A new era for Iran

Updated January 19, 2016

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IT has been a very long journey, but Iran, it seems, is finally out of the woods.

In a rare and hard-fought moment of triumph for international diplomacy, after matters came down to the wire in July 2015 and three deadlines had to be extended to allow negotiators the room to arrive at a final agreement, an important principle has been established: diplomacy does work, and where there is a will, even the toughest and most intractable of foes can be brought around to see eye to eye on sensitive issues.

The starting point of the negotiations is difficult to establish. As early as February 2003, the government of then president Mohammad Khatami had agreed to submit its nuclear programme to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But the modest progress made under that commitment was quickly rolled back with the arrival of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who favoured a more hardline approach and insisted on Iran’s right to enrich uranium purely for energy purposes.

As a matter of principle, Mr Ahmadinejad may well have had a point, but coupled with his irresponsible bellicosity and the pragmatic pressures of the real world, that push ended up landing his country in the quagmire of crippling new sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, the European Union and the United States. The results for the Iranian economy, and the Iranian people were nothing short of disastrous as inflation rose to 42pc, and the economy ground to a halt. Iran’s oil and gas infrastructure deteriorated as investment dried up.

It has taken the government of Hassan Rouhani more than two years of bare-knuckled diplomacy to pull his country back from the brink. Mr Rouhani, and, in particular, his intrepid foreign minister, Javad Zarif, have shown admirable skill and diplomatic acumen in pursuing the negotiations with five great powers and one international agency simultaneously, while balancing matters with their own hardline establishment at home.

The saga shows how easy isolation is to earn and how hard it is to shed. It also shows the benefits of pragmatic thinking, when undertaken with due skill, and the power of compromise and negotiation. It is a pity that Pakistan under US pressure, gave the Iranians the cold shoulder throughout the process.

It preferred Saudi largesse and negotiated a bread-and-butter LNG deal with Qatar, instead of starting work on a pipeline to carry Iranian gas. That gas could have been flowing months ago, and the first payment could have been made the day sanctions were lifted to inaugurate a new era in our relations with an important neighbour.

Still, all that has been lost is time, and now the excuses for the government to not pursue the Iran pipeline have vanished. It is time to raise the curtain between Iran and Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2016