Rarely has an international agreement triggered such widely divergent reactions as the Iran deal reached in Geneva, with proponents touting it as a solution to the world's problems while opponents paint doomsday scenarios. Still, it is only a temporary, six-month deal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called it a "breakthrough." United States President Barack Obama said that for the first time in years "we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program. And key parts of the program will be rolled back."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called the deal "a turning point."
An enthusiastic crowd all but crushed chief negotiator Mohammad Zarif upon his return to Tehran, after a deal had been reached with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. The foreign minister deserved a gold medal for his diplomatic skills, the Iranian newspaper Arman Daily wrote enthusiastically, noting that the world had come a step closer to global peace "without Iran having to abandon its principles."
The deal evoked a completely different reaction in Saudi Arabia and Israel. Abdullah al-Askar, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the influential Shura Council, spoke darkly of what he called Iran's "evil agenda." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fumed that the deal was a "historic mistake," saying: "the most dangerous regime in the world has taken a significant step toward attaining the most dangerous weapon in the world."
Trade and Industry Minister Naftali Bennett, a hardliner in the Israeli cabinet, even went so far as to paint an apocalyptic scenario, saying: "If in five years, a nuclear suitcase explodes in New York or Madrid, it will be because of the agreement that was signed this morning." Of course, there are also those who draw an analogy to the 1938 Munich Agreement and liken Iran to Hitler's Germany, accusing the West of choosing appeasement once again. So is the Geneva deal a work of God or a deal with the devil? Or is just an agreement complete with human weaknesses that could, ironically enough, end up benefiting the agitators on all sides?
Iran's Return to the World Stage
A week after the surprising compromise, the consequences of the interim agreement are gradually emerging -- consequences for international politics, war and peace in the Middle East, the balance of power between Sunnis and Shiites in the region and for both the ruling class in the Iranian theocracy and its subjects.
The deal amounts to a tectonic shift in the Middle East, the kind of watershed moment in global policy that only happens once every few years. The Geneva agreement marks the return of Iran to the world stage, and its transformation from a pariah to a potential partner of the United States and Europe. At the same time, it also foreshadows the presumed decline in the importance of two powers that have been viewed as difficult but indispensable partners of the West: Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The monarchs of the House of Saud have always seen themselves as the keepers of the holiest sites in Islam, the masters of Mecca and Medina, which has led to their claim of being the leading power in Sunni Islam. The Shia, the other main denomination of Islam, is treated as heretical in Saudi Arabia, where Shiites make up about 10 percent of the population and are oppressed by those in power. The Saudis have been mistrustful of their big neighbor to the east since their country was founded in 1932. But they have always had good relations with their strategic partner, the United States, a distant power to which they supplied the oil critical to its survival and from which they bought billions in armaments in return.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan was a symbolic figure in this political marriage of convenience. For 22 years, he served as the kingdom's ambassador in Washington, where, next to his Israeli counterparts, he was probably the most influential diplomat. The prince was on good terms with former First Lady Nancy Reagan and on a first-name basis with her husband, then President Ronald Reagan. He smoked Cohiba cigars with Bill Clinton. And according to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Bob Woodward, former President George W. Bush told him about the impending US invasion of Iraq before informing Secretary of State Colin Powell. The close relationship between the two countries survived the 9/11 terrorist attacks largely intact, even through 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. The Saudi rulers remained a stabilizing factor in the Middle East, working hand-in-hand with the White House.
A Rift Between Saudi Royals and White House
This began to change when the storms of the Arab spring brought turmoil to Middle Eastern autocracies. Riyadh was displeased when the US government did nothing to prevent the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in early 2011. On the other hand, the Saudis would have no objection to the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a member of the Alawite denomination and close ally of both the Shiite theocracy in Tehran and the Iranian-funded militant Hezbollah group in Lebanon. Riyadh was sharply critical of President Obama's decision not to follow up on the threat of military strikes against Damascus, widening the growing rift between the Saudi royal family and the White House.
For a war-weary United States, there is also another reason why the Middle East is no longer a top priority. Thanks to new technologies like fracking, the country is not as reliant on foreign oil as it once was and could in fact attain true energy independence within a decade. The US's old friend, 64-year-old Prince Bandar, Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief since 2012, also recognized the change when he noted that his country would make a "major shift" away from its alliance with Washington.
However, Riyadh and Washington did agree on one thing until recently: that Iran, with its presumed nuclear weapons program and its aggressive former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, represented the greatest threat to the Middle East. But then moderate politician Hassan Rohani, 65, was elected Iran's new president in June. Rohani appointed the cosmopolitan diplomat Mohammad Zarif, 53, who earned his doctorate at the University of Denver, as his new foreign minister.
Benefits for Both Sides
When an easing of the nuclear dispute was in the offing a few weeks ago, the Saudi rulers did everything they could to obstruct an agreement. But their lobbying was to no avail. The members of the UN Security Council and Germany wanted the deal, and the United States, after 34 years of having no diplomatic relations with Tehran, recognized that the prospect of rapprochement would give it more options in the Middle East. An interim agreement would benefit both sides: Iran, through the lifting of some of the ruinous sanctions against the country, and the West, through the freezing of the Iranian nuclear program. The agreement represents a six-month reprieve for both sides, and it offers the hope that something far more extensive could follow: a permanent agreement that drives away the specter of an Iranian bomb and allows Tehran to become a constructive power with the ability to defuse crises once again.
The Saudis are the losers in this historic shift. It's also possible that the West will become more public in its criticism of their regime. So far, Riyadh's rulers have been largely unopposed in their aggressive efforts to spread their rigid form of Wahhabi Islam. Unlike Iran, for example, Saudi Arabia strictly forbids the public practice of other religions. And while the Saudi rulers have fought al-Qaida domestically, they have never renounced violence beyond their borders. According to documents leaked by WikiLeaks, in 2009 then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Saudi Arabia a "critical financial base" for funding terrorism.
In the Syrian civil war, the royal family is reallocating its funding for the rebels fighting the Assad regime, so that Islamists who want to turn Syria into a fundamentalist country are now receiving more Saudi money than the moderate regime opponents. And women are still not permitted to drive or vote in Saudi Arabia.
Is Saudi Arabia Seeking to Become a Nuclear Power?
The fear of isolation is pushing Riyadh to embark on dangerous adventures. According to intelligence sources, the regime, with Pakistan's help, has recently begun pursuing its own nuclear weapon. In the 1990s, the Saudis spent millions of dollars on a project to develop an "Islamic" nuclear weapon. This may explain why the only person Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear program, invited to tour his laboratories was the then Saudi defense minister. Now Riyadh is reported to have secretly requested nuclear know-how and hardware from Islamabad that would give it the option of becoming a nuclear power itself in a few years.
Surprising New Alliances
The Geneva deal is creating surprising new alliances. The backward-looking, theocratic Saudi monarchy and modern, pluralistic Israel have discovered mutual interests. The two countries allegedly even have coordinated attack plans, in which Israeli fighter jets would not only be allowed to fly through Saudi Arabian airspace in the event of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, but could also depend on logistical support from Riyadh.
The mood in Israel itself is mixed. President Shimon Peres responded to the results of the negotiation with cautious optimism. Many Israelis view Netanyahu's maximum demands that Iran completely abandon its nuclear program as unrealistic, and they also don't believe that Tehran poses a direct threat.
Nevertheless, a majority takes Iran's threatening gestures very seriously. As much as the Israelis acknowledge Rohani's moderate statements, they also pay close attention to the words of Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most powerful man in Tehran. Just a few days ago, Khamenei referred to Jews as "rabid dogs" and essentially denied them the right to their own country in the Middle East.
Critics of the Geneva agreement paint a nightmare scenario in which the release of about $7 billion (€5.15 billion) in previously frozen funds will relieve the pressure on the Iranians, pressure that had created a desperate economic situation in the country and forced Tehran to the negotiating table. It will be psychologically almost impossible to develop a new and possibly even tougher sanctions regime, even if the Iranians are unwilling to make any further concessions or fail to live up to their current promises. American oil companies and French automakers, to which Tehran is holding out the prospect of attractive terms, are already vying for contracts. In Germany, machine-building companies anticipate billions in new orders.
According to Western intelligence sources, the leadership and not the Iranian population would be more likely to benefit from an easing of sanctions. The Revolutionary Guards have managed to successfully circumvent trade restrictions with a network of front companies. The paramilitary organization, which answers directly to religious leader Khamenei and controls large parts of the economy, acts like a state within the state, subject to no rules but its own.
Will Funds Be Diverted to Front Companies?
The seemingly harmless-sounding National Development Fund (NDF) also plays a key role. According to the Iranian budget, some 26 percent of Iran's oil and natural gas revenues -- still several hundred million dollars, despite the Western boycott -- will go to the NDF this year. The fund allegedly uses the money for peaceful purposes, but Western intelligence agencies report that the NDF, since its founding in 2010, has transferred more than $3 billion to two organizations on both European Union and US watch lists. The first one is Energy Novin, a subsidiary of the Iranian nuclear authority, which is also involved in questionable aspects of the nuclear program, and the second is the Quds Force, a unit of the Revolutionary Guards known for its dubious foreign military missions. The Quds Force is currently fighting on the side of Syrian dictator Assad, for example.
The unfreezing of Iran's bank accounts will likely be a bonanza for the NDF, which could divert the funds into hostile channels, or use them to establish other front companies. The Geneva deal deprives the West of the ability to blacklist new organizations or individuals, because the parties to the agreement assured Tehran that they would impose "no new nuclear-related sanctions" for six months. Whether President Rohani is familiar with any such plans to "divert" the billions is questionable. Iran is anything but a monolithic nation. Rather, it is one with many centers of influence, with the threads of power all leading to the supreme religious leader.
Optimists believe that Khamenei will call off the Revolutionary Guards, at least for the next few months. He expressly welcomed the Geneva deal. Hardly any of the more reactionary elements are currently opposing the moderates. On the other hand, Rohani is proceeding very cautiously -- too cautiously for many -- with his reforms. Nevertheless, he has released 11 opponents of the regime from prison, and journalists have been given somewhat more latitude to voice their criticism.
The principle of hope still prevails. The way in which the "scaremongers" are being addressed reveals the extent of the shift to date. British Foreign Secretary William Hague, for example, warned Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz not to "continue to sabotage" the nuclear deal.
REPORTED BY RONEN BERGMAN, ERICH FOLLATH, JULIA AMALIA HEYER AND CHRISTOPH SCHULT