Seen from China and Russia, the nuclear issue is an effective means of preventing Iran from returning to its historic pro-West path. Russia, as seen in the recent humiliation that Russian President Vladimir Putin inflicted on Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow, has shown that it treats the regime in Tehran as a vassal and not an equal partner. Pictured: Putin speaks with Raisi in Moscow on January 19, 2022. (Photo by Pavel Bednyakov/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)
Ever since the roadshow known as "nuclear talks with Iran" started almost 15 years ago, we have witnessed an event unique in diplomatic annals. On the surface the whole process is designed to deal with something simple: Iran should comply with the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), of which it was one of the founders. In exchange the "international community" would recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium, a right that is already granted under NPT and does not need further endorsement by "the international community".
And, yet, the rigmarole has produced seven unanimously passed resolutions by the United Nations Security Council and over 1,500 sanctions imposed on Iran.
Why is that?
One answer is that certain elements in Iran and in the so-called "international community" need to keep this pot boiling for ideological reasons. Seen from the West, Iran is a black sheep in the region.
Seen from China and Russia, the nuclear issue is an effective means of preventing Iran from returning to its historic pro-West path. An isolated Iran has helped Russia to capture a good chunk of its oil market while preventing it from using its immense resources of natural gas, probably the largest in the world, to help Europe shake its dependence on Russia. For its part, China has benefited from the Iran's isolation by dominating the Iranian market and securing oil supplies at juicy discounts.
Both Russia and China have been careful to show Iran its place, as low as possible by normal standards. China has excluded Iran from its grandiose "One Belt-One World" project while Russia, as seen in the recent humiliation that Russian President Vladimir Putin inflicted on Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow, has shown that it treats the regime in Tehran as a vassal and not an equal partner.
Thus both the Western powers and China and Russia have been using the "nuclear talks" as a diversion from the real issues that the world has had with the Islamic Republic since its inception 43 years ago.
All this does not mean that either China or Russia is happy about the mullahs' systemic mischief-making. But both act on the assumption that if Iran goes beyond certain limits, they would be dealt with by the US or, more remotely, by Israel.
The current set of talks, being held in Vienna, seem set to lead to yet another shadow solution that avoids the core issues with Iran. Latest leaks and speculations suggest that the 5+1 powers that pretend to represent "the international community" intend to throw a life-buoy to the mullahs who are in sinking mode.
This comes in the form of a gradual de-freezing of Iran's assets abroad. The figure suggested is $700 million a month for a year, the same as negotiated by the Obama administration with Iran's former President Hassan Rouhani but cancelled by US President Donald Trump. That would help Raisi cover Iran's budget deficit for the next Iranian new year starting on March 21. If the scheme is renewed for a further year, Tehran may be able to spend a chunk of it buying the much-coveted fighter-bombers from Moscow.
As things stand, it is unlikely that Britain, Germany and France will reap any immediate economic benefits from the deal. They might, however, get some of their hostages released from jails in Iran. And that could offer UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in difficulty for other reasons, some respite from charges of incompetence and lack of compassion. French President Emmanuel Macron, facing re-election in a few weeks' time would also benefit from appearing on TV hugging long-suffering hostages coming home.
President Joe Biden, heir to Obama's "greatest diplomatic legacy" will also get something.
First he would undo what Trump, a hate figure for Obamaists, did. Next, he would claim his slogans "diplomacy is back" and "multilateralism is back". More importantly, from an image angle, he would get more American hostages released by Iran than Trump did with his "maximum pressure" policy, while claiming that the cash released to the mullahs was not a ransom but a humanitarian investment.
Déjà vu again? Yes, in the past four decades, we have been there many times. President Jimmy Carter tried it with the Algiers Accord he signed with the mullahs. President Ronald Reagan continued the same policy by smuggling arms to Iran. President George W. H. Bush offered his "goodwill breeds goodwill" olive branch, lifting many sanctions and helping the mullahs live another day. President Bill Clinton apologized to the mullahs for "the wrong that my civilization has made" to Islam. He lifted many of the sanctions imposed by his predecessors and even claimed that he found the political system imposed on Iran by the mullahs to be "closer to my democratic conventions".
President George W. Bush listed Iran as part of the" Axis of Evil" with Iraq and North Korea. But then he invited them as equal partners in shaping the future of Afghanistan, which meant, inter alia, accepting the mullahs' demand that monarchy not be restored and that the new Afghan regime be designated an Islamic Republic. His Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, spoke of "our working relationship" with Iran in reshaping "liberated" Iraq, which meant installing Tehran's lackeys, Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Nuri al-Maliki as prime minister.
Obama went further than any of his predecessors to help the mullahs live another day. He invented a "fatwa", presumably by "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei to declare building and using a nuclear arsenal is "forbidden" (haram) in Islamic shariah, forgetting that Pakistan, an Islamic republic with a population twice that of Iran, has been a nuclear-armed nation for decades. Unable to pass his scheme through the US Congress, Obama also invented the P5+1 scheme that keeps issues related to Iran out of the normal framework of international law. To emphasize his keenness on helping the mullahs at a crucial time, he even arranged for $1.7 billion to be smuggled to Tehran in cash via Cyprus, straight into the hands of Gen. Qassem Soleimani's Quds Force.
Yes, we have been there, seen that and bought the T-shirt. Iran has managed to survive on the life-support machine granted it by the big powers for different reasons. But, even under life-support, it has continued to do the mischief it deems its raison d'être.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.