In perhaps the least surprising news of the year, Iran and the P5+1 failed to reach an agreement in Vienna on Monday. The P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) want Iran to scale back its uranium enrichment activities; Iran wants sanctions to be lifted.
Several years ago in Vienna, a senior Iranian diplomat made clear to me the mixture of pride and fear that drives Iran’s nuclear programme. Angry at the ‘insults’ of Western powers, he said that the programme’s success proved Iran was an ‘intelligent’ nation that would never ‘bow’ to pressure. ‘But that’s not to say a deal can’t be done,’ he added. 'Though it won’t be easy.’ He wasn't wrong. A deal has, after more than ten years of negotiations, been agreed between Iran and the P5+1 (the five Security Council powers and Germany) in Geneva. It certainly wasn’t easy, but it has been coming at least since Hassan Rouhani became president in June.
Last week, just as the latest round of nuclear talks in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 were about to begin, I was talking on the phone to a friend in Tehran about Hassan Rouhani. ‘Now we will see if he’s serious,’ my friend said, ‘or if he’s just another Khatami. Another one of him we don’t need.’ Mohammad Khatami was elected in 1997 on a far more reformist platform than Rouhani, only to find himself, and his attempts at change, blocked by hardliners throughout his presidency. So last week’s nuclear talks were the first test: of both Rouhani’s sincerity and his ability to get things done. Before the negotiations began, the Iranians promised to present a proposal that had the ‘capacity to make a breakthrough’.
The streets of West Bay, Doha’s skyscraping financial centre, were deserted last Tuesday morning, as prominent Qataris filed into the Emiri Diwan to welcome the new emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Most people in Doha seemed mainly concerned with whether Sheikh Tamim would announce a national pay rise to celebrate his accession; in 2011, Qatari nationals working for the government saw their salaries go up by 60 per cent. They were hoping for another boost. Non-Qataris – about 80 per cent of the population – were hoping otherwise, worried about a further hike in the cost of living.
More than 600 people have signed up to be candidates in Iran’s presidential elections on 14 June. The Guardian Council will now strike most of them off the list as unsuitable. One man, however, will not be so easy to deal with: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani, president from 1989 to 1997, is one of the three most important men in the history of the Islamic Republic, along with Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. He was Khomeini’s right-hand man and largely responsible for Khamenei’s succession.
The latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent Security Council members and Germany) held on Friday and Saturday in Almaty promised much. Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, had described the previous meeting (in February) as a ‘turning point’ and the foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, had said negotiations were ‘on the right track and moving in the right direction’. Western diplomats, too, had expressed quiet confidence. Which was perhaps foolish. We have been here many, many times during the eleven years that this saga has rumbled on, and, sure enough, the latest round of talks broke down with each side blaming the other for the lack of progress. No common ground was reached; there wasn’t even an agreement to meet again for more talks.
In September 1995, at a conference commemorating the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a senior Iranian arms control adviser, Hassan Mashadi, told reporters that Iran was ‘keeping its nuclear options open’. The country’s tough security environment, the threat it felt from the United States and Israel, were all reasons, he argued, that it should pursue nuclear research. The extent of this research was made clear ten years ago, on 14 August 2002, when an Iranian opposition group revealed full details of Iran’s nuclear activities, precipitating the current crisis. The Mujahedin e Khalq claimed it received the information from contacts ‘inside Iran’; privately, diplomats have told me that ‘everyone knows’ the real source was Israel.
On 6 May, I went with my father to vote at our local polling station in Maroussi in north Athens. The anger in the queue was palpable. It was unsurprising that the centre-left Pasok had its parliamentary majority wiped out, coming third with 13 per cent of the vote and winning a mere 41 seats out of 300. Pasok’s former coalition partner, the centre-right New Democracy, came top, but with less than 19 per cent of the vote and only 108 seats, couldn’t form a government. The left-wing anti-austerity party, Syriza, came second, with just over 16 per cent of the vote and 52 seats (taken together, the various far-left parties won about a third of the vote). And the overtly fascist Golden Dawn received nearly 7 per cent of the vote, gaining 21 seats. The result may have been unclear, but the message was not: a total rejection of the EU, ECB and IMF’s bailout plan, and of austerity.
Three weeks ago, Binyamin Netanyahu flew to Washington to insist once again that Israel would not accept a nuclear-armed Iran; and neither, he intimated, should the United States. Mitt Romney, to gain a few votes in Florida, promised that under any administration of his, the US would deal with Iran once and for all. Iran, as well as the American electorate, is listening. If you want to convince the mullahs to accelerate a drive towards the bomb come November, that’s the way to do it.
Charred bricks and broken glass form the bulk of what was once the Attikon cinema, burned down by hundreds of rioting Greeks in protest at the harshest austerity measures Europe has ever seen. Five lethargic firemen hose water onto the smouldering ruins. Behind them a ring of about 20 camera crews film the scene, and behind them, a ring of bystanders hold up their phones and take pictures. Even for crisis-hit Greece, the violence has been severe.