The world watches anxiously as the US-led P5+1 group negotiate with Iran to curb its uranium enrichment programme, in exchange for relieving economic sanctions that has crippled the country. The talks seem promising; the White House recently said it will lift the sanctions the instant Iran cuts down its production. However, even if negotiations are successful, this does not mean US-Iran relations would improve because of past grudges and both sides scrambling for power in the Middle East.
What are the talks about?
The negotiations commenced 19 months ago, the deadline to settle an agreement is 30 June 2015. The P5+1 consist of global leaders: the US, China, Russia, UK, France and Germany. Iran has been accused of breaching the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which it signed in 1968. Further, the nuclear watchdog, the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), says Iran is uncooperative in allowing official weapon inspections to take place. In response, the UN, along with other countries such as the US, EU, Japan and South Korea, imposed sanctions to pressure Tehran to abide by international law.
The sanctions have immensely hurt the country, the inflation rate peaked at 40% in 2013 and oil trade fell from 2.2million barrels per day in 2011 to 700,000 in May 2013. Restrictions include: exporting nuclear technology or heavy weaponry, business dealings, bank transactions, and oil and natural gas trade.
P5+1 stated sanctions will be lifted in a gradual process, but Iran insisted it should be revoked once the agreements are sealed. The following are the proposed settlements:
1/ In the next 10 years, Iran cuts its uranium production from 19,000 centrifuges to 6,104, with only 5,060 working to enrich uranium
2/ In the next 15 years, Iran must curb its 10,000kg of uranium stockpile to just 300kg
3/ Fordo nuclear facility, one of the country’s major reactors, must stop enriching uranium for the next 15 years
4/ Iran cooperates with the IAEA to allow inspections to take place
If the deal is successful, the US can claim victory in deterring a potential nuclear threat, and simultaneously dismantle its rival in the Middle East. Iran, however, sits on a double-edged sword. Iran’s economy can recover, yet without a strong nuclear capability, it could lose the race to become a regional superpower, and also leave itself vulnerable to potential threats.
Chronology of US-Iran Relations
Past and present rivalry between the US and Iran has made both sides mutually suspicious. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, said:
” They [US] created the myth of nuclear weapons so they could say the Islamic Republic is a source of threat. No, the source of threat is America itself, with its unrestrained, destabilizing intervention.”
Senator Marco Rubio of the US Republican Party, and contender for the 2016 Presidential elections, said that if Iran persisted in its nuclear programming, the US should not shy away from using military might to pressure Tehran: “We don’t want that to happen, but risk of a nuclear Iran is so great that option must be on the table.”
Tensions between the US and Iran can be traced back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini toppled the pro-west Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The new ruler denounced America as the “Great Satan” and vowed not to be a chess piece of American domination in the Middle East. Conflict escalated on 4 November 1979 when the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line stormed into the US embassy and took more than 60 American hostages for 444 days.
Historians believe the hostage crisis was a way for Iran to assert its position against the US. In response, the Washington sent troops on a rescue mission but ultimately failed with eight of their servicemen dead. This incident still haunts US politics and pride; they feel embarrassed that a state of its sheer size could not save its people from a smaller nation. As Stephen Kinzer wrote in the Boston Globe, a diplomat whom he interviewed said: “it all goes back to the hostage crisis.”
Relations continue to sour in 1995 when the Clinton Administration passed the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, to punish Iran for supporting alleged terrorist organisations such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Secondly, the Act was a response to Iran signing an agreement with Russia to finish building the Bushehr Plant. George W. Bush’s controversial ‘Axis of Evil’ speech on 29 January 2002 prompted anti-US sentiments in Iran and the feeling it would be next on the hit-list.
The US declared war on terror and said to global leaders ‘you’re either with us or against us’. Given Iran’s political interests, Washington believed Iran was an enemy. US interests in the Middle East are to get rid of terrorism, eliminate weapons of mass destruction, stabilise and democratise the volatile region. The US believes a peaceful Middle East means a secure global economy because of oil trade. President Obama said: “We will dismantle terrorist networks that threaten our people. Wherever possible, we will build the capacity of our partners, respect the sovereignty of nations, and work to address the root causes of terror. But when it is necessary to defend the United States against terrorist attack, we will take direct action.”
Iran is seen as a menace to regional stability. In 2007, King Abdullah of Jordan made a controversial statement, indicting Iran of consolidating its powerbase, forming the so-called Shia Crescent to challenge Sunni states.However, Iran has blamed US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq for undermining the region. Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani,said: “[The occupations] brought the unfortunate seed of violence, which has damaged the lives of people and this country.” Iran sees the fall of Afghanistan, Iraq and potentially Syria as an encirclement policy by the West. At the moment, Iran is supporting the Assad regime to ensure it does not have the same fate as Iraq.
Yemen: The Current Battleground
In the latest tussle for power, Yemen has become a battleground for Iran and the US to expand control in the region. And King Abdullah’s claim about Iran might ring true to the western world. Iran is accused of supporting the Houthi rebels, who are a Shia-based rebel group aiming to oust President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Houthi leader Abdulmalek al-Houthi condemned the government as: “This government is a puppet in the hands of influential forces, which are indifferent to the rightful and sincere demands of these people.” On 23 April 2015, a dubious Iranian convoy was spotted in the Persian Gulf suspected of supplying arms to the Houthis. The US has also sent in aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt to oversee the region and to keep an eye on its rival. Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world, yet it is an important location because it is at the mouth of the Red Sea. The US backs the current government because Yemen is a known hiding ground for Al-Qaeda which the Washington aims to eliminate.
The clock is ticking away before the nuclear talks’ deadline. The talks can lead to optimistic results for many; Iran can rebuild its economy and trade, and the international community can be sure there is one less nuclear threat. It will also be a positive step for Iran to show it is willing to cooperate with the global community. However, this does not guarantee US-Iran relationships will mend because of geopolitical interests in the Middle East and old grudges continue to mar bilateral relations. As the region is increasingly unstable, it is very unlikely the two rivals will forfeit their goals because new opportunities could be found in the time of crisis.