Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities begins with those famous lines:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Today’s Middle East doesn’t enjoy the best of times. But relations between Iran and the west are the most promising they’ve been since 1979. We have a real opportunity to achieve something that was last possible in 2003. Then , President Mohammed Khatami offered a Grand Bargain to freeze his country’s nuclear program in return for normalization of relations. The overture was abandoned by a Bush administration too blind, stubborn or Iranophobic to recognize what it had been offered. Though Barack Obama has many qualities lacking as president, he seems smart enough to realize that he must respond favorably to the open hand outstretched to him by Pres. Rouhani.
Talks between Iran and the P5+1 nations are underway right now in Geneva and the news is quite promising. Writing in Al Monitor, Barbara Slavin reports on a new offer Iran’s negotiator has extended. It would suspend Iranian uranium enrichment at 20%, convert its existing stock to nuclear fuel rods (which could not then be used to enrich to bomb-grade), dispose of spent plutonium from a soon-to-be-completed reactor in Arak, and offer full IAEA monitoring of the newest Iranian facility at Fordo. Iran would also be more transparent about its heavy-water nuclear facility in Arak, which had been kept under wraps.
The director of the Arms Control Association, Daryl Kimball, said the proposal reported by Slavin, if true:
…Is “a genuine, serious response to the P5+1 proposal presented in April at Almaty, which was not a final offer from the P5+1.” Kimball added that the offer to stop production of 20% enriched uranium and convert the stockpile into fuel rods “essentially meets the goal of the P5+1 to stop production and ship out the remaining material” while the “proposed solution on Arak should also be very appealing to the P5+1, especially since Iran doesn’t even have a plutonium separation facility that it could use to extract plutonium from Arak’s spent fuel rods. Arak also does not require enriched uranium fuel, rather natural uranium fuel.”
The chief U.S. negotiator, Wendy Sherman, said:
“Foreign Minister Zarif and his delegation came prepared for detailed, substantive discussion with a candor that I certainly have not heard in the two years I’ve been meeting with Iranians, and my P5+1 colleagues, some of whom have been doing this for quite some time, found quite new and different.”
I can’t think of better, more promising words than these for this stage in the talks. Of course, there is a long way to go. This is a negotiation that won’t happen overnight. But there seems a much stronger will on both sides to get a deal done.
In her report, Slavin adds that the Iranians foresee an agreement being implemented in two stages, each of which would take six months. Though she didn’t clarify what would happen in the second stage, presumably this would be when the west would ease the punitive sanctions it has put into place against Iran. The only specific form of relief she mentioned was allowing Iran to import medicine, which is now impossible because of banking restrictions which prohibit this.
My criticism of the western approach has been that it involved a long series of demands of Iran with few, if any concessions from the west. If our government thinks medicine is a sufficient lure to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program, it’s sadly mistaken. We will have to offer significant relief. And the end game will have to lead to normalizing relations between Iran and the west. That is, the west will have to cease all efforts to destabilize Iran, while Iran will have to agree to play a constructive role in neighboring states in which they have significant interests like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon. That means an end to efforts that the west has seen as destabilizing including military support for Hezbollah, Assad, and Shiite militants in Iraq.
So far, I’m not seeing this flexibility from the west. But as I said, the talks are just entering a serious phase and I’m hoping for more substance from our side toward the Iranians.
Returning to that Dickens quote, it certainly is the worst of times in some places in the Middle East: Egypt has been swallowed by a military coup, which our country was far too slow to denounce. In Syria, we came within a whisker of a disastrous military intervention; and were only saved by the outpouring of opposition from the American people, who showed collective wisdom for a change. Despite averting disaster, Syria remains a horrific example of a failed state. One that needs cooperation and collaboration between international interests in order to find a solution. The Assad regime has two friends in the world: the Russians and the Iranians. My hope is that success in the nuclear talks could lead to success in finding a way out of impasse between the regime and the rebels, who’ve presently carved up the country into Sunni and Shia ethnic enclaves.
Israel isn’t exactly the 800-pound gorilla in the room, but it’s mighty big and could do a great deal of damage in opposing these hopeful developments. Israel, under the leadership of its extreme right-wing prime minister, opposes any compromise with Iran. It promises to use all its power in Congress to derail any agreement. It also has allied itself with Iran’s Sunni enemies in the Gulf region, especially Saudi Arabia. Currently, the Saudis are incensed by Obama’s decision not to attack Assad’s forces. They are also deeply alarmed that we may reach a deal with their enemy, Iran.
Pres. Obama may, at some point, have to choose between America’s old allies, nations ruled by autocratic strongmen; or a series of new alliances (or at least relationships) with previous enemies like Iran. We will have to decide whether we want to remain implacable enemies of Islamism, whether terrorist or political; or whether we want to learn to accommodate to a Middle East that increasingly expresses its politics through its religious identity.
Infusing Islam into a nation’s politics, is no more dangerous than infusing religious themes or ideas into American or Israeli society. The key is what form this religious expression takes. If it is intolerant, extremist, and violent (as these forms have taken regarding Al Qaeada and Israel’s settler movement) then it must be rejected. But if it is tolerant, populist, and non-violent (as the Muslim Brotherhood has been in Egypt), then it is entirely legitimate.
The United States has not embraced such a view of Islam in the Middle East. Instead, we’ve seen Islam, no matter how it’s practiced, as our enemy. Our targeted drone killings, which murdered more than 3,000 people, many civilians, have made enemies of virtually all of Islam. This is unsustainable if we are to have a constructive relationship with the Muslim-Arab world. And we must.
This is a talk I delivered tonight at the Seattle Fellowship of Reconciliation meeting.