The Iran Accord and Middle East Modernism

Saturday, January 21, 2017


Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

January 16th marked year one of the Iran nuclear accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an occasion for its seven signatories to renew their commitments to it and re-confirm that it benefits all. Thus, the European Union's High Representative Mogheirini has issued a statement that praises the JCPOA as a shining non-proliferation achievement, confirming once again that Iran has fulfilled its obligations under the agreement. Similarly, both the White House and the outgoing US Secretary of State John Kerry, a key architect of the JCPOA, have issued statements in defense of the JCPOA, which is under fire by Trump and some of his aids. But, in a sign of coming tensions within the Trump administration, whereas Trump has reiterated his opposition to JCPOA in an interview with the German media, and his chief of staff has likened the agreement to a terminal patient, their views are in sharp contrast to the pro-JCPOA positions of the upcoming secretary of state Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, both of whom have departed from Trump's anti-JCPOA stance.  Tillerson's call for a "review period" will likely win the day and for at least several months the new administration will adhere by the terms of JCPOA. In evaluating the JCPOA within the context of today's Middle East, oscillating between progress and chaos, it is fairly obvious that the JCPOA reflects a qualitative leap forward in terms of Middle East modernism, by virtue of representing the triumph of modern diplomacy and, with it communicative rationality, over the impulse for war, violence, and brute competition.  It fits the description of international cooperation in the literature on international relations and in more than one way is itself a product of modernism, worthy of emulation in the broader Middle East.

In the on-going debate over the JCPOA, such a positive narrative offers a countering impulse to the accumulated pessimism seeded by Trump and some other hawkish US politicians and pundits.  The latter fail to correctly assess the JCPOA's impact on conflict-management in the Middle East, not to mention its intended and unintended consequences in terms of creating a new mode of diplomatic socialization that has proved conducive to the cause of peace, recalling Kerry's statement that the quick resolution of the American sailors' passing saga in Iran was mainly attributable to his nuclear negotiations-induced positive chemistry with his Iranian counterpart. Similarly, the same windfall can potentially materialize in the Syria peace talks scheduled for later this month in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Of course, this is not to say that the JCPOA is perfect and does not have any shortfall. No agreement is perfect and negotiating in a complex multilateral agreement by necessity entails certain compromises for the sake of reaching a consensus at the end of the process.  What matters most, however, is that the JCPOA is a landmark "win-win" agreement that addresses the needs and concerns of both sides and also represents "victory over war," to paraphrase President Rouhani.
In today's Middle East, where the region is suffering from an endemic lack of adequate inter-regional cooperation, it is vitally important to draw the right lessons from the JCPOA, such as on the role and influence of 'smart diplomacy', confidence-building preparatory agreements (the Geneva and Lausanne agreements) and the 'phased diplomacy' that traveled through stages and managed to peak past the temporary setbacks and derailments.  

In 2017,as the forces of integration and disintegration collide in the Middle East, the latter would be much helped by any attempt by the Trump administration to sabotage the JCPOA.  Hopefully, the voices of reason in the Trump administration, aided by the plethora of voices in the US and international community cheering the agreement, will prevail and thus prevent Trump from turning into a 'great saboteur'.


Photo Credit: Financial Tribune

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