The Middle East: A platform for a new Reset

Dawing by Alexey Yorsh

Dawing by Alexey Yorsh

The Geneva agreement on the suspension of the Iranian nuclear program could pave the way for a Reset of the whole situation in the Middle East and beyond.

Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif returned home from Geneva as a national hero as the agreement he signed is seen in Tehran as truly historic. Thousands of Iranians took to the streets in the capital to celebrate what they see as their country's undisputed diplomatic victory. Under the terms of the document signed in Geneva, Iran has retained its right to pursue a peaceful nuclear program. The country will also be able to resume exports of gold and petrochemicals, and to conduct several types of financial transactions on the international markets.

In return for such a substantial easing of sanctions, the Islamic Republic is ready to suspend its nuclear weapons program. Tehran has no intention, however, of dismantling the centrifuges at its uranium enrichment facilities in Fordow and Natanz. President Hassan Rouhani has said during a live appearance on Iranian television that under the terms of the deal signed in Geneva, Iran has retained its inalienable right to enrich uranium, and “no country can deny or qualify that right”.  Such a statement was seen as glad tidings in Tehran itself, but certainly not in Tel Aviv or Washington.

The real value of the document signed in Geneva will become clear in another six months, when the group of mediators (Russia, China, the United States, France, Britain, and Germany) hope to sign a comprehensive treaty with Tehran. The deal reached in November is merely an interim arrangement. “The victory achieved in Geneva is tactical,” says Vladimir Yevseyev, head of the Centre for Social and Political Studies in Moscow. “The bulk of the sanctions, including those imposed by the UN, remain in place for the time being, and Iran has yet to consent to placing its nuclear program under full international controls.”

A winning position

Nevertheless, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov believes that the outcome of the talks is clearly positive. He says that it was important for Russia to help find the right balance between the interests of all the parties involved, and that the deal it has helped to broker is in line with Russia’s own foreign-policy interests. Very few people had hoped for such a successful outcome after 34 years of confrontation between Washington and Tehran, and after 10 years of seemingly fruitless talks between Iran and the international community.

“The key reason why the Geneva accord is important is that it has helped form the foundation of trust that was so clearly lacking during all the previous years of negotiations,” says Vladimir Sazhin, a professor at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “It is extremely important that the Iranian nuclear program is becoming more transparent thanks to a precedent-setting deal on very close monitoring and daily controls over the Iranian nuclear facilities.”

 At the same time, it would be wrong to say that the Geneva accord was based on a template drawn by Russia, says Sergey Karaganov, dean of the World Economy and World Politics faculty at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “Russia played the same role in these negotiations as all the other participants,” Karaganov told RIR. It must be recognized, however, that Russia has been working very hard to keep the parties talking. The main obstacle was Washington’s and Tehran’s unwillingness to hear or listen to each other. The situation changed dramatically following the election of President Rouhani, Sergey Lavrov says.

Against the current

Rouhani’s determination to initiate a Reset with the United States was welcomed by the Obama administration. Gleb Pavlovskiy, a political analyst and president of the Foundation of Effective Politics, reckons that President Obama is pursuing a course that can be fairly dangerous to any U.S. president. A détente with Iran is not universally popular in the United States - or several other key countries, for that matter. Washington’s main allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are putting up fierce resistance to that course. The two have formed a united front on this issue, even though they disagree on almost everything else, with the possible exception of their attitude to Bashar al-Assad.

According to a survey by Israel’s pro-government Hayom newspaper, almost 58 percent of the Israelis believe that the United States has inflicted serious damage on Israel's national interests by signing the Geneva accord. Shortly before the deal was announced, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Moscow in an apparent effort to influence the position of the international mediators through Russia, seeing as his concerns were not being heeded by his main ally, the United States. Speaking live on Channel One, the largest Russian media outlet, Netanyahu insisted that the Geneva deal was “flawed,” and that Tehran had only agreed to a temporary suspension of its nuclear program “because of the tough sanctions Iran is now facing.”

Common ground

In such a situation Washington, which has played a leading role in preparing the deal with Iran, needed strong backing for its initiatives from the other mediators, says Yevgeny Shestakov, member of the Russian Council for Foreign and Defence Policy. “Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov worked hard to persuade his colleagues in Geneva that even an interim deal with Iran on a nuclear program, a deal that would enable the IAEA inspectors to visit Iranian nuclear facilities, would be better than pressing ahead with the policy of blockade and sanctions,” Shestakov explains. “In essence, Russia was energetically backing the American approach to Iran in Geneva. That was an example of practical cooperation between the two countries, which had ultimately enabled Moscow and Washington to agree on a date for another important international conference, the one on Syria.”

Joint efforts by the United States and Russia have recently led to a major breakthrough whereby Syria agreed to accept unprecedented international controls over its chemical weapons arsenal, and to destroy that arsenal. For all the doubts voiced by Western sceptics, the program to destroy the Syrian chemical stockpiles is proceeding in accordance with the agreed schedule.

The Syrian chemical disarmament deal and the accord on the Iranian nuclear program reached in Geneva have drastically improved the chances for the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Minister Lavrov spoke about that long-standing Russian goal after the signing of the Geneva agreement.

But there is also another goal, which is equally as important. The Reset in U.S.-Russian relations, which many have already pronounced dead in the water, has been given a second chance by the recent victories in the Middle East. Experience shows that a Reset in the abstract, i.e. unrelated to any specific solutions of international problems, is pointless. In contrast, cooperative efforts to identify such solutions help to strengthen Russian-U.S. ties, and to restore a climate of trust between the two countries. The conditions for such a restoration are now in place – Russia and the United States must not miss this opportunity.

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