Teheran, Washington, ISIL and the nuclear deal
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Despite remaining gaps, the momentum for a nuclear deal with Iran is becoming irresistible and next week could see start of a new page in Middle East politics.
The reasons for momentum in favor of a deal go far beyond the arm wrestling among negotiators on nuclear issues. Above all, they concern steadily rising Sunni Islamic terrorism across the Middle East and along a large crescent stretching from China to North Africa’s Atlantic coast. They also concern President Barack Obama’s place in foreign policy history.
Secretary of State John Kerry and the other top negotiators left Lausanne, Switzerland, today and should return on Wednesday to put final touches on an outline deal with Iran. But it might still derail before the completion deadline at the end of June.
The overall deal would be historically unprecedented and uniquely complex, stretching to 15 years in its first phase. Much could go wrong at any time.
Stating the outline’s contents is premature although various educated guesses suggest that it will ensure the peaceful intentions of Iran’s nuclear efforts for at least 10 years in exchange for phased lifting of financial sanctions.
Iran’s main motive is to alleviate significantly the economic pain suffered by its people for nearly two decades, even if it has to bend a little before American pressure.
The overall deal will be imperfect and loathed by Israel’s Benyamin Netanyahu but it is necessary to nudge Iran towards being a responsible player in the Mideast. Without this turn of the page, the US and its allies will not have what it takes to halt the rise of new Sunni theocratic totalitarianism carried by the Islamic State (ISIL) and its friends around the world.
Very dangerous Shia totalitarianism rose with the 1979 revolution in Iran, which the US-led allies were unable to contain or even temper despite economic sanctions and other diplomatic penalties.
A much more dangerous theocratic totalitarianism has spread during the past 20 years led by the much more violently virulent Sunni Islam of Wahhabi/Salafist revolutionaries, embodied in the Taliban, al Qaeda and ISIL.
This strain presents a much greater challenge to the US-led world order based on democracy, human rights and rule of law. It completely rejects all three pillars and, additionally, has territories beyond Iraq and Syria through allies in Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and western China.
Over the past 35 years, Shia revolutionary totalitarianism has moderated itself in Iran partly because of governing a large restive population. It also feared going too far in challenging the US, the world’s overwhelming power, thus avoiding irreversible enmity and war.
Over time, the Shia theocrats installed limited democracy in internal affairs and routinely cooperated with the United Nations system, all of which is devoted to promoting the pillars of the US-led order.
In contrast, Sunni totalitarians reject everything that the US-led allies and the UN stand for. Their theology rejects every other theology underlying human civilization.
They see contemporary human values as being decadent and deserving annihilation through either conversion to their belief system or outright killing.
Confronted with this great Sunni extremist rejection of human values as practiced by the vast majority of the world’s people including Muslims, Obama has rightly chosen to push Shia theocracy towards joining the rest of the world. Success would engrave his name on history and win more friends for America.
Even an imperfect nuclear deal would open a practicable path for Teheran’s mullahs to make common cause with the rest of humanity against ISIL and its cohorts. Their worldview may also change enough over 15 years to renounce nuclear weapons.
Some Sunni Arab states, like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, see Obama’s political will to build bridges to Teheran as betrayal because they are thinking in terms of the 1500-year-old rift between Sunni and Shia Islam.
However, that misreads the situation. The real issue here is not Sunni-Shia hatred – both have coexisted reasonably for over 500 years — but the rise of Sunni totalitarianism and its attempted appeal to over one billion Muslims.
There is still time to nip it in the bud, although several barbaric movements like Boko Hara have offered allegiance to the Islamic State.
It cannot be dismantled if the US-led world order has two theocratic enemies – one fomenting Sunni terrorism on a multinational scale and the other fomenting Shia terrorism in the Mideast.
Iran’s Shia theocrats must be given a path to normal global citizenship because the cost of their continued ostracism will be too high for the Sunni Arab states and Jewish Israel.
The entire Mideast would take a giant step backwards if at the last minute hotheads in Teheran reject Kerry’s efforts next week, or Washington’s naysayers stymie Obama.
The positive gains of neutralizing Teheran’s hitherto disruptive role in Mideast are worth pursuing even if that means facing brickbats from Netanyahu and his supporters in America.
An outline deal with Iran would also dampen Teheran’s fears that Washington is pursuing a medium term agenda of overthrowing its regime. That could persuade the mullahs to be more cooperative over the next 10 years.
Above all, it would open paths for Obama and his successors to dismantle ISIL with fewer worries that Iran will push its Shia cohorts in the region to foment more chaos.