel. Worse, similar to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, right-wing alliances of this sort can often effectively veto negotiations with the other side: inflammatory rhetoric, military or police actions, pressure from lobbies, propaganda attacks, etc.

President Obama and his supporters had little choice other than to stress the heightened security offered by the treaty and its safeguards against cheating, resulting in a flood of public insults and warnings directed against Iran. The country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, was meanwhile engaged in an even more delicate balancing act, since he serves as both sovereign political leader and the unquestioned religious authority. Amid cautious words of friendship, therefore, he and others tossed “red meat” to right-wing opponents of the deal by insisting that the United States remains the “great Satan” and that Israel will no longer exist in 25 years. Of course, ironically, the extent to which the treaty and its implications are undermined is the extent to which both sides return to the geo-political imperatives of the status quo ante. That prior period offered a far greater danger of violence, and turning back the clock actually enables right-wing extremists on both sides to persue a self-fulfilling prophecy.

New prospects for cooperation between the United States and Iran have become possible. After all, it is not as if the United States has chosen the most respected and responsible allies. Even a conservative journal like The National Interest (9/15/2015) noted that Iran would make a better ally than Pakistan for fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan – and that the United States had made a serious blunder in dismissing the support offered by Iran’s then-president Mohammad Khatami in the early days of the conflict. Whether President Bashar al-Assad of Syria stays in power following the bloody civil war or not, Alawites (who constitute a branch of Shia Islam) will need protection from the Sunni opposition and some degree of political autonomy.

And that requires a sovereign. Russia’s new alliance with Iran and the Iraqi Shia in support of President Bashar al-Assad, who will now receive a stark increase in military aid, recognizes the facts on the ground – namely, that ISIS now controls nearly 2/3 of Syria. Pragmatism reigns in Iran as well. Entering a coalition with Russia to pursue what President Rouhani termed a “War Against Violence and Terror” (WAVE) implicitly shows Iran’s willingness to align with any state that prioritizes combatting terror (ISIS, al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra front) over seeking an immediate change in the Syrian government.

Whether the goal is to eliminate ISIS entirely, or merely weaken it, drying up its revenue sources is probably the most important (if generally ignored) element of the struggle against terror. Financial support for ISIS derives principally from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. The United States will have more leverage to pressure them on lessening their support should it work more closely with the Iran-Russian alliance. Old hatreds and suspicions about Russia and Iran should not distort the geo-political reality of the situation: ISIS has become a genuine power while, clearly, determining the future structure of the Syrian state(s) will require input from the largest and the strongest Shia state in the region, namely, Iran.

There is hardly a single conflict capable of being resolved without involving Iran: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, and ISIS are all riven by violence and they are all entangled in some way or another with Iran. Hezbollah plays an important role in Lebanon and the Israel/Palestine conflict and it is beholden to Iran. Fighting ISIS and al Qaeda (both of which are Sunni and receive support from dissident factions in Saudi Arabia) would prove easier with help from Iran. And there are the Kurds who, while proud of the autonomy they have been given in three states, including Iran, retain a certain desire for independence (and possible unification) that is never far from the surface. Fueled by longstanding hatreds, Sunni and Shia paramilitary forces are battling one another in Iraq, though both are targeting American troops that they consider imperialist threats to the sovereignty of their nation; it is difficult to imagine a reconstructed Iraq without prior negotiations having taken place with Iran.

Opponents of the nuclear treaty, especially those on the Republican side of the aisle, constantly claim that no coherent policy is being followed in the Middle East. No such policy can be constructed, however, unless there is an American rapprochement with Iran. As things now stand, the United States has no influence with any Shiite nations or organizations. This narrows its options. Cooperation with Iran would mitigate reliance upon reactionary states like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain that are held in contempt (even by most Sunnis) throughout the Middle East. Lastly, better relations with Iran might actually diminish one among the many enemies whose “existential threat” to Israel’s security always seems to translate into demands for more settlements and more military aid packages for more arms.

But there is the still larger issue concerning whether Iran really seeks better relations with the West and reintegration into the world community – or whether it is all simply an act. Poor judgment is clearly evident among those who oppose better ties between the United States and Iran. Imperialism has never been practiced by Iran (or its Persian predecessors). The Iranian economy also lacks investment, and expectations are that $150 billion will flow into the country. Indeed, though this has nothing to do with state finances, one Republican candidate for president, Donald Trump, has concluded that the $150 billion will inevitably used to buy military hardware. Attention is thus deflected from the obvious: Iran needs the deal more than the United States. But there is also something else. Iran is a nation with rich traditions that reach back over Hafez and Rumi to Cyrus the Great. Ending its current isolation and enabling economic ties with the West would also temper the stifling authoritarianism and provincialism so despised in Tehran and university towns. Indeed, this is what scares and enrages the two pillars of Iranian reaction: the military and the mosque.

Closer relations with Iran, better intellectual exchanges, would create new job prospects for the young and the educated as well as contribute to introducing a certain cosmopolitan sensibility. Everyday people would surely experience the embarrassment when Iran’s political leaders employ stupid anti-Semitic and anti-Western rhetoric. By the same token, they might well feel pride in the contributions of their country to furthering world peace and resolving conflicts in the Middle East. Globalization would surely multiply the current flow of information into Iran and strengthen the legacy of the “green revolution” that demanded civil liberties and human rights. Isolation fosters xenophobia and, should relations between Iran and the US and its allies worsen again, Iran would inevitably experience a right-wing backlash. A self-fulfilling prophecy would thus bring about something that no one wants; it is to the credit of presidents Obama and Rouhani that they knew what was at stake – and dared to talk.

Stephen Eric Bronner is Board of Governors Professor of Political Science at Rutgers. He is also Director of Global Relations and serves on the Executive Committee of the UNESCO Chair for Genocide Prevention at the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Professor Bronner is Chair of the Executive Committee of US Academics for Peace and he is the recipient of many awards including the 2011 MEPeace Prize from the Middle East Political Network based in Jerusalem. His most recent book is The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists (Yale University Press).

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