I like Iran: in so many ways, it is a beautiful country! And let me hasten to add that this is not a bland, snobby or even deliberately controversial statement by someone trying either to impress his readers or else put them off this piece! Rather, this comes from someone who visited Iran and negotiated with its officialdom his mandate for humanitarian relief work during the Gillan earthquake and first Gulf war in the late eighties and early nineties. This is also from someone who has travelled within the country and who held long (and quite delightful) conversations with its different indigenous communities in Tehran, Isfahan or Tabriz. And incidentally, this is from someone whose own Armenian community still remains by far the largest Christian "minority" in the country and whose men and women have welcomed him into their hearths and cooked delicious meals for him on numerous occasions.
I like Iran: its people are warm and hospitable. They are also savvy in a rather non-Eurocentric way. So forget the political prisms through which our sharp-minded politicians, pundits and even journalists look at those men and women and are at times influenced by the stereotypes of unshaven men and chador-wearing women. Iranians are not standoffish but they are enterprising!
I like Iran: my late grandfather made "his first million" as a Persian carpet merchant and he often travelled to Iran to purchase them for his stores in Jordan and Lebanon. The smell of a proper carpet remains quite distinctive for me and the designs on a hand-woven white silken Nain carpet are exquisite. Admittedly, this was during the era of the Peacock Throne at the time of the Pahlavi dynasty with its myriad repressive and authoritarian levers or its intelligence networks. But I am writing about a country and its people here and not necessarily about any political system of governance!
But I also do not like Iran: I do not like it because it has morphed into a pariah state since the much-acclaimed revolution of 1979 that turned many of its religious and political wheelers and dealers into less tolerant and more bigoted ideologues - and even at times into a dissembling coterie. Alas, Iran today is not perceived as a democracy of 80 million inhabitants by many people but more as a global threat because of its lack of basic human rights and gender equality as much as its discrimination against those who do not toe the official line. Yet, those same traits can equally be found in numerous other countries across many continents. However, what worries many powers today are Iranian encroaching attempts to enrich high-grade uranium. Not only that, but Iran has also become in the minds of some people one of the few staunch supporters of a Syrian dictatorship, a patron for the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and a country wielding huge influence in Iraq. These are some trust-defying taboos as much as being endemic issues that have plagued Iran and rendered its economy dangerously fragile and its relations with the West fraught with fear and suspicion despite the massive amounts of oil reserves and its potential human resources.
So why do I introduce Iran on my pages of The Huffington Post a week after the P5+1 concluded an interim agreement with it over its nuclear ambitions? After all, I can condense the Joint Plan of Action (or the agreement as posted on The Iran Project web-site) to the following few pithy words. Tehran will suspend enriching uranium beyond levels needed for use in its power stations. It will also leave inoperable the Arak heavy water reactor as well as roughly half of the installed centrifuges at Natanz and three-quarters of those at Fordow. It will also provide daily access to the Vienna-based IAEA inspectors. In return, the West will relax international sanctions and provide relief worth roughly $7bn.
Well, Iran is very much at the forefront of our political realities today. Most news programmes, broadsheets and social media tools are still covering the consequences of the second round of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 or EU3+3 (the 5 Permanent Members of the UN Security Council and Germany) on the future of its nuclear file. Meanwhile, everyone is also trying to "psychoanalyse" the new president Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif! Silly labels such as 'moderate', 'extreme' or 'pragmatic' have replaced hardcore politics. After all, to paraphrase the British statesman Lord Palmerston (Henry John Temple), it is interests and not friends that are eternal and perpetual.
But now that some deal has been struck, what will it mean to the MENA region? Can both sides overcome the tensions or will we go back to those war-mongering moments when the total lack of trust between Iran and the West let alone between Iran and its neighbours often cramped our political space and led us to the brink of instability and violence?
I would suggest that it is helpful to understand this country whose history dates as far back as the first Persian Empire in 550 BC and spans many empires, caliphates, sultanates and dynasties. In fact, Ervand Abrahamian's A Modern History of Iran (Cambridge University Press, 2008) provides a helpful reappraisal of Iran's modern history. In his own words, the author traces a traumatic journey across the 20th century, through the discovery of oil, imperial interventions, the rule of the Pahlavis and, in 1979, the revolution and birth of the Islamic Republic. He also looks at a country that has undergone a bitter war with Iraq (1980-1988), the transformation of society under the mullahs and more recently the expansion of the state and its struggle for power between the old elites, the intelligentsia and the commercial middle class. But for me, what lies at the heart of Iran are its people and their resilience as the country emerges at the beginning of the 21st century as one of the more influential states in a raddled MENA region.
Today and despite the serious reservations or even suspicions that many harbour over the deal between Iran and the West, let us remember that this is an interim six or twelve month agreement that will test the intentions of both sides. And in that sense, it is perhaps neither a historic achievement nor a historic mistake but a stop-gap for both sides.
Whether ululating with delight or fuming with consternation at the outcome in the Geneva talks, just consider the fact that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khaminei did not endorse those negotiations solely because he suddenly turned into a West-loving liberal! Rather, it is because the economy of his country has suffered hugely and Iran is trying hard to find an egress to its economic woes without necessarily losing face. So minus the big words or exuberant backslaps, there was a convergence of interests between the US (that did not want to initiate military strikes) and Iran (that wanted to salvage its economy) to strike a deal. No wonder the 'devil' and the 'axis of evil' were engaged in secret negotiations well before Geneva and the EU powers were brought in to 'rubberstamp' a deal. Any wonder that France balked then?
However, I am not moved by the nuclear issue per se as I do not think that it is the single key question. After all, Israel has possessed a redoubtable nuclear arsenal at Dimona in the Negev for well over five decades. Rather, what I fear could well be one key issue in this virtual political love fest is the future of Syria and by proxy that of Lebanon, the Gulf countries, Egypt and the whole region. I am not being dramatic. We in the West have every right to ensure that Iran will not enrich uranium to the level where it can produce a future bomb but we must also realise that the MENA is a very crowded neighbourhood and so should pursue proactively the non-proliferation of all nuclear hazards. Surely we do not wish to see other countries scrambling into a nuclear race and imperilling any prospect for real peace? Conversely though, we should equally learn to respect the legal right of Iran under International law to pursue enrichment for peaceful and NPT-defined purposes - hence the imperative for those verification-friendly nucleic negotiations.
But - and here is where things become murkier - this deal must not become the Bitcoin virtual currency that sells away the aspirations of all those Syrian men, women and children for their fundamental freedoms or that re-plunges the whole region into a brutal top-down status quo ante merely for the sake of an interim deal. After all, whilst six months are a very short blip in real political time, they can also become six long months of more deaths, refugees, internally-displaced men and women as well as destruction and rubble in Syria. I was not in Geneva, and cannot even presume to know what truly lurked in the minds of those politicians. But what I do know is that we must get the balance right and hope that this deal was not an appeasement mutatis mutandis over a whole region since that will not plaster the wounds for very long.
The months ahead will be very difficult that require wisdom, experience and perseverance - more so if the deal has less to do with achievements or mistakes and more with temporary respites that the parties might - or might not - pull off.