London, Asharq Al-Awsat—We are still a long way before the “deal” on Iran’s nuclear program becomes reality, if ever.
However, even if it doesn’t, the process has already produced potential winners and losers.
The initial deal, known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has no legal authority because no one has signed it. Nevertheless, the resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council last week, the seventh on the subject, might be regarded as providing the JCPOA with a measure of legality. As a sponsor of the resolution, the US voted for it and is thus committed to it. Iran, not a member of the Security Council, did not have to vote and has not accepted it yet.
Accepting the new resolution won’t be easy because it is based on six previous resolutions Iran has rejected.
Last Saturday, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hinted that the Islamic Republic may not be able to accept the new resolution, in which case a thick fog would be cast over the whole issue.
“The text of JCPOA makes it clear that its content is not identical with the contents of [UN Security Council] Resolution 2231,” Zarif said. “By mixing the two, [US Secretary of State] John Kerry is fomenting confusion.”
For Iran to accept the new resolution, thus giving the JCPOA legal basis, the text must first be approved by the Council of Ministers.
It is then submitted to the High Council of National Defense.
If approved there, the text goes to the Islamic Majlis. If approved by the Majlis, it goes to the Council of the Custodians of the Constitution.
Finally, the text will be submitted to “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is not obliged to specifically endorse it and could cancel it at any time with a State Order (Hukm Al-Hokumi).
The only document signed by Iran in Vienna is what Yukiya Amano, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), calls a “roadmap” to address the IAEA’s concerns about the military dimensions of the Iranian program with a view to issuing a report. (The text remains secret!)
But even that signature means little.
In the past 12 years, Iran has signed such documents on three occasions, each time reneging on them.
In any case, a “roadmap” does not tell one where to go, at what speed, and by which means of transportation—or whether to start a journey in the first place. A “roadmap” does not deprive you of circumventing some points or even making U-turns.
Despite the fact that we have little more than an ersatz deal, the general reaction seems to be positive.
This is not hard to understand.
Among the winners is US President Barack Obama who has managed to kick the can beyond what is left of his presidency and is already boasting about this “historic success” to burnish his legacy.
Russia is happy because it wants a share of unfrozen Iranian assets by selling arms to Tehran. During the Vienna negotiations, Iran’s Defense Minister Gen. Hossein Dehghan led a 40-man delegation to Moscow to discuss arms purchases. He was followed by Commander of the Iranian Navy Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, who wants to upgrade and re-weaponize his force with help from Russia.
China is also happy because it has initialed accords to build five nuclear power stations in Iran and plans to invest massively in the Iranian oil industry. (China depends on Iranian oil for 11 percent of its needs.)
Germany is happy because Iran is its biggest trading partner in the Middle East. German exports to Iran rose by 32 percent last year thanks to government guarantees based on the hope for a “deal” that would put more money in Iranian pockets.
France is also happy because it could speed up arms sales to Arabs worried about a nuclear-armed Iran. France has also signed deals to build nuclear power stations in various Arab countries, including Egypt.
Britain is also among the winners, if only because the “deal” could enable it to resume diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic and reopen Her Majesty’s Embassy in Tehran.
Inside Iran, the immediate winner is the faction led by former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, which includes President Hassan Rouhani and a majority of ministers in his cabinet.
The day the Vienna “deal” was announced Rafsanjani published a poster showing him against a background of a rising sun, flanked by Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif (drawn as smaller figures than Rafsanjani). The poster had a caption in verse: “O, Hashemi! Your wisdom and far-sightedness/Has cured the drunken of their intoxication!”
The little poem is an attack on Khamenei, whom Rafsanjani, without actually naming him, accuses of being “intoxicated by radical slogans.”
Rafsanjani sees the “deal” as a springboard for his campaign to win control of the Islamic Majlis (the ersatz parliament) and the Assembly of Experts, which chooses the “Supreme Guide” in next year’s general elections, and, eventually, replace Khamenei with one of his own acolytes. Rafsanjani’s candidate is Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of the Ayatollah who created the Islamic Republic.
Two days after the “deal” was announced Rafsanjani chaired a meeting in Rouhani’s residence to discuss strategy for next year’s elections. Also present were, apart from Rouhani, Hassan Khomeini and former Majlis Speaker Ayatollah Ali Akbar Nategh-Nuri.
Snubbing the “Supreme Guide”
To mark his distance from Khamenei, Rafsanjani stage-managed two spectacles last week.
He refused to attend an audience granted by Khamenei to regime dignitaries. Broadcast live on TV, the gathering showed Rafsanjani’s usual place empty for the first time in decades. Next, during the end-of-Ramadan ceremonies (Eid Al-Fitr) when Khamenei led mass prayers, Rafsanjani did not join the front row, and at the end of the spectacle walked away without even saying hello to the “Supreme Guide.”
The Iranian military could also be regarded as among the winners.
Even before the “deal” was announced Rouhani increased their budget by 23 percent. With new financial resources the Iranian military could press on with two projects.
The first is to consolidate their presence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon before a new and possibly hostile US president tries to reverse Obama’s pro-Tehran policy.
The next goal is a massive build-up of both the regular Iranian navy and the irregular one controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Tehran military planners know that naval assets capable of assuring logistical support are vital for empire-building projects. At the moment none of the regional countries has a navy; all depend on the US for ensuring maritime security.
The maritime border treaty that Iran persuaded Oman to sign a few weeks ago gives a boost to Tehran’s naval ambitions.
Iran’s navy secures mooring rights in Omani islands in the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.
Of crucial importance is the Omani island of Beit Al-Ghanam which controls the southern gateway to the Strait of Hormuz. Iran also has naval bases in Syria and enjoys naval assets in Lebanon thanks to local Hezbollah units controlled by the Islamic Republic.
Turkey, a loser
Among the losers is Turkey, which has benefited immensely from sanctions against Iran by providing sanction-busting channels. With direct international trade with Iran restored, Tukey would also lose massive revenues from transit dues.
Worse still, a strengthened Islamic Republic is certain to increase pressure on Turkey to accept Khomeinist leadership. On Saturday the daily Kayhan, organ of Khamenei, ran an editorial calling on Turkey to “join the Resistance Front” under Iranian leadership, recognize Bashar Al-Assad as the legitimate president of Syria, and stop “oppressing Alevi and Kurdish minorities.”
Another potential loser could be Dubai, the emirate which has operated as a nerve center for Iran’s banking and trade since the 1980s. According to Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a close aide of Khamenei, Iranian investment in Dubai amounts to “over 700 billion US dollars.”
Most countries in the region could also end up among the losers.
A regime espousing a messianic ideology and claiming leadership of the whole Muslim World will be emboldened by what it perceives as surrender by the United States. That is already clear with the intensification of Khomeinist propaganda based on Khamenei’s declaration earlier this month of an Iranian “zone of influence.”
The fact that Khamenei named Bahrain and Yemen as part of his zone of influence is a matter of concern for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations.
“Khamenei has advertised the empire-building project as a ploy to heal internal divisions of the regime,” says Hamid Zomorrodi, a geo-strategist. “Such a project could enable rival factions to work together to export revolution.”
Israel’s situation is more ambiguous.
On the one hand, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could be counted among the losers because he failed to stop the Vienna “deal.” On the other hand, some Israeli dignitaries, among them former Mossad leaders such as Meir Dagan and Efraim Halevy, regard Iran as the strategic ally of the Jewish state.
Their argument is that both Israel and Iran do not want a Middle East dominated either by Sunni Islam or pan-Arab nationalism. Beyond propaganda, the mullahs have done nothing against Israel. They use the Palestine issue only to persuade Arabs to forget that it is a Shi’ite power and accept its leadership.
Some, including David Alliance, a member of the British House of Lords and a strong supporter of Israel, even suggest that Israel invite Iran to share in the administration of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.
However, inside Iran, Khamenei and the radical factions supporting him could end up among the losers if the “deal” helps get Iran out of the deepest economic crisis it has experienced since the 1950s. If there is normalization with the US, the regime will be deprived of its principal ideological plank of “Death to America.”
Rafsanjani and the “New York Group” around him could produce a “Chinese solution” in which the Islamic Republic remains a repressive regime internally while forging close ties with the US. They are even ready to put the Islamic Republic under some form of big power tutelage for 10–15 years to make sure the system survives.
“In that case, the Iranian middle classes might also be among the losers,” says Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, a former US embassy hostage-taker who has become an advocate of reform. “Even Rouhani may end up a loser.”
The Obama administration has bought into the theory, marketed by the Tehran lobby in Washington, that the nuclear “deal” will enable the “New York Group” to seize power and sideline radical Khomeinists around Khamenei.
Secretary of State Kerry pursued that argument in defense of the “deal” during last week’s Senate hearings on the issue.
However, the “deal” will not terminate the Islamic Republic’s active role in sponsoring terrorism across the globe. Training, financing, and arming Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and similar groups will continue and may even be intensified.
Obama certainly knows that Tehran is the one world capital in which almost all terrorist organizations, including non-Islamist ones from Latin America, maintain offices and hold an annual conference every February.
Tehran will continue a tradition that started in the very first few months of the Islamic Republic: holding some American hostages either inside Iran or by Khomeinist agents in other parts of the Middle East. Since 1979, not a single day has passed without some Americans being held hostage by Khomeinists. Right now, four are being held captive by Tehran and one is missing.
The “deal” could encourage the most radical elements of a regime already preparing for a more intense nationwide crackdown on all forms of dissent, according to reports from across Iran.
In the past few weeks, scores of human rights activists, trade unionists, and activists of religious and ethnic minorities have been arrested, while a new campaign known as “Islamic Chastity” is promoting new measures against women.
Going into revolution and terror is always easy; getting out is difficult. This is why many Iran watchers do not rule out surprises when it comes to winners and losers of the reported “deal.”