2 January 2014

‘What will define the Middle East is no more the Arab Spring, but a new nuclear geopolitics and Iran’s bigger role’

Jan 02 2014

Iranian political philosopher RAMIN JAHANBEGLOO is associate professor of political science at York University, Toronto. He is the recipient of the 2009 peace prize awarded by the Association for the UN in Spain for his academic work promoting dialogue between cultures and advocacy of non-violence. In New Delhi on a lecture tour, he spoke to Sudeep Paul. Excerpts:

The Geneva interim nuclear deal has the potential to change Iran’s role in the Middle East, if Tehran and the P5+1 don’t fall out. But will a fresh round of sanctions jeopardise the deal?

The Geneva deal is a very important turn in Iranian diplomacy, towards not only the US but also Europe. It opens the way to a rewriting of the political map of the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. It also reintegrates Iran as a political entity, and not only a security problem, into the international community. Though only a first step, the agreement has important implications. It could ease diplomatic relations between the US and Iran, but it could also prepare the way for coordinated humanitarian relief and a political solution in Syria. It is actually a double-edged sword — it can open new options for Iran’s role in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf and it’s a victory for the moderate government of Hassan Rouhani against the Iranian hardliners, as also for the Obama administration against the hawks in Washington. At the same time, it could be a difficult journey for both Iran and the US.

But the important thing is that, in Iran, people now have higher expectations of the government on issues such as the economy and factional domestic politics. So if we look forward to the next six months, either there will be a weakening of the deal and we’ll go back to where we started, or there will be a breakthrough in Iranian diplomacy, paving the way for lasting progress and change.

A permanent deal will be a paradigm shift in the Middle East.

The paradigm shift in Middle Eastern politics will be multi-layered. One will be Iran coming back to its position of a big player. The second will be a nuclear geopolitics in the Middle East, which has two aspects: if Iran continues as a nuclear power without making the bomb — while Israel and Pakistan are nuclear powers, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar also want to be such — we are looking at a new nuclear geopolitics. That means a new concept of security in the Middle East. But we’re also talking about who’s going to provide the nuclear infrastructure for the other countries, because they can’t do it themselves. There’s no danger if everything is on the table, because with the NPT and IAEA, we can be looking at nuclear de-proliferation in the Middle East. Certainly, this too is going to create a new balance of power. What will define the Middle East is no more the Arab Spring, but the new nuclear geopolitics and a bigger role for Iran.

With the US being perceived as a power in decline, Obama seems to have calculated that although American presence is necessary, the US cannot be everywhere, all the time. The Geneva deal, therefore, had a narrowing window?

Yes. Absolutely. It was the right time to realise that Iran is not governed only by irrational, fanatic Shiite clerics, that it is also a country of open-minded people, a country with a new generation of diplomats like Mohammad Javad Zarif. So the possibility of a dialogue with a less ideological and more open-minded Iranian diplomacy would certainly be more helpful for advancing a dialogue on Iranian domestic politics and human rights issues, and an opportunity to not only stop nuclear proliferation in the Middle East but also establish a dialogical geopolitics in which Iran could be an active partner. I think by playing this new role in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, Iran might be more successful than Israel and Saudi Arabia in finding a solution to the dangerous slide into sectarian Shiite-Sunnite conflict.

In other words, it’s important to make Iran a stakeholder in the security of the region, and not keep it an outlier? Tehran has demonstrated its importance in securing Afghanistan, and has had a history of facing off

the Taliban.

First, I don’t think Iran needs a nuclear bomb to become a stakeholder in the security of the region. Iran has always been a stakeholder, given the size of its population, its educated and even Westernised younger population. Second, Iran is a country that’s needed to solve the problems caused in West Asia by the Taliban and al-Qaeda. We should not forget that 35 years after the Islamic Revolution, young Iranian society represents a unique post-fundamentalist country. Third, I don’t think it would be wrong to say Iran is not only an important player in the Middle East but also a strategic partner in Asia. This fact is completely forgotten. Iran is an Asian power like Japan, China and India. And we have to expect, over the next decade, a more “Asian” diplomacy from Iran. In the absence of the Americans, Iran established an important economic relationship with China. Japan has a strong interest in ending the US-Iran spat, which has forced Tokyo to substantially reduce its imports of Iranian crude. Last but not least, if Iran can be an economic and diplomatic partner for India in future, India will also see its hands opened vis-a-vis China and the US. The distance between Tehran and Delhi is not long. Iran and India have been cultural partners for several centuries, not to say even longer.

India is a friend of both Israel and Iran. If this interim deal leads to a permanent one, could Delhi, in theory at least, play a role mediating between the two?

It’s natural that India can be open at the same time to both Iran and Israel. And I have always believed that India is the most appropriate mediator between the two. But this mediation has to start at the level of culture and people-to-people interaction before it can happen at the diplomatic level. India can play a dialogical role between the two countries. A great number of Iranian Jews live today in Israel and they are very attentive towards Iranian politics and culture. Many of them are against any military attack on Iran. So, they too would be ready for this dialogue via India. Although India doesn’t have a significant Jewish population any more, it can play an important role in this regard because of its past cultural relations with Persia.

Ayatollah Khamenei is backing him right now, as is the Iranian public, but how secure is Rouhani in real terms?

Rouhani is on a tightrope. He and his group have played it cleverly so far. The fact that there hasn’t been strong opposition from the majority of the Revolutionary Guards, coupled with Ayatollah Khamenei’s support for Rouhani, leaves him in a

good position. But we never know what will come next. Many hardliners who had been in an advantageous position since the sanctions don’t want to lose their power. But I also think the victory or defeat of the hardliners in Tehran is directly related to the victory or defeat of the hardliners in Washington. If American hardliners get their way and there are new sanctions, Iranian hardliners will also get stronger.

What distinguishes Rouhani from Mohammad Khatami, who too was pro-reconciliation, is that Rouhani is a much stronger politician. And he has the credibility of having been a nuclear programme insider. Having paid their price, moderates know their role better, how far they can go and where they have to stop.

A longer version of this interview is available at www.indianexpress.com

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