Ready to drink from the poisoned cup?

While Iran’s negotiators haggle, the supreme leader is using Shia advances in Iraq and the Houthi civil war in Yemen to divert attention from a possible beyond-the-wire nuclear deal in Lausanne. Yassamine Mather reports on latest developments

When the 5+1 powers and Iran announced the March 31 deadline for nuclear negotiations, they did not expect these talks to go into April. However, after six exhausting days of bargaining this is precisely what has happened and, as I write, there is still doubt that the two sides can sign a political statement within the next day or so.

The deal that has been talked about would ensure Iran’s right to keep between five and six thousand centrifuges (the precise number being one of the sticking points of the current negotiations), while reducing development and research at all sites; also, sanctions would be removed at a pace agreed by both parties. All this would pave the way for the final agreement in June 2015. The talks between Iran and the US, Russia, China, France and the UK (the permanent members of the United Nations security council), plus Germany, ie, the P5+1, were the last round in a marathon of bilateral and multilateral negotiations, yet the urgency of this final round and the long hours spent has reminded me of students cramming before university examinations. Others have compared the Iranian team’s negotiating techniques to market merchants who haggle over the price to the last cent.

Whichever way you look at it, the negotiating teams looked exhausted as discussions in Lausanne lasted late into the night. British foreign minister, Philip Hammond, was photographed holding his head in his hands, while his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, seen leaving the talks at 1am on April 1, was quoted as saying he would only return when “serious negotiations resume” - a reference to Iran’s alleged intransigence. All this in circumstances when the March 31 deadline had been agreed by both sides in November 2014. But ministers and their teams still have to finalise a deal which is meant to take the form of a three-page document.

As the ministers of the six world powers gathered in Lausanne to meet their Iranian counterparts on Sunday March 29, reports emerged about a possible settlement. US diplomats briefed journalists to the effect that a “step by step” approach had been agreed. However, this was followed by denials from the Iranian negotiating team, whose members were said to be under pressure from the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, to look for an all-in deal. Abbas Araghchi, a senior negotiator from Iran’s foreign ministry, denied that any tentative agreement had been struck. To say that there was agreement on the number of centrifuges and Iran’s nuclear stockpiles was just “journalistic speculation”.1 An unnamed US diplomat had told news agencies that Iran had “more or less” agreed to slash the number of its centrifuge machines by more than two-thirds and to ship abroad most of its stockpile of nuclear material.

Step by step

Confusion continued on April 1, when in the early hours both the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers briefed their respective country’s media that all important issues had been resolved - only to be contradicted by the US side with its more pessimistic view. Rightwing analyst Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute think tank, claimed Iran’s demand for the lifting of all sanctions was to blame for problems in this round of negotiations, as it “indicates that the regime is negotiating beyond just the nuclear programme”. He claimed that the “intertwining nature of the sanctions” meant that “lifting any of them, let alone all of them”, would be highly complicated. For example, some of the nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the 2010 Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act also target “transactions related to Iran’s support for terrorism”. So how can the US agree to lift them without ensuring that the Iranians have “ceased their support for acts of international terrorism”? Then there are the sanctions imposed for “violating human rights”. Surely they should remain in place?2

However, it is obvious that a “step by step” approach to removing sanctions over a lengthy period would do nothing to extricate Iran from its current dire economic situation, There would be too many uncertainties: which sanctions will be lifted when? Manufacturing companies, banks and financial institutions would remain wary of entering into any deals with Tehran when the extent and duration of sanctions was still uncertain.

On March 30 oil prices dropped slightly - economists believe one of the reasons why prices have not risen over the last three weeks was the expectation that, following a final agreement, sanctions on the insurance of oil tankers would be removed, thus making it easier to export Iranian oil and leading to a further fall in the price. However by April 1, the price of a barrel of oil increased by 4%. The Iranian currency had also improved slightly, as the banking and financial sector expects to be amongst the first beneficiaries of a deal. Iran’s banks and financial institutions continue to be scrutinised by the US, and many of their transactions are deemed to be illegal under sanctions legislation. However, many are personal transactions, as shown by the following extract from this newspaper commentary:

Recently, a friend of mine purchased a small quantity of Iranian saffron from a Birmingham merchant for £30 over the internet. This transaction was legal according to British and international law. It did not contravene any United Nations resolution. He transferred the funds via PayPal, the international payments firm. The money was paid in pounds sterling. What happened next was outrageous. PayPal sent him a menacing email informing him that he was in breach of US law, and asked him to sign a form admitting that he had behaved illegally.3

But undoubtedly it is the big financial institutions that are hit the most. PayPal, HSBC and the Royal Bank of Scotland are amongst dozens of international companies which have been heavily penalised by the US in accordance with its Civil Liability for Violations of Multiple Sanctions Programs legislation.

As for Iranians, they hope that the talks will end in a speedy deal, and that the lifting of sanctions will slow the rise in prices and allow a return to some kind of normality. But, of course, supporters of regime change from above, often financed by neoconservatives, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are openly campaigning against any deal - although some amongst the conservative factions of the Islamic regime, including supporters and officials of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have benefited financially from the black market created by sanctions and will also not be too happy to see them go.

Iran and Yemen

Ahead of the March 31 deadline, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who had been briefed by US secretary of state John Kerry about the proposed agreement, went on the offensive, claiming that the expected deal was “even worse” than he had feared: “The dangerous accord which is being negotiated in Lausanne confirms our concerns.” Netanyahu went on to talk about a “Iran-Lausanne-Yemen axis”, which was “a serious threat to all humanity”. According to him, Iran could be in a position to “conquer” the Middle East - he repeated recent claims about the “axis” of control exercised by Tehran over the capitals of Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

However, as the deadline for a political statement approached and it became clear that Iran would need to make further concessions, the rhetoric of the supporters of the supreme leader and his president became equally extreme. Last week I wrote about ayatollah Ali Younessi’s comments, which were seized on by Iran’s enemies in the Middle East as ‘proof’ that Tehran regarded Iraq as an integral part of an Iranian empire.4 But in the last few days supporters of the supreme leader have gone out of their way to make exaggerated claims about Iran’s role in events in Yemen.

There can be no doubt that the Islamic republic was involved in the initial stages of the Houthi rebellion. However, most people doubt that Iran’s current involvement matches up to the rhetoric of these supporters (who, for example, try to claim credit for Houthi advances), as well as that of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and neoconservatives in the US, who allege that the entire crisis results from an Iranian expansionist plot. The first point to remember is that Houthis are not Shias - they accept only five of the 12 Shia imams and, had they been living in Iran, they would have been persecuted as heretics. (Incidentally the same is true of Alawis, who face discrimination and persecution in Iran’s Shia Islamic republic.) So Iranian claims about defending fellow Shias, both in reference to Yemen and the Alawis in Syria, is, at the very least, an opportunistic one.

A second point is that the Houthi movement has managed to forge an alliance of all those opposed to Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, including Sunnis. The Yemeni president, forced into exile in January, was imposed on the Yemeni people with Saudi help following sustained mass demonstrations against the former ruler, in events related to the 2011 ‘Arab spring’. The then president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled Yemen for 33 years, was deposed in November 2011 and Hadi, his deputy, took over under a ‘unity deal’ brokered by Saudi Arabia. But Hadi was just as unable to solve the country’s many problems - not just wide-ranging poverty and malnutrition, an Al Qa’eda-led insurrection, not to mention the growth of a separatist movement in the south as well as the rebellion by Houthis in the north.

Yemen is a relatively small country, yet it is situated in an area of great geopolitical significance on a waterway that separates two continents. Ships , including oil tankers, pass through the Mandeb Strait separating Yemen from Djibouti on their journey to or from the Suez Canal - hence its significance for the regional and global economy.

The current conflict might have become a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but it is more complicated than that. According to Darius Nazemroaya writing in Global Research,

The war and ousting of president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Yemen are not the results of a ‘Houthi coup’ in Yemen. It is the opposite. Hadi was ousted because with Saudi and US support he tried to backtrack on the power-sharing agreements he had made and return Yemen to authoritarian rule ... The strategic equation in the Middle East began to shift, as it became clear that Iran was becoming central to its security, architecture and stability. The House of Saud and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu began to whimper and complain that Iran was in control of four regional capitals - Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana’a - and that something had to be done to stop Iranian expansion.

As a result of the new strategic equation, the Israelis and the House of Saud became perfectly strategically aligned with the objective of neutralising Iran and its regional allies. “When the Israelis and Arabs are on the same page, people should pay attention,” Israeli ambassador [to the US] Ron Dermer told Fox News about the alignment of Israel and Saudi Arabia on March 5.5

By late March the Yemen war had become an integral part of the Saudi/Israeli campaign to stop a nuclear deal between Iran and P5+1. On March 27, it became clear that Israel was helping Saudi Arabia over Yemen. According to Hassan Zayd, the head of Yemen’s Al-Haq party, “This is the first time that the Zionists are conducting a joint operation in collaborations with Arabs.” Not quite true - in the Yemeni civil war of 1962 Saudi Arabia and Israel were also allies, supplying arms to the royalists against the republicans in the north.

Pan-Arab military operations against the Houthis were agreed in early March. By March 28, Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia were joined by Turkey in the war. (It is interesting to note, however, that none of these countries have so far taken any serious steps to confront Islamic State.) By March 30 Saudi war planes were pounding Sana’a and other Yemeni cities, as civilians took cover from indiscriminate bombing - aircraft sold by British Aerospace to the Saudi kingdom were crucial in this unequal battle. Responding to criticism about civilian deaths, a Saudi military spokesman was unapologetic: Houthis had occupied areas “right in the middle of civilian populations”, forcing Saudi jets to inflict “collateral damage”.

At a summit of Arab leaders held Saturday on March 28, Hadi referred to the Houthis as “stooges of Iran” and thanked the “honourable men” who had enabled him to escape from the southern Yemeni city of Aden. The same day the Palestinian movement, Hamas, declared its support for Hadi: “Hamas stands with legitimacy in Yemen. We underline the importance of Yemen’s unity, security and stability.”6

As the civil war in Yemen became a reality, important figures in the Islamic republic were desperately hoping the supreme leader would be able to claim some kind of victory for Shia Islam to divert attention from the fact that Tehran was about to ‘drink the poison cup’ of western conditions in the nuclear negotiations. A senior figure in Iran’s foreign policy commission, Mohammad Hassan Askari, told Fars News Agency:

Saudi Arabia is well aware that the Yemeni people and armed forces are capable of targeting the military bases of Saudi Arabia at a distance of 500 kilometres inside that country ... Saudi Arabia would never dare take such grave action alone, and it has surely committed the crime after receiving a green light from the US.7

Meanwhile, a close ally of ayatollah Khamenei was quoted as saying that Iran, having conquered Yemen, would aim for Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia. One, well founded, explanation for this and other such statements is that the supreme leader is wanting to divert attention from a nuclear deal that will see him swallow western humiliation.


1. www.arabnews.com/news/725086.

2. www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/irans-internal-messaging-on-the-nuclear-talks#.VRxUg6wqMXU.twitter.

3. The Daily Telegraph February 20.

4. ‘The crown under the turban’ Weekly Worker March 26.

5. http://m.strategic-culture.org/news/2015/03/30/the-geopolitics-behind-the-war-in-yemen-i.html.

6. www.middleeasteye.net/news/hamas-backs-legitimacy-president-hadi-yemen-246464643.

7. http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13940107000244.