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Opinion: The Posse and the Iranian Fugitive - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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As Iranian President Hassan Rouhani prepares to fly to New York, the buzz in his faction is that he will return with “another great diplomatic victory.”

We heard the same tune last year when Rouhani paid his first visit to the Big Apple for the United Nations General Assembly. A brief phone chat with US President Barack Obama, followed by the “Geneva Agreement,” were marketed as “the greatest diplomatic victory in Islamic history.”

Later, we were told that the “Geneva Agreement” was no agreement at all, but a press release on what Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), led by the United States, intended to do.

However, while Iran did freeze a substantial part of its nuclear program, the P5+1 not only failed to lift old sanctions but also imposed new ones.

The P5+1 agreed to let Iran spend 4 billion US dollars of its own oil income, released in tranches, but continued to freeze 1 billion dollars in new oil income each month. The upshot is that, today, more of Iran’s oil money is frozen than a year ago.

With the Iranian economy in decline by almost 2 percent and inflation hovering close to 40 percent, Rouhani needs another “Fatah Al-Fotuh” (Victory of Victories) to prop up his failed presidency. He may try to achieve that by signing something, anything, to create the illusion that he has cut the Gordian knot of Iranian politics.

To camouflage his market of dupes, Rouhani has tried to present the objective as one of persuading the P5+1 to recognize Iran’s right to enrich some uranium. Whether the US-led group does that or not is neither here nor there.

The right to enrich uranium is recognized for all nations, including those which, like Iran, have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The NPT, as its name demonstrates, is about preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, not restricting peaceful nuclear activities. This was how former Iranian foreign minister Ardeshir Zahedi, who signed the NPT in July 1969, put it at the time: “This treaty opens the way for the development of our nuclear industry, with the help of advanced nations, while we strive to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.”

That was reaffirmed in a dozen agreements with many countries, including most members of the P5+1—some signed even before Iran joined the NPT. Examples include agreements signed with the US in 1957, 1958, 1966 and 1969.

The famous 15 billion dollar agreement signed by former Iranian economy and finance minister Hushang Ansary and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1974 included the building of eight nuclear power plants in Iran.

Iran signed similar agreements with France (in 1975) and the German Federal Republic (in 1977). Throughout the 1970s, American, French and German leaders visited Tehran to discuss trade, including nuclear cooperation. Within a decade, numerous Iranian students trained in various fields of the nuclear industry in European and American universities and Iranian nuclear scientists were invited to key conferences.

After the mullahs seized power, they shut down the program because Khomeini regarded it as a “Zionist conspiracy.” When they revived it they signed accords with the Soviet Union (later the Russian Federation) and China.

What Rouhani promises to achieve is the acknowledged right of all nations, including Iran. Apart from that, the P5+1 group is not authorized to offer anything. This is an ad hoc body with no legal status. No one knows how it came about or on whose authority it is working. Nor do we know what its mission statement is, to whom it reports, or who will be the arbiter of whatever deal it makes. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif admits this when he says the group cannot lift sanctions but could recommend doing so to the Security Council.

Etymologically, the word “negotiation,” from its Latin root, means “trading” or “give-and-take.” In this case, one side—Iran—being a nation-state, has precise mechanisms for giving, while the other—the P5+1—being a shadowy club, cannot give, even if it wanted to.

The P5+1 reminds me of the posse in Western movies—armed gangs formed to hunt down a fugitive. Often, the posse transmutes into a lynch mob, acting as judge, jury and hangman. The accused is better off dealing with an official sheriff.

If Iran does not want to cheat by pursuing a clandestine quest for the bomb, it would do better to seek a solution through negotiations with the UN and the International Atomic Energy Agency—legally established bodies of which Iran is a founder and member.

In the case of sanctions imposed by individual powers, notably the US, direct nation-to-nation negotiations are needed. The agreement Rouhani is begging for amounts to reducing Iran’s national sovereignty without solving the nuclear dispute. The P5+1 demands a veto on Iran’s enrichment capacity, number of centrifuges, scope of scientific research with real or imagined dual use, the location of nuclear sites, and the fate of the heavy water plant in Arak.

The term “dual use” is employed to secure what the French call “un droit de regard” (right of supervision) on key aspects of Iran’s industrial strategies as a whole. The P5+1 insists that Iran remain under its supervision, including exercising a veto on how Iran spends its oil income, for 12–20 years.

If Rouhani signs such a deal it would not be the first time Iran has been put under foreign tutelage. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, when Iran was in decline, Belgians controlled Iranian customs, an Australian owned the oilfields, Brits had a monopoly on tobacco, Russians commanded Iran’s only armed unit, an American headed the gendarmerie, a Swede commanded the police, and an American was minister of the economy.

A century later we have a government ready to sign such a deal to hide the follies of a loud-mouthed but incompetent regime. A sad story, indeed.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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