Once upon a time, an American president decided to include Iran in the family of the world’s three biggest state-wrongdoers. He called that family the “Axis of Evil” and drew a line connecting Iran with Iraq and North Korea, the other two rogue countries. The American president accused Tehran, Baghdad and Pyongyang of helping terrorism and building weapons of mass destruction, mainly nuclear weapons. Pinpointing these common enemies of the United States, the Republican chief of state rallied his country in support of what he called the “War on Terror.”
Uttered on 29 January 2002, little by little the words “Axis of Evil” began to shape perceptions and opinions. And in 2003, when the US invaded Iraq, the three words became acts. The rest is history.
Fast forward ten years. On 27 September 2013, the world witnessed the unexpected rapprochement between another US President and a newly-elected reform-minded Iranian President. The diplomatic rapprochement between Washington and Tehran – symbolised by a 15-minute telephone conversation between President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rohani, on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York – has triggered a wave of hope among commentators and diplomats. The hope to see resolved the long-running dispute over Iran's nuclear programme.
The phone call – the first such contact since the Iranian revolution in 1979 – came as an audacious conclusion of a whole month of “charm offensive”, conducted by the newly-elected President Hassan Rohani after the swearing-in of the new Iranian administration in August 2013. From the onset, Rohani stated his intention to show Iran’s “true face” to the world, marking the end of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s eight years of antagonistic government.
Those interested in the history of this rapprochement will recall President Obama’s outreach to Iran since the beginning of his presidency. In his momentous Cairo speech A New Beginning, delivered on 4 June 2009, while reviewing the major source of tension between the Islamic world and the US and exploring the ways to overcome these tensions, Barack Obama said: “The third source of tension is our shared interest in the rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons. This issue has been a source of tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. (…) This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build. It will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust, but we will proceed with courage, rectitude and resolve. There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect.”
In 2013, pushing forward the US-Iran detente has seen Washington and Tehran engaging secretly in a series of high-level, face-to-face talks , as reported by Associated Press.
Facilitated by Sultan Qaboos bin Said – the monarch of Oman since 1970 and a key player in ensuring the release of three American hikers who were detained in Iran between 2009 and 2011 – and kept hidden even from America’s closest friends, including its negotiating partners and Israel, the secret informal discussion between Washington and Tehran paved the way for the historic interim nuclear deal sealed in Geneva on 24 November 2013.
Under this deal – concluded between Iran and the so-called P5+1 group of nuclear powers (the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia + Germany) – Tehran agreed to limit uranium enrichment and other nuclear activity in exchange for the easing of international sanctions for six months. Tehran is provided with about 5 billion euros in relief from international sanctions. All parties pledged to work toward a final, comprehensive settlement in 2014, which would remove remaining suspicions in the West that Tehran is trying to assemble an atomic weapons arsenal.
Coming after years of stalemate and fierce hostility between Iran and the West, the Geneva nuclear deal received the support of nearly 70 nations, satisfied that the prospects for war are averted, at least for six months. Some capitals reacted to the interim agreement with sheer exuberance. Turkey’s economy minister told reporters that all Turkish banks could now do business with Iran. “Not so fast!”, warned Washington. A very limited basket of sanctions are suspended under the deal, but other existing sanctions continue to be vigorously enforced.
On 12 December 2013, the US Treasury designated four companies and one person as violators of US oil sanctions on Iran and identified another 12 companies and people as front companies aiding Iran’s nuclear programme. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif acknowledged that however objectionable Iran found the Treasury designations, they do not constitute new sanctions in violation of the Geneva interim deal. But herein, in the gist of these December 2013 acts and statements, lies one of the unknowns of the future of the Geneva interim deal.
The Obama administration is walking a tightrope in its US-Iran rapprochement initiative; the White House must appease critics – mostly inside Congress – who accuse it of being too soft on the “notoriously nefarious” Iran. This is the domestic context in which the US Treasury has blacklisted companies and individuals from Singapore to Ukraine for allegedly helping Tehran evade international sanctions on its oil trade.
Moreover, the White House and the US Congress do not have the same vision of what an acceptable final status of the nuclear negotiation might be. On 19 December 2013, a group of US senators introduced a bill to impose new punitive measures on Iran if it breaks the Geneva interim nuclear deal. Saying that he understands why some US lawmakers want to “look tough” on Iran, on 20 December President Obama insisted that now is not the time to impose new sanctions on Tehran. Warning that new sanctions could scuttle the negotiations, the American President said that “if we are serious” about seeking a final nuclear agreement, the United States has to act in ways that do not increase Iranian suspicions.
The same kind of internal-external dynamics of the rapprochement exists on the Iranian side too. While his election proved that the Iranian regime has the capacity to reform itself from within, President Rohani, like his American counterpart, must play his cards carefully. The leaders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps have mixed feelings about the interim nuclear agreement concluded in Geneva on 24 November.
On one hand, the Guards have given conditional approval to the deal and the negotiating processes. On the other hand, they have warned the negotiating parties that they will continue to monitor diplomatic developments, that Iran’s sovereign rights must be respected, and that the United States has not proven itself to be trustworthy.
While 2014 will see Washington’s and Tehran’s major political players accommodating themselves – or not – to the imperatives of the newly-built detente between the two states, the Iranian nuclear deal ushers in a new era in the tormented region of the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia is profoundly unhappy with the Geneva deal, seeing it as enhancing Iran’s regional role. In their zero-sum fight for hegemony in the Middle East, a win for Iran, the world’s most powerful Shia nation, is seen as a loss for the Saudis, their decades-long Sunni arch-foes. Gulf state Arabs are concerned that Iran will be emboldened to press its goal of regional predominance and create further trouble in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. Gulf states have long seen Iran as a greater threat and strategic rival than Israel. King Abdullah, as revealed by WikiLeaks, famously urged Barack Obama to “cut off the head of the (Iranian) snake”.
Instead, the US president has done a deal with it. Viewed from its heartlands, the Geneva deal signalled to the Saudis – and to the Israelis as well, albeit for different reasons – that Washington is now prepared to act more independently than ever before. Analysts consider that this confirms the dawning realisation that Obama is simultaneously pivoting away from the Middle East, while helping craft its new realities.
Some observers warn that Saudi Arabia’s hostility towards the Iranian nuclear deal and its concern about a resurgent Iran might have dire consequences in the region. On the resourceful website of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, from Harvard University’s Kennedy School, the Saudi scholar Nawaf Obaid opined this month that “if the Iranians are allowed to keep an enrichment capability that will, over the medium-to-long-term, make them a de facto nuclear power, then Saudi Arabia … will have no choice but to go nuclear as well.”
Prince Turki al-Faisal, among other members of the Saudi royal family, has similarly said that Riyadh could seek a nuclear-weapons option if more is not done to rein in Iran.
With Saudi Arabia and Iran on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict and various other regional conflicts, the new geopolitical landscape of the Middle East might yield a greater threat than the turbulence whipped up by the Arab Spring. Compared to this threat, George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” might seem like a joke.