Iran nuclear deal enters the danger zone

Pepe Escobar
Pepe Escobar is an independent geopolitical analyst. He writes for RT, Sputnik and TomDispatch, and is a frequent contributor to websites and radio and TV shows ranging from the US to East Asia. He is the former roving correspondent for Asia Times Online. Born in Brazil, he's been a foreign correspondent since 1985, and has lived in London, Paris, Milan, Los Angeles, Washington, Bangkok and Hong Kong. Even before 9/11 he specialized in covering the arc from the Middle East to Central and East Asia, with an emphasis on Big Power geopolitics and energy wars. He is the author of "Globalistan" (2007), "Red Zone Blues" (2007), "Obama does Globalistan" (2009) and "Empire of Chaos" (2014), all published by Nimble Books. His latest book is "2030", also by Nimble Books, out in December 2015.
Iran nuclear deal enters the danger zone
In the end, a nuclear deal with Iran was aborted in Vienna. Is that a hopeful sign? Or should everyone start praying – and running for cover?

The players – Iran and the P5+1 (the five UN permanent members plus Germany) - not only missed the original November 24 deadline; they have now come up with two new deadlines; one on March 1 to reach a hazy “framework agreement”, and the second – in theory – on July 1 for the final deal.

The P5+1 and Iran are negotiating under the November 2103 Geneva Joint Plan of Action – which calls for a freeze of some aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, but not all sanctions. After all some of these illegal sanctions have absolutely nothing to do with the Iranian nuclear program, and must be lifted by the US Congress.

Seven months is an eternity in geopolitics. Iranian diplomats have tried to put on a brave face, insisting postponement may be a lesser evil considering there have been no rhetorical escalation, and no new sanctions.

And yet seven more months leave the negotiations exposed to open fire from the usual (radicalized) suspects, which in Washington are a formidable warmongering lot (Republicans en masse, most Democrats, neo-cons, the Israel and Saudi lobbies, and key sectors of the industrial-military complex).

Meanwhile, in Iran, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, and the head of the Basiji militias, Gen. Mohammad Reza Nagdi, have criticized not only the negotiations themselves but also some of the P5+1 nations.

What went wrong?

The key points of contention remain; how may centrifuges Iran is allowed to operate; the duration of the deal (Iran wants a maximum of five years; the US wants over 10); and the crucial timeline for the lifting of sanctions (Iran wants all of them – by the UN, the US and the EU - lifted immediately; the US insists on a slow and gradual process.)

The key objective also remains; most of all a normalization between Iran and the US (the 35-year, and counting, Wall of Mistrust), as well as the EU. Relations between Iran and Russia/China are excellent.

Bushehr main nuclear reactor (Reuters / Raheb Homavandi)

A solid case can be made that the whole, interminable drama is a non-issue in the first place because Iran – as even the acronym feast of US intelligence agencies admit - does not have a nuclear weapons program; Tehran uses civilian nuclear enrichment to generate electricity.

The Obama administration gives the impression that Iran may be allowed to have a civilian nuclear program that cannot be diverted to military means. This is spun in the US as a benign gesture.

Still it makes no sense that the recent negotiations in Oman and then in Vienna, culminating with seven foreign ministers debating in the same room, have not ironed out the details – even allowing for language acceptable to domestic public opinion in each country.

In Oman, to solve the centrifuge controversy, Russia offered to host most of Iran’s stockpile of unprocessed uranium. That was the remix of an idea first floated five years ago. Moscow did this to boost Tehran in its – rightful – demands, coupled with a promise to help develop the Iranian nuclear program.

So obviously the Iranian negotiators used the Russian offer to coax Washington into getting more realistic. What was already clear by then is that Tehran won’t sacrifice any of its rights to get a deal – just based on a vague promise of alleviation of some sanctions.

After all, last month, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei published an 11-point list of Tehran red lines. These are non-negotiable – and include the right to proceed with civilian nuclear research, and to enrich uranium for civilian purposes.

Well-positioned observers in Tehran stress President Rouhani as a middle of the road moderate who won’t sell – or won’t be allowed to sell – the economy to Uncle Sam. One of them told me, “he has a handle on what is happening in the economy; he has been able to tame the galloping inflation. In terms of reconciliation with the great Satan, the boss is not going to allow him to achieve an accommodation at the expense of economic, cultural, national security, and national rights.

The fact remains that something went wrong on Sunday in Vienna. In the morning all the players were talking about final details, after a leak stressed the deal was over 90% done. Then, by the evening, the American spin emphasizing an “extension” of talks took over.

No one is leaking what killed the deal at the 11th hour. A strong possibility is yet another American demand unrelated to the nuclear issue (there are precedents). It could be, for instance, forcing Iran to cease supporting Hezbollah – something that the Obama administration could easily use to sell the deal in Washington.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Reuters / Irna)

Red alert on the Hill

What’s certain is that when Republicans take over the US Senate in January, all hell will break loose. Every single aspect of a possible deal will be relentlessly bombed – as the key objective will become a two-headed monster; to demonize Iran and at the same time prevent lame duck Obama from clinching the only foreign policy victory of his two terms in office.

A mini-hell was already concocted after the leaking of Obama’s letter to Khamenei on the possibility of US-Iran non-military cooperation to fight against Daesh/ISIS/ISIL. American extreme right-wingers will always view Tehran as an “evil” entity that abhors Israel, supports Hezbollah, al-Assad in Syria and thus must be regime-changed.

So the Obama administration already lost in Vienna the last window of opportunity to clinch a deal of its own. If Capitol Hill is successful in the first half of 2015 – and no effort will be spared – the fact is the ghastly option of an attack on Iran will be back on the table, if not in the twilight of the Obama administration and during the 2016 campaign year, certainly when President-in-Waiting Hillary Clinton takes over.

Iran, though, won’t just sit down. Trade, financial and military integration with both Russia and China will be vastly accelerated – much to the chagrin of huge Western commercial interests. Iran already found a way around sanctions to export petroleum products to China, Japan and South Korea. And Tehran and Moscow already clinched the framework for a $20 billion oil-for-goods deal.

Moreover, Khamenei’s self-defined “economy of resistance” will keep finding new ways to dribble the fierce, US-imposed – and once again, illegal - financial blockade.

Tehran knows exactly what it wants: to preserve its nuclear program – as allowed by the NPT - and to get rid of the nasty sanctions regime for good. But what does the Obama administration want?

Even considering the sorry mess which is Obama’s self-defined “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” foreign policy doctrine, it's fair to assume the Obama administration would settle for freezing the Middle East cauldron between Iran and Saudi Arabia, without trying to change the balance of power.

And that’s when it gets really juicy; this “frozen” Middle East would allow Washington to really re-direct its military footprint towards – who else – Russia and China. And yet, considering the astonishing mediocrity of Team “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff,” this will probably remain in the realm of wishful thinking.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.