Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Nuclear extension reflects unstable Mid East

In November 2013, the United States and Iran made a landmark decision towards a rapprochement over the thorny issue of Iranian nuclear power. At the time - and throughout 2014 - this outlined the gradual aligning of interests between the US and Iran as the region boiled.

Monday’s calm rescheduling of talks by another seven months may appear that all the tough work is undone, but the extension fits with the realignment. The new deadline is March of 2015, when the two sides will decide what needs to be done. In the meantime, Iran will be able to access $US700 million per month in sanctions relief.

What happened this week will frighten those who see almost all the offramps fading behind in the mirror on the highway towards a Persian bomb. In their eyes, the long game is being won by a sneaky Iranian regime and the United States has been outplayed. 

In Washington’s view, Iran is not an imminent nuclear threat with the US effectively ceding the existence of an Iranian nuclear capability for civilian use. The current talks are simply the working out of the details.

If Iran is a nuclear threat then plenty of future problems will appear - that much has always been true. Yet possessing highly enriched uranium and actually being able to deliver a viable nuclear weapon to a target are two very different things.

After all, two superpowers spent billions last century developing rocket and telemetry technology. The process exhausted one superpower and weakened the other. This process is terribly difficult and both Tehran and Washington know it. One capability does not magically spawn the other and now Washington thinks it can solve both problems through a balance-of-power agreement with Iran.

What hasn’t been fully appreciated is that over the last year US and Iranian high-level talks has become a relatively routine fixture on the world stage. That’s new and important given their deadly history. To his credit, US President Barack Obama has made all the right signals that he intends to push this evolution as far as possible with his Iranian counterpart equally engaged.

The Iranians may view possessing a nuclear capability in a different light, but this by no means suggests their reasons for pursuing a nuclear programme are exclusively combative. Tehran’s actions over the years show the Islamic Republic is quite happy to portray the goals of this pursuit in whatever way it feels benefits its relative geopolitical position.

Which is why this week’s almost nonchalant rescheduling must be viewed in the context of the broader Middle Eastern dynamics. The single overarching thread controlling the politics of the region is the story of what is emerging from the chaos of the so-called Arab Spring.

Almost no one predicted the huge uprising and even fewer people forecast what was to come next. Autocracies and dictators fell as the vacuum ripped the lid off the top of the bottle. It is now obvious that something had been shaking that bottle for hundreds of years. 

Al Qaeda dreamed of upending the hated Arab regimes but thankfully never came close. The Islamic State on the other hand, holds more physical space than al Qaeda ever did and various world powers are noticing an opportunity for Machiavellian advantage.

The rise of the Islamic State is only a symptom in the Middle East but it’s causing a wide strategic rethink. Aligning to deal with the cancer of Sunni Islamic radicalism fits the strategy of both the US and Iran but it also pushes the nuclear talks to the backroom where diplomats prefer to work.

The group’s apparent power has given the US and Iran a convenient reason to pretend to marginalise the nuclear issue and inflate the Sunni terror problem instead in a way that was impossible earlier in the year.

Iran and the US are deeply accustomed to arbitrarily altering their geopolitical rhetoric to reflect the current environment. But as the threat from particular militant groups seem to show, the region is highly unstable and needs a rebalance.

Whether that balance is achievable is uncertain, but Iran must be part of that equation if it is to work. So if the US wants Iran to be an adult power it is going to have to start treating it like one. The question is: what does Saudi Arabia think of the growing friendship?

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