New deal

Starting Over With Iran

Gabriel in Iran visit
Germany's Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel (r) is currently visiting Iran to discuss potential business relationships.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The deal with Iran is an important step to ending the stand-off with what is arguably the most stable country in the Middle East today, but there’s a long, tough journey ahead.

  • Facts


    • Germany’s Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel arrived in Iran on Sunday, the first Western leader to visit since the deal was reached last week.
    • Iran has agreed to scale back its nuclear activities in return for the phasing out of Western trade sanctions.
    • The deal took 20 months of negotiations with a group that included the U.S., U.K., France, China, Russia and Germany.
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Once again, the debate is all about numbers. Are 5,060 centrifuges too many or just right? Is it okay if Iran keeps 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium that cannot be enriched more than 3.67 percent? Or is that too much? Is a five-year weapons embargo enough? Is 12 months lead time before enough fuel for a nuclear weapon could be amassed acceptable?

Or do these numbers, hammered out over years of negotiations between world powers and Iran, amount to “a bad mistake of historic proportions” as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed immediately after agreement was reached in Vienna?

As important as they are, it’s time to put aside the heated debate over details and understand more broadly what the deal represents. The pact made in Vienna is one of the most daring gambles in history, similar in its dimensions to the attempts by U.S. President Richard M. Nixon to diplomatically integrate Mao’s China. At the time, it was not known whether the hermetically sealed, anti-Western regime would truly open up. Europeans may be reminded of the German Ostpolitik. In both those cases, the hope for change was tied to the risk of failure.

And yet there is a sense of the inevitable to the endeavors in Vienna. Inevitable because things couldn’t go on like that forever. Bringing Iran in from the cold is a task for the coming years. There is no other way to stop the devastating intra-Muslim civil war between Sunnis and the Shi’ites or to halt the advance of Islamic State militants.

Whether the West and its allies like it or not, Iran is the most stable country in the Middle East today and not simply because of repression. Iran is the only nation in the region whose naturally twisting borders were not drawn by colonial powers. Iran has a national and cultural identity reaching back thousands of years, which the religious extremism embraced by present-day rulers has never been able to erase.

And, by the way, nowhere are clerics as unpopular with the people as they are in Iran, which boasts a youthful population that is well educated, critical and very open-minded toward the West. It contains vast natural resources. And while the political system is a pseudo democracy, it still is more open and flexible than, for example, Saudi Arabia. Despite enormous suppression, a dynamic civil society and critical public survive. Women, too, are better off in Iran than in many of the tribal societies of the Middle East, though they are required to wear the hijab, the Islamic veil.

Placing Iran’s nuclear program under international control for ten years is designed to give the world time to detoxify the most dysfunctional relationship in global politics.

Iran’s integration in the system of regional powers is not dependent on this agreement. It is a task for generations, but at least it has begun. Take a step back to see the bigger picture of the rise of non-Arabs in the Middle East. Kurds, Persians, Jews and Turks have the future of the region on their side while major Arab nations stumble aimlessly between revolts, repression and religious extremism. No one – not even Israeli generals – can delude themselves into thinking Iran will be kept down forever under these conditions.

It is no longer a matter of if but how. With the Vienna agreement, Iran has been recognized as a de facto emerging nuclear power. The negotiations already rested on the realization that knowledge cannot be bombed out of the minds of researchers.

This is the gamble. Placing Iran’s nuclear program under international control for ten years is designed to give the world time to detoxify the most dysfunctional relationship in global politics, create a hedge against aggressive forces in the regime and bolster Iranian moderates.

But how will that happen after all the “Death to America” demonstrations in Tehran and curses of “axis of evil” flung from Washington? The breakthrough after twelve years was barely finished before the fight over interpretation began. One thing is already clear: This debate will be loud, confusing and dirty.

Opponents of the deal in Israel, in Saudi Arabia and in the U.S. Congress already have begun to pick it apart. They will do the calculations for everyone, showing the degree of enrichment is far too high, the time period for the restrictions far too short and the mechanism for reinstating the sanctions far too slow. Soon enough, no one will be able to discern what it is really about, namely, the reintegration of a pariah state into the world community and the ending of an extremely toxic relationship that has paralyzed world politics for three and a half decades.

In truth, hidden behind the numbers and provisions in the more than 100-page agreement is a single question: Will Iran change its foreign policy and become a stabilizer instead of a destroyer? Can a country that derives its political identity from an anti-Western, religious-radical ideology evolve from enemy to partner?

U.S. President Barack Obama responds to opponents of the agreement: “This deal is not built on trust, it is built on verification.” And there is, in fact, an unprecedented control mechanism. Inspectors have access not only to civilian but also military facilities. Negotiators also were able to develop a new mechanism that will result in an automatic reinstatement of sanctions if the agreement is violated. In future, not even a veto in the United Nations Security Council will prevent Iran from immediately coming under severe sanctions.

Video: Obama talks about the deal with Iran in his Weekly Address.

These arguments do little to calm opponents of the agreement. They fear the success of the deal more than its failure. Israel and Saudi Arabia see a long-term threat in the possible reconciliation of their protective power, America, with their archenemy, Iran. Iran will be flush with money, power and influence if it behaves properly. Should sanctions be lifted, the country could gain access to frozen foreign assets totaling about $100 billion next spring.

In the long term, the nation with the second-largest gas reserves and fourth-largest oil reserves in the world will quickly replenish its coffers again. It is not an unfounded fear that these funds could be invested in aggressive policies against Israel and sectarian support for anti-Sunni forces in Iraq and Syria.

Indeed, one of the toughest tasks for Americans and Europeans is managing the fears of allies. They were not conjured up out of thin air. Iran already puts its enormous power to work, directly or indirectly, throughout the region.

In Iraq, Shia militia supported by Iran are fighting IS’ Sunni extremists. In Syria, Iranian elite units and the Tehran-sponsored terrorist militia Hezbollah support the Assad regime in its war against its own citizens while battling against IS, which is massacring Shi’ites, Alawites and Christians as unbelievers. Iran also influences the government in Lebanon through Hezbollah. It arms Shi’ite militia in the south of the country with rockets that threaten Israel. Tehran plays the same game with the Hamas Sunni terrorists in Gaza, who threaten Israel from the south. And in Bahrain and Yemen, Iran supports the Shi’ite portion of the population and its militant movements in their fight against the Sunni. Iran, as the power protecting Shi’ites, has been demonized by Sunni Arabs as their worst enemy.

The nuclear deal marks the moment when Iran must end its grand delusion that it is a misunderstood, eternally repressed protective power of a persecuted minority that is allowed, even obligated, to destabilize the whole region in the name of the opposition to the small devil (Israel) and the great devil (U.S.). Regional instability, including Iran’s immediate neighbors, Iraq and Syria, is precisely the problem. Iran is now recognizable to all as a great power that cannot pursue its own interests to the detriment of other players.

The Vienna agreement means the West, and most especially America, must officially reject the policy of regime change. That, too, is the end of a grand delusion. This will make regime supporters in Tehran happy, but the agreement also puts an end to the Islamic revolution and its subversive demands. The most radical ayatollahs immediately noticed this and have been among the fiercest opponents of an agreement. They want to continue to rule, but the regime in Iran needs a different ideological foundation after this Tuesday. Opposition against the “arrogant powers” is no longer a logical stance.

If rapprochement succeeds, others also will face intellectual and political changes. How long will the chimera of an Israeli-Arab front against Iran last? It’s possible it will even find new life for a brief period. The Israelis have increasingly been teaming up with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf state monarchies and Egypt in a curious front against Iran since the first efforts to deal with the Iranian nuclear conflict.

Fear of the Ayatollah’s regime is not at all just an obsession of Mr. Netanyahu. Nearly all parties in Israel are in consensus, which is hardly surprising since the theocratic regime in Tehran continues to dispute the Jewish state’s right to exist and encourages anti-Semitic demonstrations. In light of this, the supposedly moderate Arab regimes look to the Israeli government as welcome partners in fencing in Iran.

Iran’s refusal to acknowledge Israel was the first item on the agenda for German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel on his visit to Tehran that started on Sunday: He said that Germany cannot accept Iran questioning Israel’s right to exist, and that this stance could harm business relations between the two countries. He also told Germany’s largest tabloid, Bild, that Germany could act as a mediator between Iran and Israel.

An alliance against Iran is very shortsighted. The partner regimes praised today, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, also promote and export Islamic extremism, partly through repression of moderate Islamists and partly through active support of extremists such as the al-Nusra front and its cohorts.

It was a cardinal mistake by America – and the West in general – to support Arab dictatorships for many decades. This was what created hatred for the West, which was happy to offer a helping hand to oppressors if they delivered oil and helped in fighting extremists. It is good that this approach now is being corrected with a new “Ostpolitik” toward Iran.

Yet, to ensure this new policy doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the past, it is important that repression in Iran not be ignored simply because it might disturb the start of detente.


This article first appeared in weekly newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author:

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