I am writing this article amid speculation about US President Donald Trump’s decision on the future of the Iran nuclear agreement, expected on Tuesday.
The suspense is overwhelming, with most commentators thinking he will decide to terminate the sanctions waivers included in the agreement.
Many European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UK Prime Minister Theresa May, have been trying to convince him to change his mind, but it seems that up to now those efforts have been unsuccessful.
I am no expert on nuclear proliferation and its technicalities. My knowledge of Iranian issues is also poor.
Therefore, I will content myself with the limited goal of telling the reader what I have heard from Western experts and diplomats. I hope this will provide some background to Trump’s decision.
The prevailing view in Washington in 2011 was that we could not escape a future with a nuclear Iran. From Tehran’s point of view, we were told, the case for going nuclear was compelling.
Iran had not forgotten that the rest of the world did not react when former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iranian troops in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, it was said.
However, the Iranians said at the time that this was not true, and that former Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa, a religious ruling, forbidding the development of nuclear weapons.
They said that Iran’s going nuclear would encourage Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to do the same thing, and that as a result Iran would be less safe than it was before.
Western specialists say that this Iranian claim is a lie and that the evidence, including what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disclosed last week, amply proves that Iran did indeed try to acquire the bomb. In any case, the Obama administration in the US at the time tried to prepare for a future with a nuclear Iran, pondering what this meant and what the different options could be.
Former French president Jacques Chirac at one point caused uproar by saying that Iran could have the bomb if it so wished. It would not be able to use it, Chirac said, as the retaliation from others would be annihilating.
Today, there is a consensus that the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) agreed under the Iran deal is not ideal and that it is probably not even a good plan.
Even its defenders admit as much. However, they also say that there was no better option available and that the JCPOA is the lesser evil to a nuclear-armed Iran.
Some European diplomats say that the US negotiators to the deal were in too much of a hurry, as they badly wanted a deal to be made.
The Europeans (especially the French) had had to keep an eye on things and to do their utmost to check American haste that was leading to too many concessions. Nevertheless, they add, the outcome was the best “we could get” at the time.
One prominent American commentator told me obliquely in 2014 that the US had faced a dilemma in the negotiations as negotiating with Iran on Middle Eastern issues (such as Iraq, Syria, and maybe also Yemen) would be considered treason by America’s Arab allies.
Therefore, it had been decided to separate the issues, with the results that we can all now see. Iran feels it has a free hand to act in the region.
I admit the deal was a lesser evil. However, I never bought one point that advocates of the JCPOA often made, namely that the deal would empower Iranian moderates and keep the hawks in check.
The relevant variable here is the internal balance of power in Iran, and the hawks seem to have a consistent and structural advantage whatever happens on the international scene.
The sanctions waivers agreed to under the nuclear deal provide them with money and resources, and isolation strengthens their worldview and gives ammunition to the paranoid. Trying to foresee the internal consequences of international pressures is a pleasant game, but it is one at which everyone, including myself, is bad.
Moreover, the Western foreign policy establishment is sharply divided over Iran. The neo-conservatives in the US hate the country, and they include five different sub-groups. There are the hard-boiled realists who think only raw power matters in international relations, the pro-Israel hardliners and the Islamophobes.
Then there are those who keep a close eye on nuclear proliferation, and finally there are those who advocate a strong stance against regimes that systematically violate human rights.
These sub-groups disagree on many issues, for instance on how to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, they all agree on Iran.
Of course, the neo-conservatives are not the only ones that do not want to engage with Iran. Many others have not forgotten Tehran’s behaviour during the 1980s, and many understand the concerns of the Gulf countries. Secularists tend to hate Iran’s theocratic regime.
However, Iran has its admirers, even its fans. These respect Iranian nationalism, and they are impressed by the quality and skill of Tehran’s foreign policy community.
Iran’s diplomats “know the region, know the broader geopolitical issues, and are familiar with the rest of the world. They are knowledgeable, are tough negotiators, and are incredibly subtle diplomats.
They are patriots and their toughness and strength of will are impressive. They are as competent as the Israelis,” such admirers say.
In Western circles, heated discussions oppose different factions on what is going on in the Middle East. Many say Iran has already won and that the Sunni countries are too divided and too weak to reverse the tide.
Others think Iran’s current situation is unsustainable. It costs too much in money and lives, and it has a weak internal front behind it that could explode at any time.
Iran has opened up too many fronts at one, such thinking says, and its “victory” in the conflict in Syria could turn out to be a Pyrrhic one. Iran is surrounded by foes like Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the US.
The future of its relations with Russia is unknown, and the latter could quickly turn from being an ally into being a nightmare.
Some commentators – usually those who think Iran has won – say that the situation is ripe for a grand bargain. They write off the Arab countries, adding that Egypt is occupied with problems with Ethiopia, Libya and in Sinai. Saudi Arabia faces a delicate economic transition and a quagmire in Yemen.
However, Israel, they say, has all but killed off the Palestinian dream of a state, and it no longer faces Arab armies.
Washington will also not put pressure on it. Iran has secured access to the Mediterranean, and now it needs a long pause to consolidate its gains and to restructure its economy. Turkey could easily be placated with territorial gains.
According to such commentators, the sooner these three major players realise that a Middle Eastern grand bargain on the lines of the Yalta Summit meeting at the end of the Second World War, the better things will be.
This analysis is brilliant, but it may underestimate the importance of passion and ideology. I do not see how the Iranians and the Israelis can ever trust each other. I do not understand how Turkey will be able to reconcile itself to modest goals. However, of course, I may be wrong.
Former US president Barack Obama belonged to those advocating a grand bargain with Iran, though this did not prevent him from exerting strong pressure when needed. He was a cold-blooded realist, and he scorned the conservative Arab monarchies. Trump is clearly an Iran-hater.
Finally, I should add that many circles that express concerns over the fate of the Middle East’s Christians, especially in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, say that Iran is a better “protector” of them than many Sunni Arab countries.
The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: The West and Iran