On the sidelines of the 69th UN General Assembly meeting in New York, last week, two important developments took place that could significantly alter the troubled West Asian region. One was a meeting between the Iranian and the Saudi Foreign Ministers and the other was a fresh round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear issue. Adding weightage to the second issue was a call from Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal to settle the Iranian nuclear issue through peaceful negotiations and ensuring that Iran will have the right to develop civilian nuclear energy. This was indeed a remarkable turnaround in Saudi approach to Iran and its nuclear programme.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is well acquainted with the state of play in Iran’s nuclear negotiations, said in New York, on September 27, that “some 95% of the deal is agreed”. Now what appears to be a hitch is the number of centrifuges that Iran will be permitted to retain from its present capacity of about 19000 centrifuges, out of which slightly over 10,000 are operating. The US has demanded that it be reduced to as low as 1500. Iran has reportedly insisted on having many more thousands than the present 19,000 of centrifuges so as to produce fuel for its nuclear reactors. It has also tied reduction in the number of its centrifuges to the lifting of sanctions, which appears a fairly reasonable demand.
Iran will certainly insist on its inalienable right to civilian nuclear energy and the pursuit of research and development in its nuclear programme for peaceful purposes. This includes manufacture of nuclear isotopes for medical purpose. In fact, both these points have, more or less, been agreed upon by the Western interlocutors, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. What lend greater credibility to an early resolution of the issue are the positive declarations by the Saudi Foreign Minister and an earlier remark by Secretary of State John Kerry that ‘even Iran could be asked to join the US-led Coalition in the fight against the ISIS’. These are not stray remarks but are much deliberated and calibrated statements that indicate a major shift in the power play in the region.
In what appeared to be a significant thaw in the Saudi-Iranian relations, their Foreign Ministers met in New York on September 21 on the sidelines of the UNGA meeting. The talks obviously focused on the greatest threat the region confronts today, the emergence of the ISIS led ‘Islamic State’ and the US-led Coalition’s war on the ISIS. Iran, of course, regards both these as threats to the region.
After the meeting, the Saudi Foreign Minister said: “We are aware of the importance and sensitivity of this crisis and the opportunity we have ahead of us,” according to the Iranian state news agency IRNA. “We believe that by using this precious opportunity and avoid(ing) the mistakes of the past, we can deal with this
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also echoed the sentiment, saying: “Both my Saudi counterpart and I believe that this meeting will be the first page of a new chapter in our two countries’ relations,” according to IRNA. “We hope that this new chapter will be effective in establishing regional and global peace and security and will safeguard the interests of Muslim nations across the world.”
First signs of detente had appeared last month when both countries welcomed the appointment of Haidar al-Abadi as Iraq’s Prime Minister after the ISIS led Islamic State’s destructive march across northern Iraq forced his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki to step down.
As Iran withdrew its support to Maliki, a thorn was removed in its relations with Riyadh. Soon after, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met Prince Saud in Jeddah for what he called “constructive” talks about the ‘Islamic State’ and Israel’s attack on Gaza, and spoke of “opening a new page” in relations. True to its word, Riyadh announced, a week ago, its decision to reopen its embassy in Baghdad after about two decades.
Once Saudi Arabia decides to mend its ties with Iran, the US should hardly have any reason to go on punishing Iran. Of course, there is Netanyahu to be taken care of, but he has long stopped setting the agenda for a White House led by President Obama.
The next round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 is expected to take place in mid-October either in Vienna or Geneva. These talks have to resolve Iran’s nuclear issue before November 24, the second deadline set by the Western powers since the Geneva talks last November.
Iran has withstood sanctions, in varying degree of harshness, without any internal turmoil for well over 35 years and the ‘Government of Hope and Recovery’, as the Government of Hassan Rouhani is labeled at home, needs urgently to deliver on its promise. And so does the US need Iran as it downsizes its military presence in Afghanistan and gets involved once again in Iraq and opens a new theatre of war in Syria.
As new threats bring old foes together, the regional balance of power is set to change. The two regional heavyweights, Saudi Arabia and Iran, have yet to overcome years of hostility and mutual suspicion but any positive move towards a rapprochement is indeed refreshing. If the US plays the role of an honest broker in mending their ties, it will be beneficial not only for the region but to the US as well, so that it can easily exit from its war with the ISIS, handing it back to where it belongs. That is, if it wants to exit!
If the US is even remotely reasonable with the Iranian demand to permit what it is rightfully entitled to under the NPT, as a signatory, then the resolution of Iran’s nuclear negotiations is certainly not far off. The cynical misuse of IAEA by the Western powers to hoist the hegemonistic Israeli agenda on Iran while completely ignoring Israel’s own nuclear programme is well known to all the countries in the region but few are either willing to or capable of standing up to such pressure.
(The writer is a Visiting Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)
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