Iranians are already moving on to the next set of questions. What will be the consequences of the nuclear deal? Will it be a one-off agreement confined to Iran’s nuclear programme or will it lead to talks between the United States and Iran on a wider set of regional issues, as Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Barack Obama have both hinted?
As Iran’s nuclear talks with the P5 + 1 countries slowly move forward in Switzerland, a mood of quiet optimism is prevalent across Tehran. The euphoria, which brought crowds of cheering Iranians into the street when the framework deal was announced in April, has evaporated, and Iranian officials are trying to dampen the notion that sanctions relief and a surge in economic prosperity will rapidly follow a full nuclear agreement.
But nobody is willing to contemplate failure. Among ordinary Iranians as well as members of parliament and government officials, there is widespread confidence that a deal is too important for either side to risk losing this opportunity. If the deadline of June 30, which was set by all sides, were to slip, people assume it will only be in order to give a bit more time for the deal’s complex annexes to be drafted and confirmed.
Iranians are already moving on to the next set of questions. What will be the consequences of the nuclear deal? Will it be a one-off agreement confined to Iran’s nuclear programme or will it lead to talks between the United States and Iran on a wider set of regional issues, as Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Barack Obama have both hinted? Will it facilitate solutions to the crises in Syria and Iraq if Iran is brought into negotiations on both those conflicts? What will the reaction of the Gulf Arab states be to detente between Washington and Tehran after almost forty years of confrontation?
Or will the administrations in both Tehran and Washington go in the opposite direction and sharpen their rhetoric so as to convince their own hardliners that whatever compromises were reached on the nuclear file they are not making concessions on other issues?
Will Saudi Arabia make good on its threat to develop a nuclear weapons programme for itself, making the claim that the P5 plus 1 deal does not sufficiently constrain Iran’s battery of centrifuges, and only slows rather than reverses Iran’s potential path to making a nuclear bomb?
Analysts in Tehran say Iran’s Supreme Leader has an easier task to control his hardliners than Obama does. While some Iranian MPs have publicly criticised the deal, they are not as numerous or vocal as the hawks in the US congress and their supporters in the Israeli government. Nor is the Iranian media as open as the American press in scrutinising the nuclear framework deal. The details have not been explained to the Iranian public and media coverage is confined to questions of Iranian sovereignty and the lifting of sanctions.
So the central questions are what will happen in Washington and how far will Obama be willing to go to end the Cold War with Tehran that has lasted since the Shah was toppled in 1979? To judge from Obama’s own statements, there is massive confusion in Washington.
Iranian officials are carefully examining the phrases the US president used about Iran in the press conference he gave after hosting Gulf Arab leaders at Camp David last month. They take comfort in particular from Obama’s declaration that “the purpose of security cooperation is not to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran or even to marginalize Iran.” That is seen as a renunciation of the old American strategy of isolating Iran in the hope of bringing regime change. It is as significant a shift in US policy as the opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Importantly, Obama went on to rope the Gulf Arabs into his strategy of detente, claiming that at Camp David they accepted it. “None of our nations have an interest in an open-ended conflict with Iran”, he said. “We welcome an Iran that plays a responsible role in the region -- one that takes concrete, practical steps to build trust and resolve its differences with its neighbours by peaceful means, and abides by international rules and norms.
As I’ve said before, ending the tensions in the region and resolving its devastating conflicts will require a broader dialogue -- one that includes Iran and its Gulf Co-operation Council neighbours”.
What worries and surprises Iranian officials is the US President’s other comments in the press conference in which he referred to Iran’s “destabilising activities across the region” as “threats”. They see this as upside-down thinking. In their view, Iran is a force for stability. In Iraq, its efforts to prop up the Haider al Abadi government politically and militarily and persuade it to make concessions to Iraq’s Sunni Arab constituencies are in line with Washington’s own Iraq strategy. In Syria Iran supports a multi-cultural state against Islamic fundamentalists and mercenaries. In Yemen it has put forward a four-point plan for negotiations which mirrors the United Nations plan. Saudi Arabia may claim Iran is militarily engaged in support of the Houthi uprising, but Western intelligence agencies see little evidence for it. The country, which is really de-stabilising the region, is Saudi Arabia. For years, it has been exporting Wahhabism, a militant and obscurantist version of Islam, across the Middle East. Then it allowed wealthy Saudis to finance and arm the Islamic State jihadist in Syria and Iraq. Now it is bombing Yemen, its poorest and weakest neighbour.
In spite of this, Iran continues to try to pursue dialogue with Saudi Arabia. So the crucial issue now is whether Obama is willing to push his sensible policy of detente with Iran, not only through the US Congress, but with his Gulf allies as well. In Tehran, they hope so, but they have serious doubts. Yes, a nuclear deal looks almost certain. Detente across the Persian Gulf, much less so.