Iran is going out on a limb on nuclear accord and could yet face backlash
Opinion: Strong anti-Western feelings persist in the country influenced by history of interference
President Hassan Rohani with UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. Photograph: Reuters
Let us hope we will never have to relive the dark days of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war. Recently, the prospect of such a war has loomed once again, with the chief potential adversary of the US and its allies being not the long-dead Soviet Union but the Islamic Republic of Iran.
A six-month interim agreement was reached at Geneva last November with the US and other permanent members of the UN Security Council, as well as Germany, known as the “P5+1” group. Under this joint plan of action, which took effect on January 20th, Iran has frozen parts of its nuclear development programme – which it claims was for peaceful purposes – in return for €5 billion worth of relief on economic sanctions.
The challenge is to make the agreement a lasting one. In Ireland, we are reasonably familiar with the US perspective. During a recent visit to Tehran I had an opportunity to get a better understanding of the Iranian perspective.
Behind the monolith
The first point to be made is that, in domestic political terms, the Iranian government is sticking its neck out. Observers from afar tend to think of that country as a monolith. At the same time that the Obama administration is under serious pressure to abandon the deal, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and his supporters are facing questions and doubts on their own side of the fence.
Grave suspicions of the US and its motives still linger, going back to the time in 1953 when democratically-elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh was toppled in “Operation Ajax”, a coup orchestrated by the US and British intelligence agencies. His “offence” was the nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry, which had been under British control since 1913.
One of the results was to enhance the standing of the hardline fundamentalists and increase suspicion of the West and its secular ways. This carried over into the Islamic revolution of 1979, when the dictatorship of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown. The same instincts survive today.
Muslim cleric Rouhani was elected president of Iran last June and, despite the differences in their backgrounds, the parallels between himself and Mikhail Gorbachev are striking. Like the former Soviet leader, the Iranian president has problems with hardliners and is facing a difficult economic situation. Sanctions imposed over the nuclear and other issues have bitten deep and inflation has soared: in 2010, the US dollar could be exchanged for 10,000 Iranian rials, but the rate then soared to 25,000 rials.
Iran saw a wave of protest, the “Green Revolution”, arising from reported irregularities in the 2009 presidential election when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, generally regarded as a hardliner, secured a second term.
Embracing the West
The new Rouhani administration, like Gorbachev’s Russia, has taken a very open approach to the West. Recent visitors include members of the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee and former British foreign secretary Jack Straw, while Bertie Ahern is going there in early February.
Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and deputy minister for legal and international affairs Abbas Araghchi responded that “First of all, the value system in Iran is different and, second, we have only started practising democracy and human rights 30 years ago . . . after at least 2,500 years of monarchies.”
The Geneva negotiations were conducted within the framework of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Israel and Saudi Arabia are unhappy with the nuclear deal but an added incentive for securing a permanent settlement and a new relationship would be the possibility of using Iranian influence to promote greater Middle East stability, in Syria for example.
Deaglán de Bréadún travelled to Iran with Irish journalists and other observers invited by the Iranian embassy in Dublin