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Opinion: What Will Follow the Muscat Talks? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (far L), European Union adviser Catherine Ashton (L), Omani Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs Yussef bin Alawi (R) and US Secretary of State John Kerry (far R), in Muscat on November 9, 2014. (AP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM, POOL)

US President Barack Obama seems enthusiastic about bringing about a new era of restoring good relations with Tehran, which was an important ally until the Shah’s downfall in 1979. This is why American and European officials met with an Iranian delegation in the Omani capital Muscat this week, as they struggle in a race against time to reach an accord on the Iranian regime’s nuclear aspirations before the deadline later this month.

We in the Middle East have serious reservations about these negotiations, first among them the veil of secrecy that has shrouded the talks. The Obama administration has deliberately sought to keep the details of its contacts and negotiations with Tehran a secret, even from its own regional allies. Such an approach contrasts with the usual US approach, such as that seen in negotiations with North Korea. In that case, all concerned regional parties shared intelligence and weighed in on the decision-making process, and countries like South Korea, Japan, China and Russia were involved in the negotiations alongside the American delegation. However, when it came to negotiations with Iran, the US shut out its allies and others directly involved in the talks, such as Turkey, Egypt, Israel, and the Gulf countries.

Moreover, American reassurances that concessions will not be made have proven to be untrue on several occasions. The last of these concessions was the US’s acceptance of Iran maintaining 1,500 uranium-enriching centrifuges after previously saying it wouldn’t accept more than 500. This came in addition to a series of concessions Washington made in relation to some of Iran’s frozen assets.

We in the Middle East are also concerned about the Iranians’ disquieting comments regarding the expansion of their influence in the region. Although Washington says it will not accept this, doubts persist that Iran will be given a free hand to further sabotage the region. US stances that have favored Iran’s interests in Iraq and Syria strengthen these doubts. The most recent example was President Obama’s statement regarding Syria and his pledge to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) while refusing to punish the Syrian regime, a regime largely responsible for the present crisis and which has killed more than 250,000 of its own citizens and displaced more than 8 million more.

There is also the nuclear program itself. The US seems to have backtracked on its pledge to prevent the Iranian regime from possessing the capability to produce nuclear weapons, and this will lead to a dangerous shift in the regional balance of power. We, as well as the West, are well aware of the fact that Iran does not need nuclear power in order to meet its energy requirements—it holds the world’s fourth-largest proven crude oil reserves; larger than those of Iraq, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. So why would Iran spend huge amounts of funds for nuclear energy when it can, alternatively, produce petroleum at a very low cost? It is because Iran seeks to produce nuclear weapons, and pursuing this with such persistence suggests it has dangerous and hostile intentions

If negotiators in Muscat allow Iran to pursue its nuclear program, we will enter a very dangerous phase. The balance of regional power will be disrupted and this will force regional countries—mainly Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt—to obtain deterrents. This will make the Middle East, already home to Al-Qaeda and ISIS, a much more dangerous place due to the presence of five countries capable of producing nuclear weapons, including Iran and Israel. Why is Obama so concerned with sealing a deal with Iran? There’s no logical reason. We saw how US sanctions succeeded in exhausting the Iranian regime and led it to a point where Tehran viewed its own nuclear program as a threat to its survival. However, the space which the Obama administration has opened for Tehran has pushed the Americans, and not the Iranians, to present more concessions in exchange for promises from Khamenei’s regime. These promises are not based on halting the nuclear program, only on slowing down its implementation.

We don’t criticize the negotiations because we do not want Western countries to reach an agreement that ends the decades-old crisis with Iran. Any agreement that tames Iranian hostility and prevents it obtaining nuclear weapons serves the interests of the entire region. However, we do not think that the measures reportedly on offer to curb Iran’s nuclear aspirations are enough to convince anyone the Islamic Republic is serious about not spreading chaos in the way it has done since the 1980s. What creates doubts in people’s minds is the way the Americans have distanced regional countries from the negotiations with Iran, and the secret messages exchanged with the Iranian leadership, as exposed by the Israelis, who revealed the existence of secret communiqués between Obama and the Iranian supreme leader himself. At the same time, we also see how Washington has adopted stances that are biased toward Iran in Syria and Iraq.

The negotiations in Muscat hint that an agreement may be reached before the November 24 deadline for a nuclear deal. It is an agreement that may well alter the region’s history.