In an interview with award-winning journalist and author Zahid Hussain, David Watts discusses US-Iranian relations and Iran’s regional objectives in the wake of the recent nuclear deal.
The Iranian nuclear agreement is a win-win for both the United States and Iran and it will eventually be recognised as one of the major diplomatic successes of the modern era.
For Tehran it is a striking success for eight of its leading scientists to negotiate with six of the world’s leading nations and battle through to a satisfactory conclusion over two years: a tribute to the legendary bargaining power of the Persians which has been recognised for millennia.
In reality, says Zahid Hussain, one of the leading commentators on the region, the Iranians were much further away from creating a nuclear weapon than most people believed.
‘They were not that close to getting nuclear weapon technology according to Pakistani scientists familiar with their centrifuge technology. It would have taken a much longer time so they were four or five years away from a nuclear weapon.’
In reality also the Americans had little option but to go for an agreement because the only alternative was military action and that would have been immensely difficult even with the use of their legendary bunker-busting bombs. It is unclear whether the American military knew the location of all the facilities which Tehran has had decades to build away from prying eyes.
‘It would have been a very different war than the one against the Iraqi nuclear programme,’ says Hussain. ‘Now they have delayed it and so it will another 15 years before they can re-start it and it would take another two to three years after that to reach the stage where they are now. That will not be easy.
‘Anyway Iran is not looking at that now. Their immediate goals are to get out of sanctions, focus on the economy and consolidate the gains that they have already made in the Middle East.
‘There was a lot of give and take but they have made major gains-they can tell the people that their nuclear capability is not completely destroyed though it may be on hold, but those are two completely different things-it’s on hold but the capability is still there. They have not compromised completely on their options for the future but they have got this much-needed respite.’
For the US the win-win outcome means that they avoid the military option which would have been very difficult to visualise in the long-term. It would have been a markedly different campaign from that in Iraq and not merely have been a question of bombing the areas containing the nuclear facilities.
The lifting of sanctions is expected also to have the immediate effect of allowing the Iranian people to become better off. An obvious improvement in the lives of the people is likely to lead to a lessening of the influence of the hardliners in the regime as the moderate path demonstrably produces benefits.
Hussain also believes that once the Iranian economy gathers momentum it will naturally move on to investments in the Gulf states, some of which have been hostile in the past, such as Bahrain, which has a Shia majority but a Sunni ruling house.
‘The Gulf will become a hub for the Iranians. What the Iranians have done is to show the world that, despite the isolation and the sanctions, they could survive,’ he says.
Illustrating the toughness of the Iranians, he notes that during the Iran-Iraq war the fighting was almost exclusively on Iraqi territory. There the Iranians were effectively fighting against the Arab world because many nations set out to help Saddam in the struggle.
The Israelis and other critics of the deal have asserted that the relief of sanctions will allow Tehran to channel more money into advancing the causes of their proxies in the region and claim that the money will help them dominate the Middle East. This overlooks the reality that the Iranians are not Arabs and the extension of their influence beyond their immediate region in the Gulf would not be welcomed.
Hussain asserts that for the most part, their support of Shia movements has been as a means of national security and he quotes the example of the Shia in eastern Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, who fought against Shia Iran. The fighting in Iraq-for long an antagonistic rival of Iran-has seen Tehran intervening to help fellow Shia fight against the Sunnis there as America pulled back from the struggle.
‘For the long term, Arab and Iranian nationalism will come into play.’
For Hussain, the Shia-Sunni conflict that defines the relationship with Saudi Arabia has more to do with Riyadh’s insecurity than any wish by Iran to confront. With the heart of the Saudi Arabian oil industry in the eastern Shia-dominated regions of the country, they feel particularly vulnerable.
Equally the Saudis’ powerful response to what they saw as the Iranian-inspired Houthi rebellion in Yemen had little to do with any real Iranian intervention on the ground-something the Americans recognised in setting up the peace talks in Geneva to get the Saudis off the hook.
A little remarked element of the American-Iranian relationship is the fact that in the two most recent American wars in the Middle East and central Asia, Iran has assisted America. In Afghanistan they had a mutual interest in getting rid of the Taliban, an interest they also shared in fighting Saddam Hussein. ‘So two big enemies of Iran were removed.’
As a result, they have a foothold in both countries in the interests of national security-in Iraq by maintaining the regional struggle against Sunni influence and in Afghanistan where they have a zone of influence around Herat in the east of the country where they have set up a network of roads to support that objective. ‘They’re not interested in annexing it. They’re interested in a security zone.’
In Pakistan, Hussain believes that there is a real determination in the army to fight terrorism following the Red Mosque incident and the Peshawar school massacre now that the military is taking the fight to the terrorists’ heartland in Waziristan.
In this struggle the army has lost 6,000 men, 40 per cent of them officers, while the ISI intelligence agency has also seen some 40 of its agents killed. ‘And people still think that the ISI is running the terrorists.’
- ZAHID HUSSAIN, who writes a column for Dawn in Pakistan and contributes to India Today, is currently writing a book on the Pakistan Tribal areas and Regional Security, to be published in 2016