Cold war with Iran not behind us yet

Negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1 – the US, China, Russia, France, the UK, Germany, and, oh yes, Catherine Ashton could come too – have failed to produce an agreement. Part II will take place on the 20th of November, but less important people will show up there. Don’t get your hopes up.

So what went wrong? First, the rumor said France was to be blamed. As a result, dozens of disappointed Iranians, eager to have the sanctions lifted, “bombed” – appropriate choice of words? – Laurent Fabius’ Facebook page with indignant messages. John Kerry later said that it was actually Iran that pulled the plug out of the negotiations. Did he receive an angry phone call from Fabius or something?

Counter to what a lot of analysts have been saying, I do not believe they would have come to an agreement even if Fabius would have welcomed Zarif with three kisses on the cheek and a dozen of French baguettes. It’s important to note the reasons why the negotiations came about. First, I think some sort of deal happened when the US almost went to war in Syria. Second, the Iranian population is suffering under the sanctions and the Iranian government would have serious legitimacy issues if they do not even seem to be trying to change that. These two factors were enough to bring the parties to the negotiating table, but did not prove enough to really bring about change. Why not?

In short, the timing is not right. Let’s compare this situation to the end of the Cold War, which is not such a silly comparison because both conflicts are about “the bomb” as well as an enemy-construction based on ideological differences. Gorbachev reportedly said he agreed to extravagant measures in arms reduction because he met Reagan face to face and believed the American would not launch a first strike against the Soviet Union. What would Iran get back from the negotiations? The lifting of the sanctions that are crippling their economy, which is a huge thing, but in the face of insecurity, it’s not. They want more. And with the US having the nuclear capability to blow up the entire world, being close palls with Iran’s enemies Israel and Saudi Arabia, and at the moment militarily involved in several countries in the region, no, they don’t feel secure. So they keep hanging onto the thread that is “the nuclear option”, the only point of leverage on their hands.

The negotiations are not only about security issues. They’re about discourse as well. And we’ve seen a lot of very polarized discourse in the run-up to Geneva. Iran takes on a neo-Gramscian approach, blaming the west for relying on “archaic and deeply ineffective ways and means to preserve their old superiority and domination.” Where Iran says the US acts like an old imperial power, the US says they’re standing up for the universal interest. As Obama said at the General Assembly this year: “I believe America is exceptional — in part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interests, but for the interests of all”. The Geneva talks are connected to this “battle of the discourses”. Say, Iran would go: “okay, you can come here and check our nuclear plants all you want”. Then they would seem to be subscribing to the American discourse of US exceptionality — the idea that it’s okay for the US to have the bomb and control other countries’ nuclear capabilities as well. Because they are exceptional. Big step, there.

Kenneth Waltz wrote an article last year stating the world would be better off if Iran had the bomb. Why? This would restore stability in the Middle East – because now there’s an imbalance of power with Israel being the only country in the region having nuclear capability. The logic of nuclear deterrence also counts for Iran, despite what US and Israeli officials are claiming, according to Waltz. Does the man have a point? Would Iran having a nuclear bomb make the world a safer place? Maybe in an abstract world where people never make mistakes and always do the rational thing. However, the idea of “nuclear peace” evaporates when you hear that nightmarish stories like Dr. Strangelove or how I learned to love the bomb are actually not so far from the truth.