What will the Middle East look like after Iran and the great powers that are negotiating over Iran's alleged nuclear weapons ambitions — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) — sign a deal that ends the confrontation? It's time to ask the question, because there is going to be a deal.
It didn't get signed in Geneva last weekend, but it came close. The only foreign minister at the Geneva talks on Friday was Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, but progress was so rapid that by Saturday almost all the foreign ministers of the "P5+1" — American, British, French, German and Russian — dropped whatever they were doing and flew in for the grand finale. Only the Chinese foreign minister was absent.
The grand finale has been postponed. There were just too many details to clear up in a single weekend, and a couple of sticking points that have yet to be resolved. But the date for the next meeting has already been set (Nov. 20), and nobody went away angry. "We are all on the same wavelength," said Zarif. "There is a deal on the table and it can be done," said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
There are "still some gaps" between Iran and some of the other countries present, Hague said, but "they are narrow gaps. You asked what went wrong. I would say that a great deal went right." Even French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the one who apparently dropped a last-minute spanner in the works, said, "we are not far from a agreement with the Iranians, although we are not there yet."
Fabius's demands were that the reactor in Arak, now nearing completion, should never be activated, as it would produce plutonium as a byproduct, and that Iran's store of uranium enriched to medium level (20 per cent pure) should be brought back down to five per cent to move it farther away from weapons-grade (90 per cent). Introduced into the talks at a late stage, his demands brought the proceedings to a temporary halt.
All the other Western powers closed ranks and insisted that these were joint demands, but they were not part of the original draft agreement. Speculation was rife that France was acting on behalf of its customers (for French weapons) on the Arab side of the Gulf, notably in the United Arab Emirates, who view the deal under discussion with just as much horror as Israel does. But France can only delay things: the deal is going to happen.
One immediate consequence of the deal will be that Israel has to stop threatening to attack Iran. The threat was always 90 per cent bluff — Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's own military chiefs would probably refuse to obey him if he ordered such an attack without American support — but now it will be simply ridiculous. Which will swing the spotlight back to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.