THE BLOG

Where Will the Geneva Deal With Iran Lead?

02/12/2013 12:21 GMT | Updated 30/01/2014 10:59 GMT

The British hero of the diplomatic breakthrough with Iran was seen by many as the European Union's foreign affairs and security supremo, Cathy Ashton, who had been derided by some as a lightweight.

As it happens, Ashton was my boss when I worked at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1977. CND failed to secure the unilateral abandonment of the British nuclear deterrent. The big question now is whether Ashton and her colleagues have begun the process of stopping Iran from unilaterally developing its bomb.

The reaction to the deal in Geneva has included some of the usual suspects jumping the gun with naive analysis. One says with great certainty that Rouhani made a choice between ending sanctions and the bomb. He could be seeking both.

After all, deceit is not new to the Islamic Republic. Let's recall how the Iranian Kurdish leader Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou was lured to his death in Vienna in 1989 in actions that were carefully choreographed by senior leaders over a decade.

But strategic deceit is often not what it seems to be or doesn't turn out as planned. Gorbachev said he sought to reform communism but this proved to be an illusion and the process of change unravelled its contradictions.

Twenty years ago, someone passed me an internal IRA document outlining TUAS, which meant either "totally unarmed struggle" or "tactical use of armed struggle." Deliberate ambiguity was part of a process of kidding hard-liners that their dreams would be preserved. IRA leaders knew they were conceding more than they let on and that the process of change became irreversible.

Could this be the case with Iran, which has been battered by sanctions? It's true that some theocrats care more about Iran's messianic mission and their own lucrative empires than its people. But Iran has lost $100 billion in oil revenues, 60% of the value of its currency and 5% of its economy in the last two years alone. Inflation stands at 40%. Iranian leaders risk popular revolt if this continues.

Just as the IRA was brought to the table through military defeat, it is possible that Iran has been forced to concede change by sanctions. Hard-headed analysts argue that the interim agreement allows intrusive inspections of nuclear facilities once officially denied by the regime. The relaxation of the sanctions regime is relatively minor, sanctions continue to bite and can be reimposed. The deal increases the time needed to develop a bomb openly and the window of time in which action could be taken. Military action would be seen as more legitimate after having exhausted diplomatic efforts.

It's understandable for Israel and Saudi Arabia to be sceptical. They are in immediate harm's way if the Rouhani routine is really about Iran becoming the North Korea of the Middle East.

Similar fears were expressed by MPs on both sides of the Chamber when the British Foreign Secretary William Hague reported back to the Commons last week. Conservative MP Robert Halfon said that many regard Iran as "the Soviet Union of the middle east, because it practises repression at home, exports terrorism abroad and says it wants to wipe Israel off the map. He asked how the Government would "judge whether this is genuine perestroika and glasnost or whether it is deception by Iran."

The former and much respected Middle East Minister, Alistair Burt argued that Israel, the Arab and the wider world would be assured by ensuring that every dot and comma of the interim agreement is upheld, there should be serious progress on a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the middle east, that Iran stops its murderous activities in Syria immediately and contributes to ending that conflict. Such questions should not be ignored.

The Geneva deal could open a Pandora's box of new problems for the Iranian regime. Assuming that a comprehensive and verifiable agreement is concluded, Iran's unfair internal power structure could come under the spotlight as it would with any other country.

Various minorities, including the Kurds, account for the majority of the population but cannot run for high office in what approximates to apartheid. Women are the bottom of the heap. Executions have continued as before. Elections are fiddled. Ironically, Iranian leaders played a better diplomatic hand at the Geneva negotiations by using Twitter, which is banned in Iran itself. Such contradictions become harder to sustain as Iran opens itself up.

Most Iranians are probably pro-western and yearn for freedoms that many enjoy in private. The quest for the atomic bomb may have given the regime some nationalistic kudos and it is always useful to have an external threat to keep people in line. If that dissipates then it will be much harder to repress Iranians. Maybe now the plight of the Iranian people can finally move centre stage.