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How Nuclear Talks Help Iran Dominate the Middle East

How Nuclear Talks Help Iran Dominate the Middle East

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This article argues that the P5 + 1 nuclear talks with Iran have helped afford the country with a platform for playing a more prominent role in the Middle East.
This article argues that the P5 + 1 nuclear talks with Iran have helped afford the country with a platform for playing a more prominent role in the Middle East.

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Published by: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on Mar 30, 2014
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How Nuclear Talks Help Iran Dominate the Middle East
 
Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall, February 25, 2014
 
Iran is seeking to create symmetry in its relations with the United States and to make clear that Iranian power
 – 
 like American power
 – 
 extends far beyond its borders. Iran has even dispatched a
“battle group” of ships toward the U.S. – 
 consisting of a destroyer and a helicopter-carrying supply ship.
 
The only U.S. policy that had proved successful
 – 
 the tightening of the sanctions
 – 
 is now falling
apart. Iran’s international legitimacy is on the rebound, while the delegitimization of Israel keeps intensifying. From Iran’s standpoint, the nuclea
r talks are creating an atmosphere where the economic pressure will subside as Iran gains time to fill in the missing pieces of its nuclear  program.
 
Iran’s foreign policy is gaining momentum, as it seeks to persuade the Gulf states to align with it
while they can still do so peacefully and come under its security umbrella. Iran hopes to wield
 power over the entire “event horizon” in the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia in
the period of the post-Arab Spring (or, as Iran puts it, the Islamic Awakening).
 
The nuclear talks allow Iran to keep developing those parts of its nuclear program
 – 
 essentially, the military component
 – 
 
that have not yet come to full fruition, while it makes “concessions” in
areas such as uranium enrichment where it already has a proven capacity. Thus, Iran is hewing to its strategy of nuclear progress.
 
Meanwhile, the lack of significant enemies in its geostrategic domain enables Iran to conduct the nuclear talks at a relaxed pace. That approach is only further encouraged by the ongoing, evident feebleness of the United States and the West in trying to resolve the Syrian crisis. Thus, Iran foresees no substantial danger as it keeps marching toward its strategic goals.
The Interim Nuclear Agreement: A Matter of Interpretation
On February 18, 2014, about three months after the signing of the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 group, talks began in Vienna on reaching a final agreement. Both Iran and various Western actors expressed pessimism, and there were increasing reports that the half-year allocated for arriving at a final agreement will not be sufficient. From the signing of the interim deal to the opening of the Vienna talks, Iran and the United States waged a verbal war over different interpretations of
the deal’s terms and its future implications for the scope of Iran’s nuclear program. Not surprisingly, Washington highlighted its achievements in containing the
 program, while Iran pointed out
 – 
 as domestic criticism of its concessions intensified
 – 
 that
it had “not agree[d] to dismantle anything”
1
 
and that the word does not even appear in the agreement’s text. All Iran
had consented to was to limit uranium enrichment to 5 percent. The holes and unclear wording in the nuclear deal have allowed Iran to make its own interpretation of many of its stipulations, while stalling and evading crucial issues such as strict supervision of certain elements of the program and the status of research and development once a permanent agreement is signed.
 
A Campaign of Media Deception
Meanwhile, Iran has continued its charm offensive, led by its two “superstars,” President Hassan Rouhani
and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The two were especially in evidence at the economic conference in Davos and at the security conference in Munich. Both officials gave wide-ranging interviews to the Western media, which continues to portray them as heralds of a new Iranian approach that began when Rouhani was elected. Iran is essentially implementing a sophisticated media deception campaign, just as Rouhani is continuing to pursue nuclear deception. Having been a nuclear negotiator in 2003, Rouhani moved on to the presidency in 2013 and is prepared to lead Iran to the nuclear finish line. In one interview with the German media, Zarif implied that if the Palestinians were to reach an agreement with Israel, Iran would accept and even recognize Israel.
2
 These words were headlined in the world media
as another indication of Iran’s “new thinking” and changed foreign policy. Yet, whereas Za
rif sweet-talked
the German public, he and other Iranian officials flatly denied the words’ ostensible import and affirmed that there had been no change in policy toward the “Zionist regime” – 
 avowals that the world media simply ignored. As Zarif himself put it:
Iran’s position regarding its refusal to recognize the Zionist regime has not changed at all, and no part of my words can be taken to mean this….What
 I said in these interviews aimed to explain the reasons for  prolonged crisis in the Middle East due to the violation of the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people, in particular their right to determine their own future, form an independent government and for the displaced people to return to their motherland. We have insisted on these in all negotiations and interviews,
and said that they should not seek excuses to justify the crimes of the Zionist regime….Of course such
mischievous acts are not unusual, given how desperate the Zionists feel in the face of the
Iran’s
 active foreign policy. However, domestic political circles and media are expected to avoid spreading rumors.
3
 Deputy Foreign Minister Hassan Qashqavi, who rejected media reports about Za
rif’s
 statements as untrue,
said: “In a phone conversation that I had with Mr. Zarif,
 he completely rejected the remarks attributed to
him and declared that Iran’s stance about the [Zionist] regime is what has been repeatedly announced by the country’s diplomacy apparatus and this stance has not changed.” Iranian Majlis members wanted to
summon Zarif and grill him over his interviews with German media in early February, where he termed the
Holocaust as a “horrifying tragedy” that “should never occur again.”
4
 
Majlis member Qasem Ja’fari has maintained that Zarif said in those interviews that “the recognition or failure to recognize Israel has nothing to do with us….Zarif’s statements are contradictory to the principles of the political system because Imam
Khomeini termed the Zionist regime [Israel] a cancerous tumor and the supreme leader (Khamenei) has called it a bastard and, to date, the [Islamic] political system has sustained high costs to confront the
recognition of that regime.”
5
 In any event, Zarif did not appear at the slated Majlis National Security and
Foreign Policy Committee meeting to answer Majlis members’ questions.
 
A Historical Hostility
As the Vienna talks approached, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei
 – 
 just as he had before the round in  November
 – 
 expressed pessimism but said he was not against holding the talks. Khamenei again attacked
the United States and its “historically hostile” stance toward Iran, which, he claimed, has not changed.
Khamenei made similar remarks on February 11 for the thirty-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution. On several occasions Khamenei, along with Foreign Ministry spokesmen, asserted that the nuclear issue is nothing but an ongoing pretext for the United States, which will find another pretext
even if it is resolved. He said the Foreign Ministry’s mission – 
 that is, the nuclear talks
 – 
 would continue
and Iran would not renege on its promises, even though “I say that the thing is unnecessary and the talks will not lead anywhere….But the Foreign
 
Ministry people will continue the effort.” Khamenei took that opportunity to aver that Iranians’ massive turnout for the Revolution Day processions had dealt a “crushing  blow” to U.S. policy and goals and exposed its “real face,” including the fact that i
t will never renounce its hostility and hatred toward Iran.
6
 
 
Despite the attacks on the United States by the Supreme Leader and other Iranian officials, and apparently to support the Iranian diplomatic effort in Vienna, Khamenei published on his Twitter and Facebook accounts (social networks are off limits to ordinary Iranian citizens) a summation of his statements about nuclear weapons being in violation of Islamic law. Iran claims that Khamenei has even issued a
 fatwa
  prohibiting the possession and use of
such weapons. This, however, is part of Iran’s public
-diplomacy campaign, and in reality he has never published any such
 fatwa
.
7
 Among other such declarations, a post by Khamenei on Facebook asserts:  Nuclear weapons are neither a security provider, nor a source of consolidation of political power but rather a threat to both. The events of the 1990s proved that possessing such weapons would not save any regimes including the Soviet Union. Today as well, we know countries that are faced with fatal torrents of insecurity, despite having nuclear bombs. Amid the euphoria over a possible improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations since the signing of the nuclear interim agreement, the Iranian leadership has made clear that it opposes introducing any additional issues to the talks and that renewing ties with Washington is not even on the agenda. Iran also stresses that the talks with the West are solely confined to nuclear matters and will not encompass such issues as its missile  program or its human rights practices. Human rights organizations that monitor Iran have in fact reported a dramatic increase in the number of executions since Rouhani was elected.
Symmetry with a Superpower
In recent weeks Iran’s domestic discourse has increasingly referred to Iran as an
auspicious regional alternative to the longstanding U.S. presence in the region. Iran is seeking to create symmetry (even if symbolic) in its relations with the United States and to make clear that Iranian power
 – 
 like American  power
 – 
 extends far beyond i
ts borders. Iran has even dispatched a “battle group” of ships toward the United States’ maritime borders. As the commander of Iran’s
 
 Northern Navy Fleet, Admiral Afshin Reza’i
-
Haddad, put it: “Iran’s
 military fleet is approaching the United States, and th
is move has a message….For the first time, Iran’s Northern Naval Fleet is moving towards the U.S. maritime border.” The “battle group”
consisted of a destroyer and a helicopter-carrying supply ship.
8
 

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