13 Jan 2014

Why the Iran nuclear deal is the overture to much more

It is not so different from the nuclear deal Hassan Rouhani offered when he was Tehran’s nuclear negotiator 10 years ago. Now he’s Iran’s president and the western powers are desperate for a deal.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani takes questions from journalists during a news conference in New York

Years of sanctions and mutual verbal hostility have followed, ably assisted by former Presidents GW Bush of the US, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. But in that decade the West’s war in Afghanistan has staggered to an unedifying stalemate or worse; Pakistan has become all but ungovernable; Iraq has fallen apart; Syria is on fire and doubts about Saudi intentions in the region have deepened.

Enter the prospect of a stable, rational Iran, and diplomatic pragmatism has suddenly been having a field day. Indeed, beyond the terrible violations of human rights that have greeted reform movements inside Iran, the country has somehow held together, in spite of the unprecedented scale of sanctions meted out against Tehran.

Yesterday’s deal and the prospect of its signing on 20 January allows Iran to continue some of its nuclear programme. It also significantly limits other elements of it. But above all it allows international inspection teams greater access than ever to whatever Iran is doing on the nuclear front. In return, sanctions against Iranian petrochemical exports and some other sanctions involving precious metal trading are lifted.

No wonder Israeli and Saudi governments are united in their collective unease. Holding America’s nose to the grindstone of breaking Iran, each for very different reasons, has been their stock-in-trade.

At the same time Iran has done its bit to aggravate both countries. Deprived of a direct relationship with the US, Tehran has helped undermine US interests – in backing Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel, and in refusing to back away from supporting the regime of Syria’s President Assad.


So what now? If I invested in ‘futures’, I’d be thinking about Iran. The clever individuals who have negotiated for Iran, are not a fluke, they stem from a cadre of bright men and women who have somehow survived the turmoil of the Ahmadinejad years. There are many others beside them – scientists, engineers, teachers, doctors, film directors, and businessmen.

Britain became the visible wing of American interests in Iran, and has suffered gravely as a result. British Airways has lost all its routes to Iran– picked up profitably by Lufthansa and Air France – and British trade with Iran, once one of the country’s biggest trading partners, has disintegrated.

But it is indeed in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Syria, perhaps even in Lebanon, and in Palestine that an engaged Iran may come to play a positive game-changing role. Saudi and Gulf backed Sunni Islamist fighters are now fighting each other as well as the regime in Syria. The region is effectively on fire.

Given the pace of the nuclear deal, we can judge it is but the overture to something much more profound. The nuclear issue was always a handy stick with which to chastise and beat Iran. The stick is back in its holster. The rest is yet to come. Watch this space.

Follow Jon Snow on Twitter.

Tweets by @jonsnowC4