Washington’s dispute with Russia over Ukraine significantly undermines U.S. nonproliferation in the Middle East, which has been a cornerstone of American foreign policy over the past few years. Only a completely witless politician would fail to realize that the main deterrent to U.S. military intervention in Ukrainian affairs is the presence of a nuclear shield in Russia. It is not the EU’s energy dependence on Gazprom or large foreign investment in the Russian economy, and it is decidedly not the significant volume of trade between Moscow and major European countries such as Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and so forth. There is no other conclusion to be drawn except that if the major Middle Eastern countries want effective protection against Washington’s politics of aggression, they can accomplish this solely by possessing their own nuclear weapons and a system to deliver them. Iran was the first in line, and so far it is the only one. Iran intends to keep its nuclear capabilities at all costs. Furthermore, it is developing its nuclear program to the point that it can answer external threats from the United States and Israel.
Tehran has no illusions about American plans to “democratize” the country. And this is where a serious problem arises. Countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia see a rising Iran as a fundamental threat to themselves in the region, and that holds especially true if Iran comes within reach of acquiring nuclear weapons. If that were to happen, those countries would be forced into retaliatory containment mode. For Israel, that means strengthening its nuclear shield. For Saudi Arabia, that means acquiring or developing nuclear weapons, a la Pakistan. We also must not forget about Egypt, Algeria, Iraq and Syria, all of which have advanced nuclear programs they can bring to bear if threatened.
Moreover, we cannot rule out the possibility that Israel, or Saudi Arabia for that matter, will revive plans to strike Iranian nuclear facilities if Tehran gets one step away from a nuclear weapon. That scenario is fraught with the danger of all-out war throughout the entire Middle East and Persian Gulf. The United States’ ill-conceived actions against Russia in Ukraine have merely created the conditions for the spread of nuclear weapons in this oil- and gas-rich area of the world. Any subsequent escalation poses a real danger of sparking a massive military engagement that could undermine global energy in its entirety and, under certain conditions, develop into nuclear confrontation. Prior to the events in Ukraine, the United States and Russia were active partners on the Iranian nuclear issue and on another acute problem in the Middle East, namely Syria.
Against this backdrop, the fourth round of talks between Iran and The Six to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem concluded in Vienna on 16 May. The parties were expected to start establishing elements of a final agreement, but the meeting was inconclusive. Iran and the sextet of intermediaries made no progress on drafting the language of a comprehensive agreement. Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Arakchi, commented on that. In his words, “it is too early to speak of any results being achieved, but negotiations are ongoing.”
The policymakers will meet again in June, but the exact date has not been set. Representatives of the American delegation, though, are planning for at least two meetings in June. Washington is feeling rushed, probably because of pressure from Israel, which, unlike the White House, quickly grasped all the repercussions that the American adventure in Ukraine would have for nuclear deterrence in the Middle East.
Arakchi said after the fourth round of negotiations that it “will not be catastrophic” if an agreement is not reached before 20 July. He stressed that the talks were not a failure, despite the fact that The Six and Iran had failed to achieve “concrete progress.” The comprehensive agreement should guarantee that Iran’s nuclear program will not have a military component and that all international sanctions against Iran will be lifted. The time remaining before 20 July is running short, but the Iranians have confirmed that all sides are working toward a resolution, not a deadline.
Tehran has emphasized its disappointment at the “excessive demands” of the West. One particular source of frustration is the U.S. position on Iran’s missile program. Washington is specifically focused on missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. At the beginning of the latest round of negotiations, the U.S. delegation noted that the issue of ballistic missiles is part of the UN Security Council resolutions and therefore should be discussed in the negotiations. For Iran, that topic is almost off-limits. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has repeatedly stressed that the development of the country’s missile program is a “red line” and is not subject to discussion.
A State Department spokeswoman was quick to call the discussions useful and the difficulties expected. “We knew that when we move to the next stage of negotiations, it will be difficult. But I want to underscore that this was helpful. There will ups and downs,” she added. Asked about the possible differences in approaches between the U.S., Iran and Russia to Iran ‘s missile program, she emphasized that “The Six are united on all the issues.” But the spokeswoman did not fail to note the concern that the process is going slower than the United States would like, though there is still time to work out a deal, she said. However, she noted that the United States would rather not rush “but conclude a quality deal.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who led the Russian delegation at the talks, outlined a number of difficulties the diplomats encountered. “Logic suggests that if the parties to the negotiations start to feel as if major difficulties have sprung up, their work on the text will be hampered. We are sort of going in circles, and now we are trying to find a way out of the situation. Everyone understands that time is running out, and with the slow pace we are working at now, the difficulties can grow,” said Ryabkov.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the acting coordinator of the The Six, and Zarif canceled the traditional joint statement after the discussions in Vienna. The U.S. and Iranian delegations met for nearly three hours in Vienna on the morning of 16 May. At the conclusion, the Saudi TV station al-Arabiya reported on its English Twitter feed that “the negotiations had failed,” citing a source in the U.S. delegation. However, State Department spokesman Marie Harf denied that report.
The fifth round of talks on Tehran’s nuclear program is likely to be held in Vienna from 16 to 20 June. So said a trusted source close to Arakchi. Though Arakchi acknowledged that the parties still have unresolved issues, Tehran believes that the negotiators will prepare the text of the final agreement in the near future. But here’s the other important thing in his statement: He stressed that “Iran’s right” to develop nuclear weapons is still a “red line” in the negotiations.
In addition, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently said he is determined to stay the course in developing nuclear technology, and he said his country will not stand for “nuclear apartheid.” Rouhani went on to say: “We intend to take further steps forward in the political and legal realms.” At a grand opening ceremony for three nuclear pilot projects in health care, the Iranian president said: “We are developing and will continue to develop peaceful nuclear technology and everything that our great nation has a right to.” According to Rouhani, “all peoples are equal before international law. None of them has preference over others. The Iranian people have never put up with discrimination, and they will not do so in the future.” It is noteworthy that Rohani also said: “The West, including the United States, Germany, France and other countries, has never kept its promises to us. The U.S. broke its promise by refusing to supply fuel for a reactor in Tehran. After the Islamic revolution, Germany halted the construction of a nuclear power plant in Bushehr. France too has shunned its obligations under the joint cooperation agreement and has not, as promised, provided us with uranium hexafluoride (a compound used to obtain pure uranium).”
The Iranian president also stressed that the world had deemed Iran incapable of developing its own technology for uranium enrichment, and he added that “if the question is uranium enrichment of 3.5 percent, we are in a position to do that. We can even produce 20 percent uranium.”
Rouhani also thought it necessary to emphasize another point: “We can offer the international community greater transparency in our activities. We will provide concrete disclosure through judicial, political and informational channels in conjunction with our scientific activities. We want to tell the world that our enemies are lying. We want to tell the world that our nation is on the path to greatness. Enemies can not humiliate the Iranian people. On the contrary, they are compelled to recognize the outstanding abilities of our citizens, Iranian scientists in particular.” Iran’s president placed special emphasis on the fact that his country has no plans to create weapons of mass destruction. “The Iranian people have never wanted weapons of mass destruction, and generally speaking, they consider them illegal,” Rouhani said. But we can not discount the fact that events surrounding Ukraine and American threats of sanctions will force Tehran to consider whether the United States and its NATO partners will fulfill their obligations if a nuclear agreement with Iran is consummated. The survival of the current Iranian regime and the securing of Iran’s national security interests are at stake.
Petr Lvov, PhD in Political Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.