President Hassan Rouhani (center) and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif (right). (Photo: New York Times)
In the early morning of Nov. 23, in Geneva, Switzerland, leaders from multiple world powers and representatives from Iran signed an agreement to put a stay on the Iranian nuclear development program. Long the most contentious issue between the Middle Eastern power and the West, the accord marked significant progress towards a more peaceable relationship between the two. Though much more is yet to be accomplished, the progressive nature of current Iranian leaders and the backing of their people signal potential for sweeping reform.
Iran has ardently defended its right to develop nuclear capability for decades, indeed since its inception under Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi. In an ironic example of U.S. foreign policy, the Eisenhower administration actually provided Tehran with a nuclear research reactor and multiple power plants. In 1968, Iran became, somewhat surprisingly to modern readers, one of 51 nations to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, decreeing that it would never become a state with nuclear weapons. Since that time, nearly every nation in the country has joined the agreement, with the exceptions of India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea, and South Sudan, though the last nation in this list may solely be there as a function of only having achieved stateship two years ago.
Between its beginnings in the ’50s and leading up to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the nuclear program was largely energy based, and was not a source of conflict for the nation. Ayatollah Khomeini, the successor of the deposed Shah Pahlavi, was largely uninterested in nuclear capability, and ended the program shortly after coming to power. 1979 also marked the beginning of the Iranian hostage crisis, which effectively destroyed any hope of strong U.S. relations with the changing nation.
During the Iran-Iraq conflict of the mid-1980s, Khomeini began to rethink his position. The next decade or so marked a serious uptick in interest in nuclear capability, including an $800 million deal with the Russians in 1995 to build new reactors in Bushehr, Iran. Sensing a growing danger, and heeding rumors of secret attempts to build an Iranian nuclear weapon, President Bill Clinton imposed trade sanctions, forbidding American businesses from trading with foreign companies owning investments in Iran. This added to similar laws against American businesses investing in the region.
As the attack on U.S.S. Cole in Yemen and 9/11 heightened tensions between the West and the Middle East, the U.S. was blindsided by leaked reports of secret nuclear facilities across Iran. The State Department accused Iran of blatant pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), but was largely focused on the impending invasion of Iraq, and thus could afford little attention.
The U.S. suffered a hard hit on its reputation through the discovery that allegations of Iraqi nuclear weapons were unfounded. This hurt both their ability to legitimately accuse Iran of its own pursuit, and the willingness of the American people to support more action in the Middle East on a unconfirmed basis.
In 2005, hopes against Iranian nuclear capabilities suffered another blow. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative and supporter of the nuclear program, was elected president, and would go on to do all in his power to support the program. He did so at the cost of an increase in trade sanctions, and the health of the Iranian economy.
This pattern of greater tension, greater effort towards WMDs, and a worsening fiscal outlook for Iran continued for the rest of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, punctuated by American and Israeli cyberattacks and multiple occasions of violence and near-violence. However, in June of this year, the Iranian people elected Hassan Rouhani, a man hailed as a progressive and a reformer. Rouhani immediately made it clear that Iran would re-engage in peace talks with the West, with the tacit approval of the Ayatollah Khameni.
This culminated in the agreement on Nov. 23. Both sides had spoken hopefully about the chances for peace in the weeks before, and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Jarad Zarif, an American-educated diplomat, worked tirelessly with Secretary of State John Kerry to find an agreeable middle ground.
Of course, the deal in itself is little more than a stopgap. While it does much to allay fears of an uncompromising Iran, it includes provisions only to halt the current program, with the hopes that foreign leaders can come to a more comprehensive agreement in the interim. The next six months of talks – the length of the suspension – have the opportunity to significantly alter and ameliorate relations between the West and the Middle East.
The losers in this deal? Conservatives in Iran, for starters, though with the Ayatollah backing the agreement and the large majority of Iranian citizens in favor, there is little they can do. The nation most negatively affected is in fact Israel, the staunchest opponent of Iranian nuclear capabilities. In what amounts to an odd contradiction, Israelis are caught between support of a more peaceful relationship with their region and the deep-seated distrust of most Islamic nations. The U.S. has been Israel’s strongest supporter since its inception, and the fact that the U.S. is avidly pursuing a greater relationship with the nation’s self-declared enemy is a difficult one for Israelis to accept.
Prim Minister Netanyahu of Israel is frustrated by the deal and any allowances given to Iran. (Photo: New York Times)
Ultimately, this agreement may well benefit Israel, if it indeed leads to a peaceable Iran and a more stable Middle East. Rhetoric from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the rest of the Israeli government has been venomous. Netanyahu immediately responded to the deal by calling it a “historic mistake.” They have little doubt that Iran will continue to pursue a nuclear program, and that any lifting of economic sanctions is a mistake. Only time will tell in this regard, as the next six months will either produce a bright outlook for Western powers and Iran, or disagreements will derail talks much in the same fashion as in years past.
Still, many are hopeful. President Barack Obama recently spoke directly with President Rouhani over the telephone. This was the first of such contact between leaders of the two nations since 1979. Any change made will have to be gradual, but compared to the back-and-forth, glacially paced past negotiations, the last two months have been drastically more productive. Perhaps 2014 will mark the end of a conflict between nations that has lasted for over 30 years, and open the door for more improvement in U.S. relations with the region in general. Pessimists say it may not work. Optimists are glad to know it could.