01.04.2014 Author: Petr Lvov

What can the pro-Western foreign policy of President H. Rouhani bring?

6577-Britain-StrawAccording to many Western, Russian, Arabic and Iranian analysts, the interim arrangement reached by the group of permanent UN Security Council members and Germany (5 +1) with Iran on its nuclear programme applies not only to uranium enrichment, centrifuges and possibilities for military application of nuclear fuel. In the future, it will show who and how will determine the internal and external policies of Iran in the coming period. Its implementation will demonstrate whether the conservatives will remain the dominant force in Tehran, or more moderate and pro-Western external course will win, which is advocated by President Hassan Rouhani and much of the population of Iran. Much will depend not only on Iran, but also on the sincerity of intents of the West, which may weaken the long established anti-Western tone of confrontation with Iran and ease the way for reconciliation by lifting of sanctions and establishing cooperation on economic and investment projects.

Objectives of the U.S. and the EU

It means for the U.S. and the EU that the consolidation of success of the agreement on the nuclear industry, and its expansion to other issues in spheres of mutual interest, can improve Iran’s willingness to cooperate. In addition, it opens a prospect of an internal political liberalization in the country, with its subsequent impact on the entire Middle East.

The presidential elections in 2013 brought to power centrist leaders, who had tried to find ways to establish open relations with the West in the past. This includes the cooperation with the U.S. on Afghanistan in 2001, the proposed agreement in 2003 and the initiative announced in 2005 to limit Iran’s uranium enrichment programme to 3,000 centrifuges (currently, there are 19,000 in Iran). All these proposals were heard before the introduction of tough sanctions by the West. By its refusing all these options, Washington strengthened the position of Iranian conservatives, who believed that the only way to force the U.S. to start a dialogue with Iran was not to agree on reconciliation, but on the contrary, to oppose Washington’s policies strongly. Rouhani’s team is trying to proceed from the reconciliation and normalization of the relations with the West, arguing that the resolution of national security issues requires peace, and Iran’s cooperation with regional powers, as well as with the U.S. and the EU. Its members consider Western countries as potential partners, who can provide assistance to Iran in achieving set objectives: to develop and modernize the economy, to attract major investments and modern technologies, as well as to solve regional issues and to strengthen the role of Iran in the security of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. The H. Rouhani team seems to understand that the nuclear issue is a tool, rather than a thing in itself, in the sense that it plays a crucial role in achieving the objectives of lifting the partial international isolation and a return into the international system as an equal player.

Now it is extremely important for the West not to miss this opportunity, as it has come up for the first time in many years, and nobody knows when the West will have it again. Whatever it may be, the change in many accents of Iran’s foreign policy, after the election of Rouhani into the post of President and the achievement of temporary agreement on the nuclear programme, do not provide any guarantees in respect of the new prospects for Iran. The rhetoric of supporters of the hard line is still strong in the country, their weight is significant, and their retreat was only temporary. They argue that the cruel and immoral West is trying to fool Iran, to deprive it of its scientific and technological achievements, to make it dependent on foreign powers. And that, in principle, may well be true, considering how the U.S. and its allies in the EU cheat their partners in the international arena. We can cite as an example the support of the Arab “colour revolutions”, against regimes loyal to the West, fomenting of a confrontation against Russia in Ukraine, etc.

Punitive and sanction measures of the Western countries that, in theory, should have prevented Iran from developing nuclear weapons, without affecting the civilian population of the country at the same time, in fact, led to the lack of medicines, socio-economic problems, lack of financial resources for development. The consequences of such measures (unintentional or planned one way or another) have become an argument for those who believe the West to be the main obstacle to the growth of Iran’s economy and the strengthening of the external role and the defence capacity of Iran.

Whatever it may be, Tehran and the West have little time. The Political pendulum in Iran will move again toward the hard line, if Rouhani’s government fails to demonstrate results in the next 6-12 months, and the West fails to demonstrate a sincere willingness to equal cooperation with Iran and its willingness to lift sanctions in full. As we know, a second chance is a very rare thing.

West’s efforts to come to an agreement with Iran

The recent visit to Iran by the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and her meeting with representatives of the authorities, including supporters of the “hard-line” in the negotiations are a kind of probing of the soil, before diving further into the “depth” of negotiations between the “six” international mediators and Iran, to reach a final agreement on the country’s nuclear programme. This has been the first visit by a senior EU official in Iran for the past six years. The visit was held in a different atmosphere, than the one during the presidency of the former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Along with the meetings with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Ashton also met with the former nuclear negotiator Said Jalili, the senior advisor to the supreme leader Ali Akbar Velayati, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamhani, and Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani.

The visit was also a good opportunity for the EU to hold bilateral talks with Iran on economic and political issues, including the situation in the region. It is characteristic that Ashton arrived in Tehran a few days after the Israeli Navy intercepted a ship with ammunition in the Red Sea. The ship, seized on March 5, allegedly transported dozens of rockets for Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, though Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif denied Israel’s statement that Tehran had shipped Syrian missiles into the Gaza Strip.

In any case, Ashton’s visit to Tehran nearly four months after reaching the interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme was a good opportunity to focus on negotiating the issue with all political forces in Iran. After all, it is extremely important for the EU to know the positions of other power structures in Iran, including the court system, the Parliament and the Supreme National Security Council.

In general, Iranian media (in particular, the Iranian newspaper The Arman) and analysts positively assessed the results of Ashton’s visit to Iran, including by characterizing the talks in Tehran as “the elimination of the psychologically negative environment between Iran and the European Union”. Many periodicals reported on the first visit to Iran by the head of European diplomacy in six years in the form of news reports and analytical articles. Some newspapers regarded the visit of Catherine Ashton as a start of the development of relations between Iran and the European Union. However, other publications were critical about the way the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs interpreted the situation with the human rights in Iran. In the newspaper The Ghanoon, professor of international law DavoudHermidas-Bavand in his review entitled “Ashton concerned about the opinion of fundamentalists” claims that the visit to Tehran of the High Representative had two objectives, and writes: “As a political representative of the European Union, she came accompanied by an economic delegation, and this visit says more about the interaction between the EU and the Islamic Republic, which is being carried out in different directions.

However, Ashton paid much attention to the discussion of issues related to the respect for human rights in Iran. It suggests quite clearly that, in the event of the creation of a new model of relations with Iran, thus the EU had outlined the problem of human rights as one of its main preconditions. The so-called violation of human rights is one of the main reasons used by the West and the United States in recent years to exert pressure on their opponents. And it becomes clear here that Ashton was followed by an invisible shadow of Washington in Tehran, without which the EU cannot move forward in the development of its relations with Iran. Moreover, not everything is clear with the U.S. now, and the question of how much they are willing to normalize their relations with Iran is still open, despite the positive signals coming from Rouhani towards the White House. This is understandable. It is not only the issue of the U.S. interests, but also the issue of the interests of its main allies in the region – Saudi Arabia and Israel. In addition, the things are far from smooth here, if not to speak roughly, namely, these two countries strongly oppose the normalization of Washington’s relations with Tehran, even if President Rouhani can be characterized as a pro-Western politician.

The main obstacles

From the very beginning, Israel was strongly opposed to the US-Iranian rapprochement, despite the public condemnation of Holocaust by President Rouhani in New York in late September 2013. And recently Tel Aviv has made concrete steps to spoil the image of Iran in the West. We mean the operation of the Israeli Navy to intercept the ship transporting Iranian arms to the Gaza Strip. This was clearly seen as an attempt of Israeli leaders to use the success of the operation to persuade the United States and other Western countries to change their policy regarding Iran. We can understand Prime Minister Netanyahu who expressed public delight over the success of the Navy’s operations during his visit to the United States. However, if the head of the Israeli government believes that a successful operation to prevent the delivery of Iranian weapons to radical groups will change the attitude of the Western powers, in the matter of negotiations with Tehran on its nuclear programme, he is mistaken. Nobody in the world needed a successful operation to seize weapons in order to get confirmation of the well-known fact that Iran has been supplying weapons to various friendly Arab groups and official authorities of a number of Arab countries – Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. This information is not a secret to anybody. Netanyahu is mistaken if he believes that after the successful operation of the Israeli Navy and detailed coverage of these actions in the media, the world will immediately change its policy and will begin to prepare for a large-scale attack on Iran. His efforts to convince the world to act against Iran by military means or renew tough economic sanctions against the country have failed, at least at this stage. The Western powers are negotiating with Tehran in order reach an agreement. It can be assumed that until all diplomatic means have been exhausted, there is no chance for a full-scale military operation aimed against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

As for Iran’s regional neighbours, here the situation is also not in favour of Tehran. Oman does not share the Saudi theory on the Iranian threat to the security of the Persian Gulf and the alleged attempts to “export Islamic revolution”. Qatar tried to establish an energy partnership with Iran, for which it was punished by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia is the leading country of the GCC, the main ally of the United States and Iran’s main rival in the region, which is strongly opposed to the normalization of relations between the Arabs and the West with Tehran. In this regard, the final communiqué adopted at the meeting of ministers of member countries of the Cooperation Council on March 5 of this year, emphasizes the importance of the commitments declared and adopted in the Programme of Joint Measures by Iran the European “six” on December 5, 2013 .The document also states that this measure can contribute to the international confidence and eliminate concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme. On the other hand, GCC members noted in the same communiqué, that they supported the right of the United Arab Emirates to the possession of the islands of Abu Musa, Lesser Tunb and Greater Tunb in the Persian Gulf, their territorial waters, airspace, continental plateau and the special economic zone, and all activities, conducted by Iran there, that considered the islands to be its territory, were considered illegal. The document also contains an appeal to Tehran to respond to the efforts of the UAE to resolve this territorial dispute through direct negotiations between the representatives of the two states, or to refer the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Thus, the member states of the Cooperation Council ignored the fact that the Islamic republic had repeatedly provided legal documents and historical evidence confirming its ownership of these islands to various international bodies. The communiqué also contains a recommendation to Tehran to refrain from explicit interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain, although Iranian authorities have repeatedly stated the artificiality of such charges before.

Yet, it is still Washington that has the last word. Much will become clear after President Barack Obama’s visit to the region, planned for late March of this year, where the main destination will be Riyadh. The Saudis have already started to prepare for this by giving the U.S. a more moderate image than the one that emerged due to the active support of too odious extremist groups by the KSA in Syria. On March 7, Saudi Arabia included the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Dzhabgat Al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant into the list of terrorist organizations. And now it expects from Obama a clearer position on Iran. Riyadh proceeds from the fact that, at this stage, the KSA remains a key military and political support in the Gulf, not to mention its role of the main supplier of oil to the world market, and the rapprochement between Washington and Tehran will not move too quickly. In addition, most importantly, the Saudis will urge the U.S. towards commitment to the principles of the “democratization” of Iran, without which the sincerity of Iran’s nuclear programme cannot be trusted. Riyadh is well aware that Tehran cannot agree on the American-style of democracy. And the KSA rulers are sure to repeat to Obama the ad nauseam theses that Tehran encourages the Shiites in the GCC countries to organize anti-regime riots, and strives for hegemony in the region. Therefore, Washington is not likely to rush towards positive signals and practical matters of H. Rouhani’s team. On the other hand, it is good for U.S. President to decrease anti-Iranian sentiment in Iran, in order to try to tear Tehran from Russia with the help of Iran’s Arab neighbours in the Persian Gulf and using the pro-Western course of Rouhani, and thus using Iran’s potential, primarily oil and gas, to bring down prices for Russian energy supplies to Europe. This may well happen, if Saudi Arabia supplies an additional 1 million barrels per day to the world market, and Qatar starts dumping LNG in the EU by spot supplies. Obama also would like to weaken Iran’s support for Assad, to foment the war in Syria again by using Saudi Arabia and to try to overthrow the ruling regime there by any means, and thus to “exact revenge” upon Russia for the loss in Crimea.

The conclusion is that Iran is unlikely to get anything tangible from the pro-Western course of its President at this stage. Unless it fully satisfies the requirements of the U.S. and the EU in all areas – from the nuclear programme to human rights. Yet this is unlikely, given the conservative attitude of the Iranian political elite and commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is the main power structure in Iran. Besides this, the Iranian leadership should take a closer look at how the U.S. and the EU behave against Russia in the Ukrainian crisis. It is here that we can see most evidently the hypocrisy of the West and its commitment to double standards.

Petr Lvov, PhD in Political Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.