Britain must act now to bring Iran in from the cold

Presumably out of courtesy and as a matter of diplomatic protocol, Barack Obama called Binyamin Netanyahu on Thursday night to tell him the nuclear pact with Iran that Israel’s prime minister had so bitterly resisted was a done deal. It must have been a difficult conversation.

Not only was the US president informing Netanyahu of something he already knew – that he had lost the battle, though not the war, to maintain the isolation and demonisation of Iran. Obama was also making a political point: Netanyahu’s brazen attempt to undermine presidential authority by conspiring with his Republican opponents had failed miserably. The morning after the day before in Lausanne, it is as though an opaque bubble has popped, as though a distorting veil has suddenly lifted. Videos of jubilant young Iranians celebrating in the streets of Tehran over-wrote the stereotyped, conservative narrative of a nation of bearded terrorists hell-bent on wreaking international mayhem.

Iran is no natural pariah. Iran at heart is a country like any other, struggling to free itself from poisonous colonial and imperial legacies, pursuing its rights and interests in a world dominated by great powers, fought over by competing secular and religious elites, talented, potentially wealthy, badly governed, and deeply uncertain how to meet the rising expectations of coming generations.

Nor is the hard-right fiction that the west was duped into a “bad deal” borne out by the details. On the contrary, it is surprising that Iran conceded so much. As Obama said, Tehran’s leaders have agreed “the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear programme in history”. Would that the US, or Britain, or Israel were half so open. Key provisions mean Iran’s nuclear activities, future research efforts, procurement channels and supply chains will be closely scrutinised long after the agreed 10-year monitoring period expires. In return, Tehran has been promised a phased, highly conditional lifting of US and EU sanctions, wholly dependent on the pace of verified implementation. If any of the non-Iranian parties are unhappy, with any aspect of implementation, sanctions will “snap back” immediately.

Far from being a con-trick, this deal is much more than diplomats originally expected or dared hope for. Far from being a threat to Israel’s existence, as Netanyahu insists, it represents a momentous, historic advance towards peace, for which all sickened by the thought of yet another Middle East war should be grateful.

Far from being the prelude to a regional nuclear arms race, this framework deal, by explicitly upholding the primacy of the UN’s international inspections agency and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, is the best news for global disarmament since Muammar Gaddafi gave up Libya’s WMD in 2003.

Far from being the prelude to a regional nuclear arms race, this framework deal, by explicitly upholding the primacy of the UN’s international inspections agency and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, is the best news for global disarmament since Muammar Gaddafi gave up Libya’s WMD in 2003.

The question now is how to make it stick. Despite the multi-year negotiating marathon leading to Lausanne, Obama’s ambitious rapprochement still has a long way to run. Critics on all sides have until the end of June to lobby, manoeuvre and machinate for its undoing. There can be no doubt they will try. Given persistent, high levels of mutual distrust and the complexity of the issues, there is a chance that they may succeed.

Congressional Republicans have already served notice of their intentions. John Boehner, the House speaker, decried the terms as “alarming”. He signalled that any move by Obama to offer near-term sanctions relief may be subject to an attempted congressional veto.

The obstinacy of Republicans, including the 47 senators who recently presumed to warn Iran’s supreme leader in a letter that they hold the whip hand on sanctions, is matched only by their fearful, know-nothing ignorance of modern Iran. Instead of a pretentious review of the Lausanne agreement, they should get on a plane to Tehran. Hospitable, erudite Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Majlis (parliament), would doubtless welcome his opposite number. John Boehner, who admits he is no foreign policy expert, badly needs to learn more about life beyond Ohio.

Netanyahu’s government, too, will do all it can to scupper the deal. In this objective it will be joined by anti-western, rejectionist Iranian clerics such as the influential Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, plus hardline Sunni conservatives in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf who, in the wake of last week’s Yemen intervention, feel themselves engaged in an increasingly overt regional power struggle with Shia Iran.

The outcome of Obama’s bid for Iranian detente remains uncertain. It behoves all who support the policy to ensure it works. This holds particularly true for Britain with its long Persian experience. The foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, welcomed the pact. He must not hesitate now, or hang back and wait to follow others. Full diplomatic relations with Iran should be restored without further delay. Hammond should go to Tehran and cement the deal. It is time to bring Iran in from the cold.

Simon Tisdall is an assistant editor of the Guardian and a foreign affairs columnist. He was previously a foreign leader writer for the paper and has also served as its foreign editor and its US editor, based in Washington DC. He was the Observer’s foreign editor from 1996-98.

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