Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Analysing the analysis: The nuclear deal

Debunking myths and merits of the US-Iranian negotiations.

By Marwan Bishara


There has been no shortage of analyses and opinions about the Iran nuclear deal over the last few days.
Most relied on a plethora of arguments that included the moral, pragmatic, technical, strategic, and even the "anthropological" - read Orientalist - arguments.
But where they did differ is in how these arguments were tailored, prioritised, or sequestered to corroborate or discredit the deal.
These observations come with two caveats. First, they don't constitute a methodical study of any sort, nor focus on any particular analyst. I confess to reading most of the analyses about the deal on my smartphone. A bad habit.
'Historic' nuclear deal agreed with Iran
And second, I take it for granted that in many cases, the arguments are based on premeditated ideological and political underpinnings.
The moral imperative
The use of the moral arguments is pervasive among the ideological detractors of the US president and the Iranian mullahs.
The first camp accuses US President Barack Obama of betraying the US and Israel by reaching the kind of deal that will empower the Iranian regime that has proved to be evil, authoritarian, cunning, malicious, malevolent, and most importantly, an unrepentant regime; one that remains terribly hostile to the US and Israel - a country it seeks to (allegedly) destroy.
The second camp ridicules a "hypocritical" Islamic republic for its appeasement and even its embrace of the "Great Satan" just as its revolutionary champions chant "Death to America".
The moral arguments are the most sensational and the easiest to discredit, especially when those employing them are no less hypocritical.
No one cares to mention, for example, that Israel is the only nuclear power in the region with reportedly 100-200 nuclear warheads capable of reaching and destroying Iran.
States are generally motivated by interest not moral imperatives. And while appealing to the moral conscience of a nation is a worthy cause, I get the impression that most of those who speak of morals and nukes generally want to keep the nukes for themselves, and just in case, they want the freedom to kill Middle Easterners without the inhibition of a nuclear deterrence.
The Orientalist perspective
Equally lacking is the Orientalist perspective, especially when peddled by think-tank experts of the Middle East or experts of Middle Eastern origin who add zest and authenticity to a flawed, not to say racist, approach.
Such analysis attributes the differences in the negotiations' strategies to contrasting cultures at the negotiating table - Western and Persian. They reckon behind the deal lies a temporal, pragmatic and utilitarian US mind-set on one side, and on the other side, an ancient, mystic, and at times, erratic Persian mind-set.
What really matters is whether the deal succeeds in limiting Iran's nuclear development, and whether it allows Iran to break out of isolation.

Pictures of US Secretary of State John Kerry biking through Vienna and of contemplative Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during Friday prayers go a long way to delineate a contrasted image.
Some go as far as to explain the deal as a culmination of protracted negotiations between modern and ancient powers: Where Washington's strategy is limited to a four-year cycle, while Tehran's negotiations' strategy is presumably historic in its breadth.
Perhaps this is an argument to be had, but there's little doubt that the (Iranian President Hassan) Rouhani-Zarif camp is no less conscious of legacy, and far more worried about next year's parliamentary elections than Obama-Kerry who are not even running in the next US elections.
The elected Iranian officials were quite mindful that success or failure of the negotiations is vital for their political credibility and the future of the country.
The realist/pragmatic take
The starting point here is that both Washington and Tehran are at an impasse and that both nations, albeit for different reasons, need to break out of this impasse and towards a better, more rewarding, situation.
Indeed, popularly elected Presidents Obama and Rouhani are seen as demonstrations of Americans and Iranians desiring to follow a less confrontational path than of previous Presidents George W Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Same goes for the elites who realised that sanctions might have hurt plenty, but not enough to limit Iran's nuclear programme.
In this context, it doesn't really matter whether one takes Kerry or Zarif's word for it - that no better deal was possible for either party. What really matters is whether the deal succeeds in limiting Iran's nuclear development, and whether it allows Iran to break out of isolation. In other words, how it serves the immediate interests of both countries.
The technical assessment
Many think-tankers and like-minded experts have analysed the deal primarily as a nuclear deal, nothing more. Their analysis focused on motives and objectives, bottom lines and redlines, and most importantly on the balance between compromise and reward at the negotiation table.
The general consensus ... is that the win-win aspect of the deal extends beyond the immediate pros and cons of dollars and inspections, to the long-term strategic opportunities for both countries.

They juxtapose centrifuges, inspections, and verifiable measures with lifting sanctions, sponsoring new UN resolutions, and unfrozen bank accounts. All of which turned into a sort of balance sheet with pluses and minuses for each party with the assumption being that only a win-win deal is sustainable in these negotiations.
But by its nature, this accounting takes the tangible elements into consideration and neglects the intangible and long-term implications as well as the consequences of the deal.
President Obama has urged that the deal be evaluated solely as a nuclear deal. But, frankly, any assessment devoid of the strategic implications is utterly incomplete.
The strategic reading
The strategic arguments assume that the deal is a culmination of one phase and the beginning of another; and that it can only be evaluated by how it's shaped, and eventually shapes, the strategic regional landscape. It also assumes how such a major deal is bound to affect the regional balance of power.
That involves, among others, how both Iran and the US can or will use (read misuse) the agreement in terms of projecting their power in the greater Middle East.
The general consensus here is that the win-win aspect of the deal extends beyond the immediate pros and cons of dollars and inspections, to the long-term strategic opportunities for both countries.
The US and Iran might have been talking in Vienna but their eyes were on Baghdad, Damascus, Riyadh, and the strategic landscape of the Middle East in general.
And the deal is a harbinger for enhancing their regional influence. The question is: Will it render them more or less responsible? Or, will they devise a new strategic division of labour; a great bargain of sorts?"
I can't say I'm optimistic, but I certainly remain hopeful.
In short
As it is with any issue that has been exhaustively and repeatedly discussed, the analyses may be perceptive and original. But while perceptive analyses are usually unoriginal; when original, they're hardly perceptive.
They are nonetheless important in the way they shape public opinion, with the bad arguments attracting as many takers as the good arguments.
Analysis: What do we know so far about Iran deal contents?
And this will prove paramount in the months and years to come because the deal is not a type of surrender as was with the US and Japan at the end of World War II, or symmetrical as was with the US and Soviets during the Cold War.
It is the culmination of unsymmetrical negotiations between the US-led world powers (P5+1) and Iran, which refuses to capitulate.
In this case, the deal is more than a document; it is a process where the analysis and debate play an important role.
Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.

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