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Is it Munich or Beijing all over again?
Posted at: Dec/05/2013 : Posted by: mel
Related Category: Historical Insights, Politics & Gov, World Watching,
The United States and many of its allies have had a very bitter relationship with the Iran for nearly 34 years. During the last 3 months Iran has been engaged in a series of negotiations to relax some of the myriad of international sanctions imposed on it to pressure a freezing any further development with respect to their nuclear development program. For President Obama this could be a crucial part of his presidential legacy. The real question is whether this agreement will be remembered like Chamberlain going to Munich, or Nixon going to China.
In November 1979 a group of Iranian students in conjunction with the Iranian Revolution took control of the US Embassy in Tehran. The students took 52 American citizens hostage for 444 days. Since that time the government of Iran has continued to isolate itself from the mainstream international community and the majority of its neighbors.
One of the actions of Iran that has brought the ire of the international community down on them is the development of a nuclear program. While they claim their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes of energy, the differences between that and a weapons program are very subtle. To attempt to stem this development, the United States has led an international effort that has imposed a series of sanctions on Iran. It doesn’t take a lot of insight to realize the sanctions to this point have not had the desired effect.
In 2003, Iran approached the United States with an offer to talk about its nuclear program; at that time they had a confirmed 164 centrifuges which are used to refine the plutonium fuel. The George W. Bush administration rejected the offer because it believed that the Iranian regime was weak, having been battered by years of sanctions, and would either capitulate or collapse. In response to this analysis Washington did what President Bush recommended and “stayed the course.” Today’s intelligence reports indicate that Iran has 19,000 operational centrifuges. These numbers clearly dispute the predicted assessment of Iran and its nuclear program. It is not unreasonable to argue that these same centrifuges could be used to make the fuel needed for nuclear power and the specialized materials used in modern nuclear medicine. Unfortunately, Iran is also constructing a “Heavy Water” plant whose sole purpose would be the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons production.
It is important to note that the “Green Revolution”, later known as the “Green Movement” in Iran that manifested in the Iranian election of 2009 clearly shows the internal divisions that the country is dealing with. Many Iran watchers believe this movement, the largest since the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 is a direct internal reaction to the sustained pressures of international sanctions.
It is doubtful that the citizens of Iran will notice any relative change in their lives resulting from this short term deal. Currently, there are approximately $100 billion in Iranian investments and assets frozen around the world and the government appears to be running an annual deficit of $35 billion. $4.2 billion of the $7 billion in relief will be from the tightly controlled sale of their oil over the next few months. The next largest chunk of the deal is approximately $500 million in supplies and repair parts from the United States auto industry sector. Similar pieces of the $7 billion support the acquisition of spare parts for their commercial aviation section and other parts of their economy. On paper it would be difficult to say that this deals benefits anyone financially, though there are clearly some industry groups in Europe and the United States that will enjoy a sales boost. Considering the turbulent history Iran has with the west it is not surprising that a spokesman for Ford Motor Company would only say that they would “monitor the situation carefully.”
Many countries in the Middle East including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have legitimate concerns about Iran. In many cases, the Iranian status as a rogue or enemy state is leveraged regionally to divert attention away from domestic issues. While peace is always a good thing, if Iran does re-enter the regional community on a friendly basis, it would have a significant impact on local politics and relations. There is also the weight of Iranian history. The Persian Empire may have faded away more than 2000 years ago, but many in the Middle East still fear Iran’s attempts at being a regional power. Iran has funneled material support into Syria, factions in Iraq and Hezbollah in an effort to influence regional politics. During the Iran/Iraq war they showed their willingness multiple times to sacrifice thousands of their own in “human wave attacks” attempting to alter the outcome of a battle. Many of their neighbors realize that for the Iranians, no tactic is considered unreasonable or beyond consideration.
It can be very difficult to know how much to trust Iran when their leaders send mixed messages. Despite have a foreign minister and a president, Iran is ultimately led by a “Supreme Leader.” The current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei as recently as Nov 22, 2013(Washington Post) stated that Israel is a “sinister, unclean, rabid dog… and should be wiped from the map.” He went on to refer to America as “the Great Satan.” With rhetoric like this, it is understandable that the Israeli Prime Minister would doubt any agreement with Iran leadership. Even if Iran can learn to respect its neighbors, they have a sustaining history of materially supporting regional factions in other countries. The possibilities related to even one of the extremist groups they support being given access to nuclear materials is the stuff of nightmares.
If you’re trying to decide what to think about this deal struck between France, Britain, Russia, China, Germany, the United States and Iran, I can’t really offer a definitive insight. My engineering training has taught me that when one path of understanding stymies, try the opposite. In this case the opposite is the possibility that no deal is agreed to. Up to this point it is clear that economic sanctions have done little to impede the expansion of the Iranian nuclear program. In the last 6-7 years their centrifuge count has expanded by a factor of over X110. They have a heavy water plant under construction whose sole purpose would be the refinement of plutonium for weapons. All this took place during a sustained period of economic sanctions, the occasional strike by Israeli missiles or bombs and the distribution of the targeted industrial worm Stuxnet. In truth, it seems clear that Iran is determined to become a regional nuclear power. If Iran does achieve that goal it will likely create an arms race in the Middle East considering how much their neighbors distrust them.
The ultimate truth is that it really doesn’t matter what kind of a deal was agreed to in Geneva, what matters is how the leaders in Riyadh, Cairo, Jerusalem, Istanbul, Dubai and Kuwait City respond. If Tehran does not live up to the agreement, the balance of power is potentially changing in the Middle East. Iran has misled the international community in the past about its intentions. Even the modest agreement of November 2013 will ultimately rely on a term from the Cold War of the last century, “Trust but Verify.”
Some international agreements create a positive change that redraws the map of global relations; other agreements merely make a short term appeasement at the expense of a long term disaster. It would be nice to believe that Iran has decided to come in from the cold. Unfortunately, the Middle East has nearly 5000 years of continuous conflict, hatred and distrust. Contrary to western standards, even the most stable regional governments are empowered by questionable personal relationships rather than institutional loyalty and trust. Under such tenuous circumstances, any deal written today can still evaporate tomorrow. Unfortunately, this same hotbed of distrust and conflict is the place on the planet most in need of a new direction.
American Presidents are to a great extent are driven by the zeal to create their historical legacy. For some Presidents the legacy is two pages of glowing text in a high school history book while others get barely a column with a few footnotes. To this point President Obama’s legacy is a Nobel Prize for international hope, the removal of American troops from Iraq, presiding over a one of the most dysfunctional Congresses in history, and a series of convoluted domestic social programs that have divided the country. It is not surprising that he would turn to other parts of the globe seeking his legacy opportunity. Many Presidents and leaders of other countries have gone down this same path with mixed results or unforeseen consequences. It is going to be a while, but eventually we will find out if Obama just had a Nixon in China moment, or a Chamberlain in Munich type deal.