Stormy waters

sailorsAt best it warrants only a footnote in this nation’s proud sporting history, but you need to be aware that in 1985 I jointly won the Enfield Lawn Tennis Club’s Under-16s doubles trophy with my mate, Jason Caddis. Of course, achievements of this magnitude don’t just happen by accident.  No, they take many afternoons whacking tennis balls in the back garden, some of which would sail over the fence onto Mrs Cuomo’s lawn next-door.  Why do I mention this? Because there was more bureaucratic foot-dragging and mutual suspicion involved in negotiating the safe return of my tennis balls than was exhibited yesterday by Iran and America over the repatriation of the US sailors who had strayed into Iranian waters.

I wonder why. On the one hand, the rapprochement between the two countries has lost no momentum since the historic deal in July last year regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The International Atomic Energy Agency adopted a resolution in December over the outstanding thorny issue of Iran’s ‘possible military dimension’ to her nuclear energy programme. It concluded that the “coordinated effort” to develop a nuclear weapon ended in 2003.

But on the other hand, there are last-ditch efforts in the US Congress to block the easing of sanctions on Iran and the deal has not been universally welcomed in that country either. As Norman Lamont told the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) round-table on Iran recently, many in the country fear a toxification of Western culture. Furthermore, if any ‘peace dividend’ of the release of an estimated $100 billion in frozen Iranian bank accounts is not felt by the population fast, President Hassan Rouhani could be fatally undermined. The hawks are waiting to pounce, says Ali Ansari, Professor of Iranian History at St Andrews University. “How much foreign policy is for foreign consumption?” he asked at CMEC. Without a consensus  between Rouhani, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the ideological custodians of the revolution, the deal would never have happened in the first place. That goodwill could easily dissolve.

So the idea of an enduring nuclear deal, money-taps turned on and a moderate and pragmatic guy in charge could easily turn into a nightmare. A diplomatic spat over navigationally-challenged sailors could have been all it needed. There is, after all, a Pavlovian response to the word ‘Iran’ from many in the US, according to Nicholas Soames, Chairman of CMEC. Hence the flurry of diplomatic activity to contain the situation. (John Kerry, US Secretary of State, thanked Iran for their “cooperation and quick response”.) But such a demonstration to the world (and internal audiences in both the US and Iran) of mutual respect and a workable relationship was helpful. Perhaps even stage-managed, if you fancy indulging your inner conspiracy theorist.

Shashank Joshi, Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank, says that Iran (i.e. Rouhani) cannot let the deal falter. Iran is currently facing crises in Yemen and Syria (where it has thousands of troops), a potential split with Russia over the future role for Assad and a question mark over its relationship with Hezbollah. So the benefits of a lifting of sanctions are clear.

But how overt can the West make its support for Rouhani without (a) undermining him in the view of the hardliners, (b) cosying up to a country killing thousands of anti-Assad fighters in Syria or (c) adding to existing Saudi fears that having got rid of Saddam the West is actively encouraging shiism?

Don’t forget that as soon as the banking sanctions are lifted, Iranian oil will flow into an already saturated market, where the price has collapsed from $100 a barrel last year to $30 today. Saudi Arabia is content to see the black stuff go cheap so it can make whatever it can before the days of easily extracted oil ends – 30 years? But as Iran has a much more diverse economy than Saudi Arabia, hastening the end of easy-oil will only add to the tension between the two countries as Iran would likely fair better economically.

So, huge imponderables and challenges ahead for a region already on fire. The nuclear deal will very likely increase the tension within Islam. But as Norman Lamont said, the deal is worth having (and sanctions lifted) as it will prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons; it’s not about trying to solve all the region’s problems. Whether it adds to them is another matter.

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