This week, the P5+1, composed of diplomats from Germany and the five members of the UN Security Council (Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and the U.S.), convened in Kazakhstan for nuclear talks with Iran. In case you hadn’t heard, rumors have persisted for decades that Iran is building a nuclear weapon. Despite these suspicions, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has steadily denied that his nation has any such intentions, going so far as to issue a religious decree in opposition to nuclear armament. In line with this, the regime has argued that its enrichment facilities are intended only to provide nuclear power. But the UN Security Council has refused to accept the explanation until uranium enrichment is reduced or abandoned.
Under the Obama administration, Iran has shown progressive interest in UN negotiations. This has been welcomed by Western powers, long accustomed to accusations of neo-colonialism, which have haunted them since Iran’s theocratic takeover in 1979. The Islamic Republic is indeed willing to negotiate, but has shown little interest in entering a collective resolution. Why then, are we seeing progress? On one hand, Iran worries about Israeli nuclear capabilities and its diminishing power in the Middle East, especially as Syria, its most important Shia ally, has warped into a failed state. On the other, the country longs to recover lost regional alliances and expand its influence on the world politico-economy.
Iran’s government has not always expressed such anti-Western ire. For much of the 20th century, the United Kingdom held de facto control over the Iranian economy. The D’Arcy Concession (1908), which provided the Anglo-Persian Oil Company exclusive rights over Iranian oil for 60 years, was the beginning of a long, but tumultuous relationship between Iran and the West. In 1953, the CIA led a coup d’etat to remove Dr. Mohammed Mossadeq, an advocate of Iranian oil nationalization. They replaced him with a puppet government led by secularist Reza Shah, who was more accompanying to Western oil and financial interests. When he was overthrown in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, a theocratic, hostile government seized power.
Ever since, Iran has been a leading opponent of Western imperialism and its successor, neo-colonialism. They have been particularly aggressive towards Israel. Iran is heavily invested in Hezbollah, the Shia paramilitary group responsible for countless violent attacks on Israel. In order to arm them, Iran moves arms through Syria, its southern Shia neighbor, now fighting a sectarian conflict that threatens to put devote Sunni’s into power. Iran has devoted billions to assist the Assad government since civil war began two years ago, but surely does not believe the dictator will hold power indefinitely. If Iran cannot count Syria or Hezbollah as allies, they are left with Iraq, the only remaining Shia-led government in the Middle East. Iraq, where the U.S. still holds influence, is hardly a reliable military partner.
So, Iran is running out of friends and bargaining power. This has put the country in a compromised position, where it is in desperate need of alliances, but desires the security of nuclear capability. Economic sanctions and threats of military intervention have also undoubtedly played a role, albeit a limited one. These conflicting motivations have at least brought Iran to the negotiating table and minimized its traditionally hostile political rhetoric.
In recent months, however, the Iranian nuclear problem has been overshadowed by North Korea, thought to have successfully developed a nuclear weapon of their own. Foreign sanctions against Pyongyang have been more aggressive and less diplomatic in nature than those in Iran. While the two regimes express radically different ideologies, both in regards to systems of governance and nuclear weapons, the UN’s approach to diplomacy in North Korea have further complicated negotiations with Iran.
The Security Council has been reluctant to intervene militarily in North Korea, even as its leadership grows increasingly aggressive. With this in mind, Iran’s government knows it can take it time. China opposes military intervention both in North Korea and Iran, providing further security from a potential attack. Israel might be a serious threat if Mitt Romney, a longtime comrade of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had won the American election, but this is not the case. Obama has publicly opposed unilateral armed intervention, and Israel is not eager to do so either.
One of the oddities is that Pyongyang has dramatically advertised their nuclear intentions, while Iran has remained reclusive. This is reflective both of Iran’s religious objections to such weapons and the reserved nature of diplomacy in the Middle East. Israel, the only regional power thought to possess nuclear weapon, has never admitted to it.
Experts have been conflicted over the real detriments posed by an Iranian nuclear weapon. It is hard to imagine that Iran wants to risk its own existence or the borderless consequences of nuclear fallout in the Middle East. Furthermore, many observers doubt that Iran actually wants to complete one, considering the potential for a regional diplomatic backlash. There are other worries though, including fears of Chernobyl-like disaster, especially when some facilities have not been independently inspected. Regardless, the UN is making diplomatic progress and seems to be evading threats of armed intervention, which is a good thing.
In avoiding the hawkish strategy taken by his predecessor, George W. Bush (and his father), President Obama has made progress by incentivizing Iran to recover a positive international image. NATO has neither military nor financial resources to fall back on, and neo-colonial aggression must be relinquished if regional peace is ever to come about. As Iran has learned in Syria, Middle Eastern alliances are delicate. The U.S. faces its own diplomatic barriers in Egypt, who has not forgotten American support for the deposed Mubarak regime.
As such, it is time to neutralize alliances throughout the region. This includes Israel, whose government continuously lacks progress in establishing regional stability, while remaining averse to Palestinian interests. Iranian negotiations will take time, but they are worth the wait. If sustainable progress is to be made, hostilities must subside and immediate Western security concerns must contract.