Nuclear deal raises prospects (and fears) of broader US-Iran thaw

Direct talks between the US and Iran helped achieve Geneva agreement but spurs concerns among Iran’s regional foes

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva, Nov. 24, 2013.

There was less surprise in the announcement of the historic interim nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers than there was in the revelation that Washington and Tehran have for months been regularly holding direct negotiations in secret. Those parallel talks, which are believed to have helped set the stage for the agreement concluded early Sunday in Geneva, suggest that a broader strategic shift may be in the cards to ease the bitter three-decade-old enmity between the U.S. and Iran — and thats a development that worries Washington’s traditional allies in the Middle East.

“We have pursued intensive diplomacy bilaterally with the Iranians and together with our P5+1 partners — the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China as well as the European Union,” President Barack Obama said at the White House Saturday. “Today that diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure, a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.”

The extent of U.S. diplomacy with Iran was sketched out in exclusive reports by the Associated Press and Al Monitor over the weekend, describing high-level back-channel contacts between the Obama administration and Iran’s regime going back as far as March of this year. The news reports suggested that these talks had been kept secret from U.S. allies, including Israel, until as late as September.

Gary Sick, a former National Security Council expert on Iran who now teaches at Columbia University, said the bilateral U.S.-Iran communication was about “laying the groundwork” for the interim deal concluded in Geneva.

“The real negotiations, of course, took place with the P5+1” he said, but the secret U.S.-Iran talks were a way “to break the ice a little bit.” There has been more direct communication between Washington and Tehran in the last few months, he suggested, than at any other time in the 34 years since the Iranian revolution.

“The P5+1 format is limited in its focus and possibilities, dealing only with the nuclear issue,” said Ambassador John Limbert, a former State Department official held hostage in Tehran for more than a year after the 1979 revolution who now teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy.

He believes the nuclear issue is a symptom of a deeper strategic conflict between Iran and the U.S. and its allies rather than the cause of that conflict. “If we have one-on-one talks with the Iranians, we can discuss a wider range of important issues. And we and the Iranians have a lot to talk about.”

U.S.-Iran reset?

Beyond the nuclear program, the U.S. has a number of issues of contention with Iran, including the country’s support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran’s staunch support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war. But whether the Geneva interim nuclear agreement presages a broader strategic reset is unclear.

“I don’t think we should get ahead of ourselves,” said Sick, although he emphasized the unprecedented nature of recent engagement between the U.S. and Iran and his sense that the Obama administration believes that Iran “might be able to play a positive role” in regional issues like Syria.

Despite decades of mutual mistrust and hostility, cooperation between the U.S. and Iran on mutual regional security interests is not unprecedented. “The government of the Islamic Republic is clearly an adversary, but it is also a rational actor,” said former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan Ryan Crocker in the New York Times earlier this month. Crocker cited talks in which he participated in 2001 over the shared goal of defeating Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and in 2007 regarding efforts to reduce violence in Iraq.

Foreign Policy magazine reported on Friday that the U.S. and Iran are also engaged in ongoing, informal discussions along with Russia, France and others aimed at addressing the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria.

While that contact is focused on the more limited issue of ensuring U.N. humanitarian access and support for refugees, some analysts believe such cooperation could open the way to talks over a political solution to the Syrian conflict. U.N. envoys Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi both repeatedly warned Western and Arab powers that a Syrian peace agreement would require Iranian buy-in.

While it’s not clear how far beyond the nuclear issue U.S.-Iranian contact will go, Limbert stresses the significance in the simple fact of such contact. “There have clearly been major changes recently in the dynamic between the U.S. and Iran,” he said. “Four or five months ago, the events of the past few weeks would have seemed impossible.”

A brave, new region?

Reactions to the Geneva deal from Middle Eastern nations were mixed. While the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain publicly praised the deal, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced it as dangerous. The Saudis maintained a discreet silence on the deal specifically but have been openly skeptical about U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. As the U.S.’s regional allies most at odds with Iran, the Israelis and Saudis fear a strategic realignment that consolidates Iran’s regional position, and Sick believes that the level of open opposition from those countries signals the significance of the shift that may be under way in U.S.-Iranian relations. 

“I think the reason the Israelis and the Saudis and others are so extremely unhappy about this deal is not because they think it’s harmful on the nuclear side,” he said. “They are really afraid that with this deal, Iran is no longer isolated and no longer has an American gun to its head. They don’t want Iran as a player (in the region). They want Iran isolated and out of the picture.”

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