THE March 24 deadline of a framework agreement on Teheran’s nuclear programme is fast approaching. Two incidents this month have been very telling about Washington’s reservations. On March 3, at the invitation of Congressional Republicans, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a case to Congress against United States President Barack Obama’s approach to Iran.

“This is a very bad deal,” he claimed. A week later 47 Republicans wrote an open letter to Teheran, which stated that a future president or Congress could revoke the agreement if one came to fruition.

In a nutshell, Obama is agreeing to gradually lift sanctions on Teheran if the Islamic Republic agrees to curb its nuclear programme for the next 10 years. The idea is to limit the production of uranium so that it will take at least a year for Teheran to develop enough nuclear fuel needed for a weapon. There is no reason for Washington to fear negotiations with Teheran, and here’s why.

FIRST, negotiations have already resulted in significant progress. Teheran has promised to work with the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif signalled Iran’s willingness to reach a deal just last month by asserting “this is the opportunity” to do so. As Obama stated in his State of the Union address earlier this year, Washington has, for the first time in a decade, “halted the progress of its (Teheran) nuclear programme and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material”.
Perhaps this is because the Obama administration has engaged with Teheran as equals, a departure from traditional US foreign policy in the Middle East.

The neo-conservative approach of combative responses to conflict coupled with its need to “guide” troubled states into democratisation have proven to be unpopular and counterproductive. The wars of Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 demonstrate that might is not always right. The lack of post-war reconstruction efforts ultimately left a power vacuum in the region, which extremist groups, like Islamic State (IS), have since used to their advantage.

SECOND, imposing tougher sanctions on Teheran is not a sustainable solution. Like drone strikes, financial warfare may not put American boots on the ground but it does risk harming innocent civilians instead of political leaders.

Dating back to the post-1979 revolution, economic sanctions have had a detrimental effect on the average Iranian. Frozen oil revenues, constraints on energy exports and the isolation of banks have all made the working and middle classes poorer. For instance, an increase in inflation has resulted in an increase in the prices of staple food such as rice and chicken. Further economic hardship risks ending negotiations altogether, thus accelerating the production of an Iranian bomb.

THIRD, the process of negotiating itself delays an Iranian nuclear weapon. It is pointless to debate about whether Obama is offering a deal that is too weak or too strong because the perfect deal does not exist. Negotiating necessitates compromise or some form of reasonable give-and-take.

This does not mean that parties will get what they want. Rather, it means that parties will get just enough to be able to move forward, instead of spiralling backwards or remaining static. Developments on Teheran’s nuclear infrastructure will remain at a standstill for as long as it is willing to negotiate.

The issue at hand is whether Washington and Teheran are able to be honest brokers throughout negotiations and beyond if a deal is reached. If so, both parties will have to ensure that it is well- administered and carefully monitored. This is plausible as the UN would establish legal obligations for Teheran in the form of inspections, verifications and clear penalties in case it cheats.

FINALLY, there is simply no guarantee that Teheran will accept a deal. This works in Washington’s favour.

If negotiations were to end today, the blame would fall on Washington given the context of Netanyahu’s speech and the open letter by the Republicans. These incidents do not only highlight the split in Washington between the White House and Congress, but it also suggests that the Obama administration is not completely “in it to win it”. But, if negotiations were to end on Teheran’s terms, Washington would be commended for its efforts in international diplomacy and for its willingness to reach an agreement.

In essence, there is very little for Washington to panic about as March 24 looms closer. If anything, these reasons demonstrate that negotiations are ultimately a win-win for Washington.

Article by Puteri Nor Ariane Yasmin which appeared in New Straits Times, 17 March 2015.

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