Setting our priorities right

Al-Ahram Weekly Editorial
Wednesday 8 Mar 2023

The announcement on Monday by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi that Iran would allow the agency more access and monitoring of its supposedly peaceful nuclear programme should be welcome news.


Speaking in Vienna after his first visit to Tehran in a year, during which he met with top Iranian officials including President Ebrahim Raisi, Grossi’s announcement was made after reports that uranium particles enriched to near bomb-grade levels had been found at an Iranian nuclear facility, and months of escalation and retaliatory measures between the United States and Iran while the two sides failed to reach an agreement on re-commitment to the international nuclear deal reached in 2015.

Since 2018, when former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA – which had the support of the UN Security Council – Tehran responded by restricting IAEA access to its nuclear facilities and resumed enrichment of uranium to levels barred by the agreement.

When US Democratic President Joe Biden took office in early 2021, he said pulling out from the JCPOA was a mistake that allowed Iran to  resume its alleged military nuclear programme secretly. However, for two years now, negotiations between the two sides, backed by the European Union, have failed to renew US participation in the nuclear agreement. Such failure has only resulted in the deterioration of the situation in the entire Middle East, further fuelling several ongoing conflicts.

Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netnayahu, facing unprecedented domestic protests against laws he wants to approve to overhaul the judiciary in order to restrict its ability to stall his government’s extremist agenda and to overcome corruption charges he has been facing, immediately picked up reports on Iran’s higher uranium enrichment levels to renew his long-standing demand to consider military action against Iran.

He also rebuffed as “unworthy” comments made by IAEA’s Grossi while in Tehran that any Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be illegal. “Are we forbidden from defending ourselves? We are obviously permitted to do this,” Netanyahu said on Sunday.

Such rhetoric describing a possible military confrontation with Iran as a trivial matter in a troubled region already suffering many ongoing conflicts and miseries, is to say the least irresponsible. Hopefully US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, who has been touring the region this week, with stops in Jordan, Egypt and Israel, will deliver a clear message to the Israeli government that this is not the right time to push for escalation with Iran.

Netanyahu’s relentless efforts to exaggerate the Iranian threat in order to escape his domestic problems, and even more in order to avoid international pressure to renew peace talks with the Palestinian Authority and stop the nearly daily bloody army raids of Palestinian cities in which scores are killed, are only making matters worse and are the real threat to regional security.   

That is not to say that Iran shares no part of the blame in creating serious concerns over its regional ambitions and its role in deepening conflicts in several countries in the region.

Iran’s nuclear programme poses a threat more directly to its Arab neighbours, and they are entitled to receive strict assurances that it will remain peaceful. The last thing we need in this region is a nuclear arms’ race. Iran must also reverse its policy of meddling in regional conflicts, whether in Iraq, Syria, Yemen or Lebanon.

Support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, for example – providing them with drones and missiles capable of attacking oil facilities and civilian targets in neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – is totally unacceptable.

Threats to the free flow of oil in the strategic Gulf region are also not just a source of regional but international concern at the end of a year during which oil prices due to the war between Russia and Ukraine.

These are key areas in which Iran needs to adopt a more constructive policy, providing assurances to its Arab neighbours in the first place that it has no intention to pose a threat to their security or sovereignty.

There have already been several positive signs on this level, with direct talks being held between Iranian and Saudi officials.

The Iranian leadership could also be helpful in maintaining the ongoing truce in Yemen, sparing the Yemeni people greater misery and hardship. Tehran can certainly play a positive role in ending the ongoing political deadlock in Lebanon by putting pressure on its close ally, Hizbullah, in order to elect a new president.

Amid an extremely complicated situation in the Middle East, all efforts should be directed towards de-escalating existing conflicts and tensions, instead of creating new, more dangerous ones.

Equally, international and regional partners, led by the United States, must set their priorities right, handling first immediate, serious threats to regional security, topped by the miserable failure to renew peace talks between Palestine and Israel and finding a just settlement for this decades-long conflict.

Racist attacks by extremist settlers against innocent Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank, backed by calls by senior Israeli ministers to “erase” their villages and Israeli army raids of their cities are the more immediate source of danger which could easily flare up into a wider conflict, and the world needs to deal with it now.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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