By Owais Arshad
The removal of Iranian nuclear sanctions is being hailed as a triumph for diplomacy in the Middle East. However the euphoria surrounding the nuclear agreement that lifted sanctions easily overlooks the fact that as more things change, the more they stay the same. Most glaringly, the neutralization of the Iranian nuclear program has, in actual fact, done little to settle the larger question of the role of nuclear weaponry in the Middle East.
On the economic front, the European Union’s relief is substantial although the United States will continue to maintain other sanctions for a range of issues ranging from terrorism to human rights abuses. The major concession from the US is the fact that its Department of Treasury will no longer target foreign individuals and entities that do business with Iran. The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT), the international financial messaging system, has announced that it will be restoring access to Iranian banks. Crucially, this will allow Iran’s financial system to finally operate internationally again, and receive billions in unfrozen assets and interest payments. Already, Iran is set to receive $1.7 billion after settling (by partially forgiving) debts incurred by the United States for weapons payments made before the revolution. Regardless, Iran is set to reap substantial gains through this agreement.
Current Nuclear Weapons Arsenals
Western arguments against Iran’s alleged weapons program often cited this as being in violation of Iran’s commitments under non-proliferation treaties such as the NPT. This agreement along with the CTBT provides the architecture of international nuclear weapons regulation internationally.
Although the probing of Iran’s nuclear intentions was extensive, and even unprecedented, what is often forgotten is that the NPT also requires the US, UK, Russia, France and China to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”. Despite talk of ending the dangers of nuclear weapons little has been achieved in holding the largest weapons states accountable for their arsenals.
The US, UK and France were able to convince other members of the UN Security Council to force Iran to open up its nuclear program, and have now put its nuclear reactors and research under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However in many ways the nuclear agreement has only made a marginal impact to the Middle East’s overall vulnerability to nuclear weapons which continue to be wielded under a range of overt and covert agreements in various countries.
Curtailing the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East remain an elusive goal. Although the Arab League has long proposed a comprehensive declaration of a nuclear weapons free zone in the region, Israeli security policies continue to rely on maintaining nuclear superiority, and the US is content to subsidize its military, allowing it to maintain its large nuclear stockpile.
At the same time, the US has for many decades also stationed nuclear weapons on Turkish soil, and Turkish pilots regularly practice firing such weapons. While such practices are likely a violation of the NPT, the US and its allies have maintained the position that the NPT only applies during peace, and, as such, if the Turks or other assorted NATO allies were to use such weapons, war would have broken out already. This state of affairs has become particularly ominous in light of the recent downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey over Syrian airspace.
The Saudi’s also appear to maintain a covert nuclear capability thanks to an agreement with Pakistan. Long rumoured, often denied, it is thought that Pakistanis have guaranteed the Saudi royal family access to nuclear war heads as and when required.
Iran can look forward to an aggressive marketing campaign by European business interests, as they try to mend fences and flood Iran with much need services, goods and technology, the lack of which have long crippled its economy. Cables from Wikileaks have shown that prior to sanctions, the US struggled to convince EU countries such as Italy to step away from dealing with Iran. The Italians noted that Iran was a “good customer” and that, “The Iranians pay well, and pay on time”.
Iran’s opening up for business provides a small sliver of goods news for Europe’s stagnant economies. In a recent official European Commission economic forecast report for 2016, the language was notably pessimistic, with allusions to growth remaining “sluggish” and that the “global outlook” being vulnerable to “volatile incidents in capital markets”. As the global economy remains in flux, it is only from Iran that large state subsidised EU conglomerates such as Airbus can hope to gain any substantial orders.
This was evident in the eagerness shown by the Italians to conclude nearly $20 billion in business agreements with the visiting Iranian President Rouhani. The Italians even covered up the statues in the Capitoline Museum to avoid offence, and, presumably ensure that all contracts were signed without a hitch.
It is in this context that Iran’s ability to secure a settlement with major powers is remarkable. The Iranian establishment has essentially gambled, and won by demonstrating that they have the technical capability to develop weapons, but choose not to. By doing so, they have been recognized as equals.