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Hope for Iran nuclear deal within months - Durham expert
A NUCLEAR deal between the US and Iran could be just months away, according to North-East-based Arab world expert Anoush Ehteshami. Mark Tallentire reports.
WHEN Nazi Germany and Communist Russia signed a 1939 non-aggression pact, it produced a famous cartoon depicting Hitler and Stalin doffing their hats to one another as Hitler greeted his new ally with: “The scum of the earth, I believe”; and Stalin responded: “The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?”
The image could almost have been adapted for the 21st century, it seemed, at the United Nations on Thursday night, as Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sat down for one-to-one talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry.
For years, all the two countries could do was sling mud at each other.
For Washington, Iran was part of the “axis of evil”. For Tehran, the US was “the great Satan”.
So the significance of this week’s unexpected New York pow-wow should not be underestimated.
“It was extraordinary,” says Professor Anoush Ehteshami, an expert on the Arab world and international affairs based at Durham University, “Quite remarkable.”
Afterwards, the US and its European allies hailed a “new tone” and a “significant shift” from Iran.
For his part, Mr Zarif said Iran and the P5+1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the US, Russia, Britain, France and China – plus Germany, had agreed to fast-track nuclear negotiations, with the hope of reaching a deal within a year.
Substantive talks on the nuclear issue are planned for Geneva, Switzerland, on October 15 and 16.
Prof Ehteshami is optimistic.
“I think they will move very quickly. It is fortuitous that the Americans and Russians are converging on Syria.
“That can quickly spill over into how to deal with Iran because Russia is one of Iran’s closest allies.
“America might be able to use Russia’s good offices – and the Europeans’ – to shift the agenda forward while the Iranians are willing.
“Another two rounds of meetings, maybe one before Christmas and another after, and we could very well be looking at a timeline for addressing the nuclear dispute by mid-2014.
“It’s not impossible, given the interest all parties are showing in this.”
So how did we get here?
Think back to the summer. President Ahmadinejad’s time in office had come to end and Iran elected a new leader: Hassan Rouhani.
This “removed the logjam” of the previous eight years, Prof Ehteshami says.
Rouhani is a mid-ranking cleric with a PhD in Law from Glasgow Caledonian University, he continues, who has been an “insider” most of his adult life – close to previous presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami and, crucially, the Supreme Leader Hosseini Khamenei, who tends to take a tough line on international affairs – even representing him on Iran’s national security council.
Hence, Prof Ehteshami says, he is trusted by conservatives, respected by centrists and reformers are working with him.
“He seems to have managed to bring together a very disparate group of individuals and interests around his new agenda.”
While the West might have been taken by surprise at how fast Rouhani has moved to rebuild bridges, it has come as no surprise inside Iran, he says.
He clinched the election, some argue, with his performance during the last of four television debates between the presidential candidates, which focused on foreign affairs.
Rouhani “let rip”, Prof Ehteshami says, delivering a thorough critique of the previous eight years and speaking strongly and openly about the need to re-engage with the world and resolve the nuclear dispute.
“It was during that debate that he unshackled himself and made a very direct impression on the electorate.
“He got 53 per cent support from voters. He can argue that he has a very clear mandate from the people – and he’s using that to extremely good effect.
“This is what Iranians voted for. It’s rather fortunate the General Assembly came in September, barely a month after he was sworn in. But he used the venue extremely effectively.”
Of course, Rouhani needs to keep various interests on side and is “very careful” not to alienate Khamenei, Prof Ehteshami says.
But he is enjoying a “honeymoon” period, he adds, during which he can push to “break the diplomatic logjam” and has appointed a cabinet of “very skilful politicians, technocrats really – highly educated people with a tremendous amount of experience, on the whole reforming, centrist-minded”.
It had been rumoured that Rouhani would this week go so far as to meet President Barack Obama, for a historic handshake.
It did not come to pass, but Prof Ehteshami feels this was “prudent” on Rouhani’s part.
“For all that he might be able to achieve in New York, a handshake would have haunted him back in Iran,” he says.
“All his critics would have said he was undermining Iran’s principles. Now he doesn’t have to worry about that.
“And they (Iran) are also saying: handshakes follow agreements. It’s a clear signal to the American’s that it’s not about the handshake, but will follow when there is progress on the nuclear front.
“I think it was pretty smart. It would have been a trap for him.”
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