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Articles

Enrich confidence; not plutonium

As a first in history, Biden and Khamenei should strike a personal rapprochement. Reviving the 2015 nuclear accord is a win-win equation. Let’s do it without ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’

There is a proverb in the military: we will see when we cross the bridge! So is the case with United States-Iran relations; estranged to the core but there is always an opportunity in disaster. It is a dichotomy of sorts that they hate to see together on the global stage but vie for an interaction behind the curtains.

In a first televised foreign policy statement, delivered at the doors of the State Department, President Biden has taken an unrealistic approach. He wants Tehran to deescalate the nuclear temperature before withdrawing sanctions. The pinch, in fact, is being felt on both the sides.

In an unprecedented departure, nonetheless, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei personally took to the media and directly called upon the new White House leadership to take the leap forward by lifting sanctions. This speaks the mood of the hierarchy in Iran. Washington will be better advised to be soft and ‘cultivate’ Iran, rather than pushing it to the wall.

There are lessons for the Biden administration to be learnt from history, notwithstanding the jingoism posed by his predecessor, Donald Trump. Be it the Iran-Contra scandal; 444 days of besiege of the US embassy in Tehran; downing of Iranian civilian aircraft over the Gulf of Hormuz or rupture of the nuclear deal at the hands of President Donald Trump; both the countries have proved beyond doubt that diplomacy is the only viable option between them; and nothing had been sorted out to this day militarily.

That forms the rationale as US President Joe Biden reiterated his pledge to “revive” the nuclear deal stuck with Iran in 2015; and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken illustrating over plans to negotiate a “longer and stronger” accord.

Tehran too is forthcoming as it had hinted at closely working with the European Union, Russia and China to address American concerns and help ‘synchronise’ the deal in a fool-proof manner.

It is a win-win equation for doves all around the world, and a shot in the arm for confidence building measures in one of the most volatile regions of the world. The dye has been cast. Both Washington and Tehran are on the same page as far as the understanding is concerned to constrain the ‘undesired’ nuclear enrichment.

What’s next? To further the envelope, both the parties should keep in mind that timing is of essential importance. The window of opportunity could be short-lived. Though the Americans can keep on harping over the deal prospects for a longer period of time, under the premise of reviewing its salient features under the new administration of President Biden, but for the Iranians it could turn out to be a ‘forbidden’ moment.

The Presidential elections in Iran are scheduled in June; and the hawks are out to capitalise on anti-Americanism fervour as sanctions stand restored in 2018.

Washington has a moment to seize. Unlike its approach on Afghanistan where it has sought time to ‘study’ the Doha Accord stuck under the auspices of Islamabad, Tehran could turn out to be Waterloo.

Both the countries are already in a gridlock. Tehran has knocked at the doors of the International Court of Justice against unilateral slapping of sanctions by the Trump admin- istration, terming it as a breach of 1955 friendship treaty between the two countries. The apex world court is seized with the matter.

Move in fast and help in compliance from both sides: US should lift sanctions and help ease the Iranian economy, and at the same time Iran should implement the 2015 paradigm in letter and spirit. That is the way to go.

All signatory parties should realise that it is a masterpiece of diplomacy negotiated after episodes of attrition, and that too only because President Barack Obama and President Hassan Rouhani were exceptionally willing to walk the few extra miles. The result was a unique consensus to restrict the Iranian nuclear program in return for lifting all kinds of sanctions from the United States and its allies.

Thus, any effort on behalf of any party to put ‘preconditions’ or ‘tailor’ the deal would be suicidal. It won’t be easy for Washington and Tehran to cobble together a renewed consensus this time around. Geopolitically much water has flown down the rivers in the Middle East and Europe.

China has risen as a de facto superpower, and Russia had literally cornered the US on all counts during the Trump era. Tehran can resort to muscle-flexing and will be a hard nut to crack. The Europeans are already on the Iranian side.

Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei is busily galvanising a radical agenda, and that has its roots in silencing moderate voices at home. Biden’s team should be tactful and extra-con- scious, and desist from lingering on irrelevant issues.

Let’s briefly revisit the scenario: Iran as a retaliation to sanctions slapped by the Trump administration in 2018 started enriching larger quantities of uranium to higher levels of purity. It was a tit-for-tat. But now Biden wants Iran to roll back its advancement before sanctions could be eased. This precondition is quite unrealis- tic; and tantamount to pushing Iran to the wall.

Washington, moreover, wants to stitch a broader pact to deal with Iran’s ballistic missiles program, and ensure that Tehran’ so-called proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere are put under stringent radar. This will fuel anti-American sentiments in Iran and that too at a crucial moment of the upcoming ballot.

Last but not the least is another precondition that is acting as a perfect monkey-wrench. French President Emmanuel Macron wants to bring in Saudi Arabia as a stakeholder in the 2015 Nuclear Deal. Paris intention is to oblige the Gulf Cooperation Council members, especially the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in forging a new consensus on disarmament in the Middle East.

Tehran has already rejected this initiative. Its rejoinder is verifiable. Iran rightly says that the multilateral agreement is duly ratified by the UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which is non-negotiable and parties to it are unchangeable. Digging heels on this stance is enough an excuse to stage a comeback of hardliners in the presidency and parliament in Iran.

The point is why the United States and its allies are bent upon putting a spanner in the works? This is quite un-American in essence, and hints at jingoism at work in few European capitals for reasons of exigency.

No point will be served if the JCPOA bites the dust. It will endanger peace and security in the Mideast, and provide Iran with excuses to foment anti-Arab and Anti-American sentiments.

President Biden, with more than four decades of diplomatic experi- ence, has a responsibility to act as a statesman. He cannot afford to look-like Trump; nor could the Democrats stoop so low. The White House should keep in mind the lids had been taken off at the Fordow nuclear plant. Iran is busy enriching uranium to 20 percent. US intelligence officials estimate that Iran could produce enough nuclear material for a weapon in a couple of months. Thus, imple- menting the 2015 agreement is indispensable.

It is pertinent to mention that the internal situation in Iran is quite fluid. Hardliners are out to gun down the moderates. There are reports of an imminent change at the top, as supreme leader Ali Khamenei is not keeping good health. The radical constituency under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is quite proactive. Ahmadinejad was the man who insisted on Iran’s sovereign right to nuclear technology and defied sanctions to build a heavy water production plant at Arak. A déjà vu is in the making.

It’s time for Tehran and Washington, as well as other signatories, to reflect upon the fact that the 2015 deal was a blessing in disguise. Iran had agreed not to produce enriched uranium or plutonium, and also ensured that Natanz, Fordow and Arak facilities would be open for international inspections.

The IAEA in 2016 testified that Iran had fulfilled all of its obligations under the JCPOA. It shipped out over 12 tonnes of enriched uranium to Russia; scaled down its stockpile to less than 300kg; dismantled over 13,000 centrifuges and Arak reactor was downgraded. Iran was adhering to the accord. This was no small achievement.

The revulsion now is unacceptable and uncalled for. Tehran is literally going back on its commitments. This is in reaction as the Trump administration resorted to kicking Iran below the belt. The killing of top Iranian general, Qasim Suleimani – who allegedly was instrumental in manning the proxies – is a case in point.

Tehran now believes it’s time to play to the gallery. The Iranian parliament has passed a law to go ahead with nuclear enrichment and shut the doors on International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.

So what is the way out now? Diplomacy can flourish in serenity. Arm-twisting measures and coercion will hardly work. It hasn’t worked against Libya, Yemen and Sudan – what to say of resource- ful and self-reliant Iran – the only military power in the Gulf.

Biden along with the multilateral consortium will be better advised to lift sanctions as a goodwill gesture, enabling Tehran to recipro- cate in all sincerity. It goes without saying that Iranian economy is on the rocks. Sanctions and embargo have devastated it to the core. The best strategy to reform Iran would be to bring it back in the international mechanism.

Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei is a Machiavellian. Notwith- standing his anti-American rhetoric, he and his inner coterie are desperate for relief. President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minis- ter Javed Zarif are on record having assured their counterparts in Brussels, Moscow and Beijing that Tehran is serious in negotiating a durable and multi-pronged accord with the United States. The politics of hate is for public consumption, though.

President Biden, please walk the few extra miles to realise perpetual peace with your erstwhile ally, Iran. Tehran, too, is waiting in the wings to respond in Persian humility. The decision to pull back USS Nimitz warship from the US military’s Central Command in the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific Command region is a welcome gesture. Likewise, revive and rebuild the 2015 nuclear deal. There is no going back. Washington and Tehran should keep talking — even if they do not want to.

Written By

The writer is former Opinion Editor Khaleej Times, Dubai.

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