Agreement struck between Iran and the Sextet nations regarding its nuclear program, resonated strongly with the international media. Enthusiasm evoked by the deal prompted such speculations, as “the oil price would plummet”, “Iran would integrate into the world politics” and “stability would return to the Middle East”. Indeed, an agreement on the problem that has been a subject of negotiations for the past ten years in itself is a notable event. However, the processes that immediately followed demonstrated that utter optimists are overlooking the true substance of the problem and possible development scenarios.
Winners and Losers?
While evaluating the details, the experts debate the issue of which party has emerged with more advantage. This deal is first of all Iran’s victory, as this nation was successful in gaining Western recognition of its right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. It also proved that Iran was not seeking obtaining nuclear weapons. Along with that, lifting of crippling Western sanctions will provide for economic revival of Iran, thanks to the use of its natural resources. There are quite a few observers who believe that this process will provoke the increase of Iran’s leverages in the Middle East.
It is no secret that, initially, the U.S. was aiming for complete dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program. During the final phase of the talks, President Barack Obama had even proposed to halt Iran’s nuclear program for ten years. However, the U.S. was forced to admit that there were no options on the table other than to go forward with this agreement. Domestic debate in the U.S. also demonstrated that the “only alternative to the deal was a military strike” (“What’s the Alternative to Obama’s Iran Deal?”, The Atlantic, April 6).
So why the Iran deal did go through exactly now? This can be explained by the President Obama’s intention to be remembered in the history as a “successful politician who solved Iran’s nuclear problem”. Restoration of ties with Cuba is another example. Albeit he received a Nobel Prize for peace in the early years of his presidency, he eventually became known for provoking more hot spot and conflict outbreaks in different parts of the world. In the meantime, according to observations, after the loss of majority in Congress during the midterm elections and being deprived of ability to implement serious socioeconomic reforms in the country, the U.S. Presidents usually step up their foreign policy performance to boost their ratings. Therefore, with Iran deal dubbed as a “historical agreement”, Obama is making the most of this opportunity.
In the U.S., the Republicans are the ones bashing the Iran deal the most. In the article with the “Wall Street Journal” Former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz contend that the agreement only postpones the problem for another 10 years, preserves Iran’s capacity to obtain nuclear weapons and that Tehran emerges victorious from the talks and that means a blow to the regional stability (“The Iran Deal and Its Consequences”, The Wall Street Journal, April 7). Notably, this is the overwhelming sentiment in the U.S. domestic debate on this issue.
Possible Development of the Processes
Now, the most important issue is whether the final agreement would be signed in June. Statements from the U.S. and Iran still attest to remaining differences. The U.S. declares that the sanctions would be lifted gradually. Position of the Congress can also have an impact on the course of events. The draft bill sponsored by Senator Robert Corker that was submitted to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Congress, receiving unanimous approval, gives the President five days to present the final agreement to Congress. Senate reserves the right to review the agreement in 30 days, reject it and keep the sanctions in place. Eschewing the conflict with Congress, Obama said he would sign this piece of legislature. Yet, it is interesting how the stumbling block of the talks – the lifting of sanctions issue – would finally be resolved.
Iran demands that sanctions be removed immediately and provides no guarantees for signing of the final agreement. The issue of sanctions can seriously shift the balance of forces within Iran itself. The election of Mohammed Yezdi as Chairman of Iran’s Expert Council, was a signal of consolidation of Conservatives after the defeat in the presidential elections. Although the chances of them pressuring Iran out of the talks, because the final agreement was contrary to the national interests, are slim, it must not be ruled out. The very factor can prove crucial in the future presidential and supreme religious leader elections.
Those who are most optimistic about the deal and ignoring the substance of the issue. The problem around Iran’s nuclear program is not a reason but a consequence. It is the outcome of tensions that erupted between the U.S. and Iran since 1972. The final agreement could indeed be signed, but it will do little to lift the differences and fail to spur the U.S.-Iran rapprochement.
In an interview with “The New York Times”, Obama referred to Iran as a “large country, a dangerous country, one that has engaged in activities that resulted in the death of U.S. citizens” (“Iran and the Obama Doctrine”, The New York Times, April 5). America views Iran as the biggest threat to its interests in the Middle East. The situation after the Arab Spring revealed the nature of those interests. One of the key candidates for U.S. Presidency – Hillary Clinton – also shares similar views on Iran, “Even if a deal will be achieved, Iran’s support for terrorism and its aggressive behavior in the region remains a threat for ourselves and our allies” (Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Hard Choices”, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2014, p. 446).
The Impact on South Caucasus?
Many are already evaluating the impact of the possible final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and the region of South Caucasus is part of those evaluations. The estimates are that the processes are likely to have ramifications for Azerbaijan’s interests. Richard Kozlarich – the former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan is one of those who has first come up with such a claim. According to him, Iran’s escape from the sanctions would diminish Azerbaijan’s geopolitical relevance.
The key argument that defies this claim is that Azerbaijan has never put relations with Iran into dependence from the third parties. Azerbaijan’s national interests and not the ones of countries at odds with Iran, has always remained a centerpiece of the bilateral agenda. Azerbaijan’s leadership has repeatedly stated that the country’s territory would not be used against the neighbors. Meanwhile, certain circles are known to have interfered with Azerbaijan-Iran relations. Should the tensions between the U.S. and Iran persist, these interferences are likely to continue. Therefore, decline of Azerbaijan’s geopolitical significance and claims that it has to do with Iran are nothing but populist declarations serving certain agenda.
On the contrary, the reaching of final agreement on the nuclear problem would only have a positive impact on Azerbaijan’s interests. The high-level political ties are in place and elimination of sanctions will boost economic cooperation. This is particularly relevant for the energy sector. It is no secret that the European nations, being the potential buyers for the Iranian gas, are impatiently anticipating the signing of the final deal. They are certainly viewing this commodity as an alternative to the Russian gas. Under these circumstances, new prospects of Azerbaijan-Iran cooperation within the TANAP project are emerging.
Armenia is quite happy about the prospect of lifting of sanctions against Iran, with an emphasis on economy and energy. Former President Robert Kocharyan also believes that “Resolution of tensions around Iran’s nuclear program would open new horizons for Armenia’s economy and bring balance to the geopolitical situation in the region”. Being economically frail and dependent on the donations coming from the Armenian diaspora in Russia and elsewhere, the prospects that Armenia is counting on are quite vague. Russian companies have privatized all of the strategically valuable sectors of economy. Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union only reduces cooperation opportunities with the non-member states. Furthermore, Armenia is deprived of natural and financial resources as well infrastructure assets to augment the scope of cooperation.
Here, Armenia is suggested as a transit country, with high chances of transporting Iranian gas to Europe. However, this assessment ignores several important aspects. First, Armenia is a landlocked country that does not offer the shortest route for natural gas supply to Europe. Second, Russia’s “Gazprom” owns Armenia’s entire distribution network. Russia is likely to prevent Armenia being used by Iran in becoming its competition. For that reason, during the construction of Iran-Armenia natural gas pipelines Russia insisted that its diameter be reduced to 70 centimeters from initial 140. All of these objective realities prompt a conclusion that Armenia is unlikely to benefit greatly from the resolution of the Iran’s nuclear problem.
Overall, it must be stressed that reaching a final deal on Iran’s nuclear problem and lifting of sanctions would yield a range of political and economic benefits for Iran. In the meantime, the lingering geopolitical contradictions with the West would retain their relevance in the regional context.