We should be cheering the fact that the American and Iranian foreign ministers are now trading accusations in public about who is to blame for the lack of a full agreement in last week’s Geneva negotiations over Iran’s nuclear industry and the United Nations and American sanctions imposed on Iran. It is so much healthier to have the foreign ministers exchanging ideas on how to reach a negotiated agreement than to have them threaten each other with more sanctions or the more rapid development of nuclear capabilities.
Iran today is the most important country in the Middle East in political and diplomatic terms because, in the short term, its conduct and relations with others impact more issues in the region and the world than any other country. The last decade has seen Iran and Syria and Hezbollah primarily working together in an ideological, political and military confrontation against a de facto counteralliance led by Saudi Arabia in the region along with the United States and Israel. Iran is actively linked with every major conflict or significant ideological frontier in the area – in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf, Turkey and Afghanistan.
A negotiated resolution of the Iranian sanctions and nuclear issues would have profound and positive impacts on all of these situations. An economically robust Iran would mean that the center of gravity of the region would adjust to account for the two productive trade dynamos of Iran and Turkey on the edge of the Arab region, to complement the Arab world’s more immature and energy-related, mostly nonproductive, rentier-oriented economies.
Normal diplomatic relations between Iran and Western states would also cause changes in Iran’s relations with Syria and Hezbollah. This would probably be more in terms of toning down this tripartite alliance’s anti-Western tone in favor of seeking more integration of the three parties into the region’s politics, culture and economies.
It would also force reconsideration of the silly feud between Iran and Saudi Arabia, probably triggering discussions about a Helsinki-like broad agreement over Iranian-Arab-Western relations (sorry, Israel, your time is not yet here for this sort of collaboration). Such an agreed regional security-political-cultural framework for interaction and cooperation would tone down aggressive postures all around, and allow individual countries to develop in their own manner. If Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Hezbollah and others in the region were less consumed by ideological fervor and active confrontations, they would find themselves having to respond to the demands of many in their own populations for transitions to more modern, liberal, productive and humane societies, perhaps even democratic ones.
Just as Helsinki in the mid-1970s helped trigger in a nonviolent way the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire 15 years later, so would a rapprochement between Arabs, Iranians and the West create conditions inside Iran that would inevitably change its ideological configuration and allow a more natural resumption of historical evolution in the country, which is what a majority of Iranians seems to want.
I suspect that robust economic growth and the absence of a confrontational relationship with foreign countries would allow Iranian forces of pragmatism and liberalism to expand their sway inside the country, and eventually – perhaps within 5-7 years – bring down the remnants of the hard Islamic revolutionary regime that still dominates the country’s power structure. A transition to a more democratic and less Islamist political-social order would require allowing the Revolutionary Guard and related military and ideological forces that bolster the regime to keep their economic and other privileges, and to remain unpunished for their past excesses – just as happened to the old guard in South Africa and the Soviet Union, who retained their wealth and land after transitions there.
A reconfigured, less militaristic and more relaxed Middle East – in other words, more normal societies, rather than the abnormal ones of today – would be one of the consequences of a negotiated resolution of the Iranian sanctions and nuclear issues. The significant progress achieved in Geneva last week is commendable, and augurs well for a full agreement soon. What is less understandable is why the American-led Western countries waited 10 years to reach this point, when the basic Iranian positions in Geneva on capping enrichment and allowing inspections had been offered a decade ago. Historians and psychologists of the deficiencies of democracy will have to clarify that for us one day. Or perhaps it reflects the acknowledgment in the West that threatening and sanctioning Iran only speeded up the latter’s nuclear capabilities, rather than collapsing them.
For now, we should applaud the exchanges of accusations between the Iranian and American foreign ministers, because they occur within a context of very serious negotiations and reflect a clear desire by both sides to succeed. Such success is made more likely by the agreement last weekend between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency to allow for more inspections of Iranian facilities.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.