Power Players

Negotiating the Future of the Middle East

by Peter Makhlouf

published April 10, 2015

Since the Iranian revolution, 1,672 Iranians have died in plane crashes. Iran has one of the most dismal aviation safety records in the world. While this is a particular case, it is emblematic of how crippled Iran’s economy has become through years of sanctions by the US and its allies. The lack of access to international trade has forced citizens throughout the country to jerry rig parts of planes, cars, and bridges among others. Post-revolution, the cost of sanctions has been debilitating, and intentionally so, as a direct way of continuing the erosion of Iranian stability. All in all they have been fairly successful.

Of course, sanctions never affect the consequences they intend to. For years, Iranians have been denied access to crucial medical supplies and their banking assets have been frozen in international markets, thwarting any possibility of foreign transactions. The wealthy remain comfortable, and while basic grocery prices have skyrocketed due to inflation, luxury apartments are still being built into mountainsides. Corporations are clever enough to bypass or innovatively work around sanctions. But the middle and lower classes in Iran have borne the brunt of the sanctions’ effects. The labor force in 2014 was 30-40 percent poorer than it was in 2012. Iran has been hanging on the edge of sustaining itself economically, but these past few years have threatened to upset that fragile balance. GDP has declined nearly two percent in recent years. To a large extent, the recent election of the more moderate President Rouhani was an expression of popular sentiment that sought an end to the crippling sanctions. Times had to change.




This past week, on the shores of picturesque Lake Geneva, the P5+1 came to an agreement with Iran, which agreed to a protraction of their nuclear program to be accompanied by strict oversight by independent inspectors. In exchange, the US and EU would stem their onslaught of nuclear-related economic sanctions which has left Iran’s economy in shambles, especially in recent years. While President Obama declared it a “historic moment” in US foreign relations—which it undoubtedly was—he had to navigate a treacherous terrain of strategic interests, domestic politics, and foreign disapproval in the process.

While scrutinizing the realm of geopolitics is at times confusing and reductive, one cannot ignore the way in which each of the power players at the table, and even those who were not at the negotiations, attempted to strike a deal without upsetting the careful balance of regional dominance throughout the Middle East. None of these regional powers were as vocal as Israel was. Since these negotiations began eighteen months ago, analysis and commentary on the question of easing sanctions could not shake the spectre of Israeli interests that haunt the US. Culminating in Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, this period of talks has time and time again been filtered through an US-Israeli lens: what does Israel think and what is the US reply?

Israel’s criticism of these talks and the influence of the Israel lobby stood out so prominently that Obama invited veteran The New York Times Middle East correspondent—and fervent supporter of Israel—Thomas Friedman to the White House to set the record straight in a lengthy interview. Why the uproar from Tel Aviv in the first place? Israel under Netanyahu created a maximalist set of demands without which it would not approve of a settlement. Iran would have to recognize the state of Israel, cease any and all nuclear enrichment, and would have to submit to inspections “anytime, anywhere” from outside. The extent of Netanyahu’s open-mindedness was when he ventured to say that the other option if the talks did not satisfy him were “not necessarily” military action.

Beneath the rhetoric there are material realities that dictated much of the political confrontation. Israel’s actions, for over half a century now, have gone unpunished and unquestioned. Israeli aggression is subject neither to criticism from the West nor from the string of Western-backed client-kings reigning throughout the Middle East. The potential for Iran to become a regional power—economically and militarily—could reverse the equation. This is why a central tenet of the sanctions has been restricting Iran’s ability to purchase weapons.

Whereas Iranian political sentiment since the 1979 revolution has been vocally opposed to Western influence, Israel has been a crucial ideological analog to the US’s aggressive policy towards the Middle East. This special relationship between the US and Israel is why every president from the Cold War to the post-Cold War era has been silent despite full knowledge about Israel’s covert nuclear bomb programs. It was not until this February, in the midst of Iran talks, that the US released the information about Israel’s nuclear programs after a Freedom of Information lawsuit required them to do so. These programs are immense compared to the Iranian programs that the US has deployed sanctions against.

Israel insists that nuclear armament is a necessary response to the existential threat it faces from Iran, though that threat has been called into question when it was recently discovered that Prime Minister Netanyahu lied about the extent of Iran’s capabilities to the United Nations. Israel is certainly not alone in declaring Iran to be a threat, with much of the West declaring similar fears. Though the question still remains: what exactly is this threat? Iran’s military budget is quite small compared to regional counterparts, infinitesimal compared to the US which by conservative estimates has a military budget 130x the size of Iran’s. And though the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has been maniacal in his anti-Western declarations, for the most part the people facing the largest threat from his state are the Iranian citizens themselves who are subject to many Islamist factions within the government. On the flip side, the claims of an existential threat made by Israel are actually far more applicable to Iran. Israel, India, and Pakistan have all refused to sign the nuclear proliferation agreement—which Iran is a signatory of—and all three abstaining countries have threatened Tehran time and time again. 

The peril Iran faces is not fanciful thinking. Several US Republicans expressed similar sentiments to freshman senator Tom Cotton, who posited that the alternative to negotiations could be military engagement. Recall it was only five years ago that McCain joked on the campaign trail that the response to Iran was “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb…”

Rhetoric stemming from hawkish US politicians not only confirmed that if there was any threat, it would come from the US, but their statements closely mirrored arguments vocalized by Israel as well. No one was more outspoken with such language than Benjamin Netanyahu, who said that any option other than capitulation to Iran would be military engagement. Iranian politicians are not blind either. They are well aware of the US’s ability to carry out an invasion based upon a lie, as it did in 2003. They are also well aware of the role that Israel had, especially Benjamin Netanyahu, in urging on the US.

Israel has stood in the way of nuclear disarmament time and time again, most recently in December 2012. A conference was planned in Helinski in the hope of creating a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Iran unconditionally agreed to attend; Israel refused. The US collapsed the conference using Israel’s byline almost verbatim. The nearly inextricable tangle of US and Israeli interests has not been the only limiting factor when it comes to discussing the negotiations.

The extent of critical discourse in the US has been paltry at best; politicians, citizens and commentators alike seem to have forgotten or willfully repressed the horrors of the Gulf War. The entire reason for sanctions originally was a question of US strategic interests, where US strategic interests are defined as the United States maintaining its position as world superpower. When a popular revolt cast aside the tyrannical, US-backed dictator, the clamp came down hard on Iran. The US vigorously supported the reign of Saddam Hussein providing both military funding and access to chemical weapons throughout the Reagan administration. Hussein’s belligerence against Iran left more than 100,000 Iranian civilians dead by the conclusion of the eight-year war. But talking about the US support for Hussein’s war crimes back in the 1980s is off-limits as it opens up the aggressive maneuverings that the US and its allies have undertaken for years in order to secure regional supremacy.

That said, President Obama has decided to engage in a new policy of diplomatic détente over hostile stalemate in a few, select cases. It is the policy he has taken with Myanmar, Cuba, and Iran. But if there is one lesson he has learned, it is that undoing the legacies of this declining American empire does not come easy, and comes often, maybe even always, at the expense of a few friends.

PETER MAKHLOUF B’16 does not sanction sanctions.