After the Iran Deal
By Dimple Vijaykumar
On Wednesday 2 September 2015, the Frontline Club hosted a debate on what the recent Iran nuclear agreement could mean for the country, the region and relations with the West. Just a few hours before the event, it was announced that President Obama had secured enough support in the Senate to ensure that the deal will go into effect, after Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland became the 34th senator to deem it the “best option available to block Iran from having a nuclear bomb.” The agreement itself means a trade-off between Western powers, who will suspend economic sanctions on Iran providing that the regime limits the country’s nuclear programme.
Hosting the panel of experts was Azadeh Moaveni, a former Middle East correspondent for Time magazine, who was joined by Kasra Naji, special correspondent for BBC Persian TV; Saeed Kamali Dehghan, staff journalist with the Guardian writing on Iran; James Rubin, a US foreign policy specialist who previously served under President Clinton as assistant secretary of state for public affairs; and Con Coughlin, The Telegraph‘s defence editor.
Dehghan began his opening remarks by expressing support for the Iran agreement: “When I was in Iran, I never thought that in my life I would see an Iranian foreign minister talking to a US Secretary of State, and now it’s part of the routine.”
He also drew comparisons between the Iran deal and the infamous Dreyfus affair in France, an espionage scandal which divided many families and society itself: “I think that Iran’s nuclear deal is Iran’s Dreyfus moment, albeit in the 21st century… It’s interesting in terms of how it’s dividing a nation, specifically in the US.” He then asserted that the deal did not polarise opinion as much in Iran, with the majority supporting it.
Rubin responded: “From an American perspective… I think there’s been a lot of over-hyped discussion… This is an evolutionary positive arms control agreement.”
He went on to outline the uncertainty of how the deal will pan out, but gave credit to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose election “changed things” and enabled the agreement to come about, rather than the work of President Obama or “John Kerry’s heroics.”
Rubin also stressed that the deal does not completely prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb, and will not ultimately change Iranian foreign policy in the Middle East: “[The agreement] makes it harder for [Iran] to build a nuclear weapon if they choose to. Not impossible, but harder.”
Naji said: “By signing up in Vienna, [Iran] agreed for all intents and purposes that they will not have the capability to build a bomb… Lifting up sanctions is a big, big thing for Iran these days.” He pinpointed the reality that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini knew that if sanctions were to continue, then “the whole stability of the regime was at stake.”
Naji disagreed with Rubin on Iran’s ability to obtain nuclear weapons: “It’s not enough to have enough enriched uranium… you need to put it in some kind of delivery system – all those things have not been done yet.”
Naji agreed that Iran’s main policies wouldn’t change, but highlighted that it had given up its nuclear ambitions despite strong opposition from Iranian hardliners, the consequences of which have yet to be played out in the Iranian political sphere.
Coughlin offered his view, echoing a number of Rubin’s points: “It’s a bad deal for the West… The Iranians have a lot of influence in the verification process.”
He argued that if UN inspectors have concerns on activities going on at military bases linked to the nuclear programme, Iran decides whether their complaints are justified. “I think the really big problem… is the message it’s sending out… What is this deal going to do to the other Arab powers in the region?”
Moaveni steered the discussion towards the alternatives, asking: “Would no deal have been better, and where would that have left us?”
Rubin responded that it would not take much effort to know if Iran is breaking the terms of the nuclear agreement, but that: “It’s harder than you think to get a better deal… They spent billions and billions of dollars on this capability to enrich uranium and we couldn’t get them to give it up completely.”
Deghlani also stepped in and disagreed with Rubin’s view that Obama’s election was not as important as Rouhani’s in making the deal a reality.
The discussion then moved to Iran itself, and how different factions in the country view the deal.
Naji said: “The hardliners have been forced to give up something big… but they’re not going to relent on other issues.” He then emphasised that their foreign policy will also remain firmly unchanged, and that the decision to limit their nuclear activity was a “pretty popular thing,” enabling Rouhani to fulfil an electoral promise.
The Saudi Arabian position vis-a-vis the Iran deal was touched upon, with Moaveni raising questions on how to tackle the Saudi-Iran rivalry in the aftermath of the nuclear deal. Coughlin briefly said: “Saudi Arabia would be a lot less agitated [by the deal] if they didn’t see the Iranian Revolutionary Guard backing the Houthi rebels [in Yemen].”
Dehghan commented on the reaction on the ground in Iran to the agreement, highlighting that many human rights activists supported the deal, especially considering the crippling impact of sanctions on ordinary Iranians: “From an American perspective, it might be an overstatement, but from an Iranian perspective, this is very important.”
An audience member asked: “Did you think Europe had a part to play?”
Coughlin responded: “I do think this deal was actually a deal between Washington and Tehran… The American president has had a dialogue with the regime since he came to power.” He then suggested Europe had “capitulated” and that “we are bit players…[who had] completely given into the Americans.”
Rubin disagreed: “I don’t think that sanctions would have bitten in terms of the financial and corporate sanctions and restrictions and overall effect without the Europeans.” He added: “You call it ‘capitulation’, I kinda call it ‘realism’.”
More heated debate arose when another audience member asked: “Why is it a better bet for us to ally with Qatar and Saudi Arabia… than it is to deal with a country like Iran?”
Coughlin replied: “My argument has been that we have traditional allies in the Gulf, who for the last thirty or forty years have secured our energy supplies. We’d be rather bonkers to just let them float in the wind because of this half-baked deal that Obama’s drawn out.”
Finally, when the possibility of Iran becoming an US ally was considered, Rubin said: “I know President Obama does talk about Iran’s ability to become a regional power, but an ally of the United States given the policies they pursue? Whether it’s in Damascus, whether it’s in Lebanon, whether it’s towards Israel… [Iran] do believe Israel shouldn’t exist… Would America want to be an ally of Iran? No, I don’t think so.”