EARLIER this week, Iran’s new ambassador to the Philippines, Mr. Mohammad Tanhaei, paid a visit to our offices here at The Manila Times. The timing, although largely coincidental, could not have been more appropriate; Iran has been very busy lately.
The most significant change in circumstances since the last time I was in a position to pose some questions to an Iranian dignitary, of course, was the completion, after several years of negotiations, of the nuclear disarmament agreement between Iran and the so-called ‘5+1’ group of countries (the US, the UK, France, China, Russia, plus Germany).
The complex deal essentially requires Iran to dismantle or modify its equipment and facilities capable of producing weapons-grade material, surrender stockpiles of enriched uranium and other materials, and confine its activities, at least for an extended period of time, to only those related to power generation or research of a non-military nature.
In exchange for complying with the terms of the agreement, sanctions against Iran imposed by the UN at the behest of the United States were lifted, and a large amount of Iranian funds—a total of about $4.9 billion, including interest and a certain amount negotiated as a settlement—that were impounded as part of the sanctions, will be returned by the end of June. An initial payment of $490 million was released this week. And of course, with the lifting of the sanctions, Iran is once again free to export its oil and—within the bounds of some restrictions imposed by the nuclear agreement—engage in trade and technology exchange with the rest of the world.
The comments of Ambassador Tanhaei suggested, not unexpectedly, that the Iranian government is quite pleased with the agreement, despite the appearance of having caved in to the demands of the world’s leading powers to end its nuclear weapons research (which, as UN nuclear monitors discovered, seems to have ended on its own at least six years ago). But one has to understand the difference in the value of the agreement to the 5+1 powers and Iran. The sole objective of the 5+1, really the only one they could all agree on, was to have a nuclear-free Iran. But for Iran, giving up the bomb paradoxically is a huge boost to its own security. Iran has a problematic relationship with the Saudi Arabian sphere of influence in the Middle East, already has one nuclear-armed power (Pakistan) on its border, and another antagonistic one (Israel) not too far away. An Iranian bomb would have likely provoked an arms race, but the lack of one has several advantages: Israel, which maintains the pretense that it doesn’t have nuclear weapons (it actually has somewhere between 80 and 100 warheads), will have to continue to keep its arsenal under tight wraps, rendering it virtually unusable. Pakistan, whose nuclear arms are meant to keep India in check anyway, will not have a new excuse to increase its arsenal, and Saudi Arabia, probably the only Arab country who could develop nuclear weapons, has no excuse to start.
Giving up the bomb on Iran’s part drastically reduces the chances of proliferation—or God forbid, actual use—of nuclear weapons in the region. It also gives Iran the moral high ground, should they wish to apply it, to demand reductions or even elimination of nuclear arsenals in Israel, Pakistan, and perhaps India as well.
There is much more to the politics than that, of course, but the point is the nuclear deal removed a great deal of uncertainty about security for the Iranians; issues like the current dust-up with Saudi Arabia and a still-adversarial relationship with the US notwithstanding, Iran is at least assured that its survival is no longer threatened, and that the sort of chaos that befell Iraq is not its fate. And the most immediate benefit is that Iran is now open for business.
From the conversation with the ambassador, one senses the Iranians collectively feel as though they’ve come up for air after being underwater for a long time, and there is an anxious sort of glee to their own estimates of their prospects. From the outside looking in, of course, it is hard not to feel as though Iran is making its grand reintroduction at the worst possible time: China is on a downturn; the EU is on the verge of coming apart at the seams; there is a great deal of uncertainty about what direction the US will take in the next 12 months; a couple of the big economies in Latin America are in dire straits; Africa is riven by tensions that seem extreme even by that obstreperous continent’s usual standards; and hanging over it all, oil prices—the biggest source of immediate income for Iran—are apparently on an elevator straight to hell. What makes the Iranian situation even more troubling is that having been stymied by sanctions for so long, the country’s overall investment and trade orientation, at least for the time being, will be more as a customer than a provider; the country needs investment, and needs a market for its oversupply of well-educated and highly skilled labor. Jumping into the world economy now, when a lot of potential investors and employers are tightening their belts, is going to be challenging, to say the least.
Ambassador Tanhaei, of course, is not concerned; his government and its economic advisers have accounted for all this, he assured me, and see good prospects ahead. But of course that’s what he would say: That’s his job. Nevertheless, I hope he’s right; many of the tensions Iran has with the rest of the world—which are not so cut-and-dried as many of us in the West have been led to believe, although the tensions are not without some basis—could be eased or even eliminated with more productive engagement. Besides, I’ve always kind of liked Iranians; it would be nice to see their willingness to cooperate on at least some level with everyone else suitably rewarded.