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Saturday, February 13, 2016
Ignacio Ramonet, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique in Spanish, writes in this column that everything points to the start of a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations.
- Signs of rapprochement between Tehran and Washington are growing. A new era seems about to begin. It is now possible to imagine a political solution that would put an end to the 33-year confrontation between Iran and the United States.
In early September, we were once more on the verge of war in the Middle East. The big global media players published headline after headline on the United States’ “imminent attack” on Syria, a key ally of Iran, accused of committing a “chemical massacre” on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21.
All signs pointed to a new conflict – which, in that danger zone, ran the risk of soon turning into a regional conflagration.
Russia (which has a geostrategic naval base in Tartus, on the Syrian coast, and supplies Damascus with weapons on a large scale) and China (in the name of the principle of national sovereignty) had warned that they would veto any request for United Nations Security Council approval for an attack.
For its part, Tehran, while it denounced the use of chemical weapons, also opposed a military intervention, because it feared that Israel would take advantage of the occasion to attack Iran and destroy its nuclear installations…
Hence, the powder kegs in the Middle East, including Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey, faced a risk of exploding.
But all of a sudden the “imminent attack” was abandoned. Why?
In first place, there was strong rejection on the part of Western public opinion, which was largely hostile to a new conflict whose main beneficiaries, on the ground, could only be Jihadists linked to Al Qaeda – against whom the Western forces are fighting in Libya, Mali, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.
Later, on Aug. 29, came David Cameron’s humiliating defeat in the British parliament, which left Britain out of the game.
Then on Aug. 31 came the shift by Barack Obama, who decided, to gain time, to ask for a green light from the U.S. Congress.
And last, on Sep. 5, during the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin suggested putting Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal under U.N. control, so it could eventually be destroyed.
This solution, an indisputable diplomatic triumph by Moscow, was in the interests of Washington as well as Paris, Damascus and Tehran.
But it also meant, paradoxically, a diplomatic defeat for some of the United States’ allies (and enemies of Iran): namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel.
There is no doubt that this solution should transform the diplomatic atmosphere and accelerate the rapprochement between Washington and Tehran.
Actually everything had started on Jun. 14, when Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran, to succeed the polemic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At his Aug. 4 inauguration, the new president said a different era was starting, and that he would, through dialogue, pull his country out of its diplomatic isolation and confrontation with the West over its nuclear programme.
His principal objective, he said, was to ease the pressure of the international sanctions that are strangling the Iranian economy.
The sanctions are among the toughest ever imposed on a country in peace time.
On Sep. 25, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif held, for the first time since relations between the two countries were broken off on Apr. 7, 1980, a bilateral diplomatic meeting, on Iran’s nuclear programme.
The atmosphere, characterised by a conciliatory tone and small steps on the road to reconciliation, was seen more spectacularly during the now-famous Sep. 27 telephone conversation between Obama and Rouhani.
With the exception of Israel’s ultra-conservative government, which is trying to torpedo the rapprochement, other U.S. allies do not want to be the last to jump on the peace bandwagon. And above all, they do not want to let juicy trade deals with a country of 80 million consumers escape.
So everything indicates that the current thaw will intensify. Objectively, Iran and the United States have an interest in making peace.
On the geostrategic front, Obama is trying to free himself up in the Middle East in order to focus more on Asia, which the U.S. sees “as the future in terms of economic growth in the 21st century,” in the words of Simon Kahn, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore.
U.S. involvement in the Middle East, which has been steady since the end of World War II, was justified by the existence in the region of most of the world’s oil reserves, essential for the U.S. productive machine.
But that has changed since the discovery of large shale gas and oil deposits in the United States, which could help the country make significant progress towards energy autonomy.
Tehran, for its part, needs this deal to ease the pressure of the sanctions and reduce the difficulties plaguing Iranians in their day-to-day lives – because the country is not safe from a major social uprising.
With respect to the nuclear question, Iran seems to have understood that having a nuclear bomb that it would not be able to use, and finding itself in the same situation as North Korea, is not an option.
At the same time, the status of regional power to which Tehran has always aspired would require an agreement (or even alliance) with the United States, as is the case with Israel and Turkey.
And finally, a far from negligible aspect: time presses. There is a risk that Obama’s successor will turn out to be more intransigent, three years from now.
There will be no shortage of obstacles on either side. The adversaries of an accord are not few, and they have power. To sign any deal, Washington, for example, needs approval from Congress, where Israel has many friends. In Tehran there are also fearsome adversaries of an agreement.
But everything points to the end of a cycle. The logic of history is pushing Iran and the United States, which share a common faith in economic liberalism, towards what we could call “a heroic agreement”.