x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Optimism must be cautious over Iran nuclear deal

The chance to resolve diplomatically the serious concerns the West has with Iran's nuclear programme is one that must be pursued, albeit with caution and verification.

The natural reaction to the news of the deal about Iran’s nuclear ambitions has to be one of cautious optimism.

That much is expected. Any time the prospect of using military force can be obviated by diplomacy and negotiation, the mood would have to be upbeat.

And cautious? Well, this is Iran, and its actions do not always tally with a nation acting in its own best interests or of playing a positive role in the region or globally.

So the apparent ability to find enough mutual interest between the Islamic republic and the P5+1 group to reach an agreement is a positive step, even if it is merely a preliminary one.

With a double dose of optimism, one might hope that it will be the harbinger of Tehran’s greater rapprochement on other thorny issues, not least of which are its destabilising interventions in Syria and Lebanon, and its continued illegal occupation of the three UAE islands in the Gulf, Abu Musa, Lesser Tunb and Greater Tunb.

But that is getting well ahead of events, and especially when Iran has severely damaged its economy through the sanctions imposed because of its policy of deliberate ambiguity about its nuclear aspirations.

Even this first modest agreement faces considerable domestic obstacles in Iran and the United States before it can become reality.

President Hassan Rouhani faces opposition from hardliner groups like the Republican Guard. Although he has explicit support from the ultimate ruler, Ayatollah Khamenei, it has been less than two months since the president was pelted with eggs and shoes on his return from a visit to the United Nations in which he had a 15-minute telephone conversation with his American counterpart, Barack Obama.

Mr Obama, of course, also faces a phalanx of hawks at home. One group of Republican senators tabled an increase in sanctions just as the negotiations were resuming in Geneva, despite a plea by Mr Obama to give diplomacy a chance.

Mr Obama can expect significant pushback from Republicans and from the Israel lobby, the power and influence of which have been demonstrated time and again.

All this dampens any optimism. But cautious optimism must prevail, unless Iran is shown to be using the agreement as a cynical ploy to buy it time to continue its nuclear programme.

The goal of keeping nuclear weapons out of the Gulf region without resorting to military force is one worth pursuing, albeit with scepticism and verification.