Photo: Ben Piven

If the nuclear framework agreement is to be the start of something bigger, the US and other Western countries need a vision beyond the fight against terrorism, argues Walter Posch at the National Defence Academy in Vienna.  Recognizing the role of energy security and economy in the region may be key to long-lasting change. 

Iranians took to the streets in Teheran to celebrate in April after the news broke that the negotiations between Iran and the US had led to a nuclear framework agreement. In Iran, hopes are high that the sanction relief the country has been promised as part of the agreement, will ease the economic strain the Iranians are living with. In the US, the agreement is seen as an important step in curbing threats from the country that was once described as part of the axis of evil by former president George Bush. Is the nuclear framework agreement a sign of a thawing relationship between Iran and the West?

According to Walter Posch, senior researcher at the National Defence Academy in Vienna, Austria, the nuclear framework agreement is more of a virtue of necessity than an indication of any true reconciliation.

-Five years ago, this agreement would have been a dramatic breakthrough. It is still an achievement, but at this point in time, it was absolutely crucial for both parties to come to an understanding. Iran’s economy almost bakrupt because of the sanctions. The US needs Iran as an ally in the fight against the Islamic State.

Recognising the need for domestic development
Despite the compelling circumstances, Posch is optimistic. Much can happen if trust can be rebuilt. The nuclear framework agreement can be the beginning of a new relationship between Iran and the US and the West in general. However, he points to important issues that may cause problems during the next months of negotiations, and that may eventually make it difficult to come to a conclusive deal.

-There may be disagreement as to what sanction reliefs should consist of and about the concrete inspection methods, says Posch.


*Iran is one of the countries that are central in CMI’s new research programme on security and statehood in the Middle East.

*International scholars doing research on security and the role of armys and militias in the Middle East recently came together at CMI to develop research projects and applications. Posch is one of the researchers who are involved in developing this topic further. 

Still, indications are clear that also the Iranian negotiators are willing to go to considerable lengths to close the deal. A nuclear deal is a deliberate policy from president Rohani. His approach to the West is remarkably different from former president Ahmadinejad’s. A nuclear deal has been on his agenda since day one, says Posch.

-In my view, the West has nothing to fear from Rohani. What we should give more consideration is the powerful people who will come after him. We can expect an aggressive and revengeful generation before a more liberal one emerges, he says.

To keep up a good relationship, Western countries need to acknowledge what is important to Iran, argues Posch. Settling for a nuclear deal without considering Iranian foreign politics as a whole would be a grave mistake.

-For anyone who takes a closer look, it is obvious that Iran’s security policy is Iranian more than Islamic or revolutionary. And as far as regional issues are concerned, Iran acts like a traditional nation-state, he says.

In the immediate neighbourhood, security and economy are the two main factors. In this sense, Iran acts like any other state guarding the nation’s interests. Stability is one aim, so is preventing the others from becoming too powerful. And you do not want poverty on your border.

Too narrow focus

Apart from boosting the economy and keeping a friendly relationship to their neighbours, an important feature of Iranian foreign policy is to develop Iran as a central-Asian energy and transport hub. The Indians would willingly invest, aiming to shorten the route for Indian goods on the way to Europe. So would the Russians. Western countries would be wise to support this ambition.

-An Iran focusing on internal development and regional stability is the kind of Iran that the US and the West in general would like. You cannot ignore the role energy and economy plays in this. Also, the amount of technology and foreign input that Iran would need to develop this project would probably have long-lasting moderational effects, says Posch.

Posch argues that US and Western policies bear the imprint of policymakers and politicians that have not been able to juggle several thoughts at the same time.

-Western countries have been so preoccupied with negotiating a nuclear deal that they have lost sight of other pressing agendas in Iran and its neighbouring countries. Energy security plays a crucial role in the region, but has been ignored. As for questions concerning regional security, the European countries have not had any real policy on the Middle East. Everyone must have known that when Bashar al-Assad fell, there would be revenge. This was a perfectly predictable outcome. Yet, the West seems to have been taken by surprise by the intensity of the uprisings and the carnage that followed, he says.