Thursday evening in Iran people flooded the streets to celebrate what looks to be, at last, a tangible and positive result of the long and hard negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program with the “P5 +1” (five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany). Columns of cars were honking; many were carrying photos of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani; and in homes and shops, broadcast live, there was Barack Obama speaking about the results of the talks. It didn’t hurt the festive mood that the agreement was announced on the Iranian holiday of “sizdah de dar” the last day of Noruz celebrations (the ancient Persian New Year).
The revelry was a mass release from the fatigue of over 30 years of sanctions and resulting economic malaise with no end in sight. Sanctions, no matter how “smart,” do little to punish governments and regimes but are quite effective at making life hard for the average citizen. It was not only Iranians, however, anxious about the results of the talks: the consequences of failure, of such drawn-out bargaining ending only with both parties packing up and returning to the status quo, would be unpredictable but certainly negative for regional and world politics. And of course, that is still a possibility. Rouhani’s rating would drop; perhaps he would have to resign in favor of a radical conservative candidate, the tact of dialogue discredited (as it was to an extant after ex-president Khatami’s attempts at reconciliation with the West failed – which helped to pave the way for the politics of Ahmadinejad). It’s difficult to imagine how such a turn of events could improve the already badly deteriorated situation in the Middle East. Across the ocean, archconservative elements in the United States would seize on a negotiations failure, especially in election campaigns, as supposed proof that the stick, and never the carrot, is the only really valid means of achieving foreign policy goals.
Critical for Iran will be the cancellation of oil exports sanctions, which should be lifted after the final agreements scheduled for June 2015. In addition to restrictions on the oil, finance and banking sectors, and sanctions against individuals, the fate of a slew of lesser sanctions will be determined gradually under international monitoring of implementation by Iran of agreed upon conditions. In case of violations or nonfulfillment, sanctions are to be maintained or reestablished.
Despite the fact that the outcome of the negotiations has been a sensation for many, most Iranians I interacted with were confident a deal would be reached. At the opposite end, many Eastern Studies peers expressed strong doubts that anything new was on the horizon. After all, there have been attempts at negotiation prior to this, some of them rumored, that failed or never even got off the ground. Opinions vary as to what drove both sides to stay at the negotiating table and hammer out a consensus this time — amid accusations of Iranian non-disclosure, the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, opposition to the talks within the Washington and Tehran political establishments and the usual heated rhetoric between the two, to name but a few factors that might have derailed the project. There is speculation that some in the West are keen to prevent a strong Russia-Iran alliance, which in recent years has often seemed on the verge of materializing but never quite lived up to expectations. Some observers go further, seeing in the agreement the beginning of a sea change in global alliances, perhaps at the expense of Saudi Arabia and Israel. On another level, many Europeans are famously unenthusiastic about the sanctions policy on Iran and may have exerted some pressure. And Washington’s experience in Iraq may have convinced it that Iran was an important regional player that should be cultivated rather than ostracized. Iran, for its part, while determined to hold out, was certainly weary of the partial strangulation. Most probable is that multiple factors coalesced, that the moment had simply come, with enough distance between the present and the Shah’s US-encouraged excesses, the aiding of Saddam Hussein’s army, the storming of the US Embassy and the long litany of complaints on both sides.
Let us not forget Russia’s contribution to the success of the talks, which many point out, not without reason, could end up weakening Russia’s geopolitical position. The agreement may indeed be followed by increased rapprochement between Iran and the West and a larger role for Iran in the region and as a supplier of natural resources, perhaps as an alternative to Russia. But such zero-sum formulations would be the mark of a short-term game, and Russia rightly continued to aid and support the talks through to the end. Russia and Iran should use this as an opportunity to forge an alliance not out of necessity, from being backed into a corner, but through proactive strengthening of cultural and economic ties that will serve as a firmer, deeper foundation for relations in the long run.
Written by Lana Ravandi-Fadai.