Do you know the old stories told about Vienna in the summertime? Imperial capital to a polyglot dual monarchy, the city served as a meeting place of societies, languages and nation-states. A cultural epicentre, Vienna saw streams of the most elegant, artistic, intellectual people populate its grand palaces and ballrooms. Its waltzes are justly renowned. It was a place of meetings, of cultural exchange; a place of nobility, both in birth and intent. According to this telling, the civilisation it apparently embodied could never bow to the harshness and cruelty of human nature; it had simply progressed too far and achieved too much to stop.
It was not true, of course. While Vienna may have dominated culturally, the political workings of the empire surrounding it were arcane and antiquated. Internecine struggles permeated its bureaucracy and crippled its politics. The empire resembled its penultimate Emperor: at all times working very hard, but nevertheless sliding at an ever increasing rate towards decrepitude. The reality, in other words, interfered to derail these over-optimistic tales.
The story itself does not have a happy ending. The empire entered a war it could not possibly win; it promptly suffered a series of stinging military defeats; it collapsed under the weight of its own internal failures coupled with external pressures; it sued for peace; and finally, after a drawn-out and costly peacemaking period, the dual monarchy saw itself dismembered. Only rump states remained. For a time the waltzes continued in that imperial capital on the Danube, but soon the food began to become scarce. Austria, hollowed out and without the means of subsistence, resigned itself to national desolation; boredom and greyness was punctuated by chaos – political murders, political instability, and eventual union with the National Socialist state next door.
Such optimism as that displayed in pre-war Vienna made an appearance in its modern successor this summer. The P5+1 group of nations, having worked, like the Emperor Franz Joseph, most awfully hard every day, followed the Emperor in gradually sliding into a worse and worse predicament – in this case a nuclear accord which got progressively more imbalanced in Iran’s favour as the days went on. Limitations were trumpeted, ‘snap-back’ sanctions promised, but all many wanted to do was celebrate. Such was the general mood of jubilation that legitimate criticism of the settlement was initially dismissed – by both supporters of the deal and commentators – as being generally out of keeping with the atmosphere. A new order was being forged and legacies minted. Why spoil it all with talk of Iranian obfuscation, the possibility of capital derived from sanctions relief going to regional proxies and the establishment (or extension) of a regional hegemony? It rather punctured the fun of it all.
But such criticisms, sad though they may be to hear, must be said; objections to this agreement must be stated and, if necessary, acted upon. Cracks began to appear regardless of the effort to contain them mere hours after the agreement was concluded; they have not been contained, and can credibly threaten to bring the whole edifice of this deal crumbing to earth.
It must be noted that some of those who are now being exempted from sanctions are not the nicest. Qassem Suleimani – I have written about him before – is one of the masterminds of Iran’s ever-expanding imperium. It is on his watch that the Shia militias who rampage through much of Iraq commit war crimes of their own in the fight against ISIS. It is under his orders that the Assad regime persists, and he must take responsibility for many of its atrocities. He will receive sanctions relief from this deal. Now the ‘living martyr’ can buy European sports cars (should he find any that correspond to his tastes). What a deal it has been for him.
Iran’s proxies – Hezbollah in particular – could find themselves in receipt of a vast cash injection from henceforward. Let us remember that Iran spent more on the preservation of the Assad tyranny than its own military budget last year, and that this figure does not include the transfers of oil – essentially gifts to prolong its ally’s war machine – which must increase the total figure considerably. And this was the case under sanctions; I will repeat that – this was the case under those terrible sanctions everybody is so keen to end. Imagine how much greater such ‘assistance’ to those ultimately undesirable organisations will be from now. Yet we are meant to imagine that this will not be the case, that the Iranians need the money, among other things, to develop their peaceful nuclear energy capacity; we are also expected to believe that the Iranians will be mortally terrified of doing something to re-impose these supposedly crippling sanctions via the feted ‘snap-back’ mechanism. Neither of those propositions seems entirely likely, I would humbly suggest.
Yet again in the foreign policy of the Obama administration, what substance there was has been lost amid the glint and glimmer of highly polished surface. This deal is ‘historic’; the alternatives are not worth contemplation. Those who say otherwise are warmongering ideologues, all of whom are desperate to hold on to the comforting notion of Iran as an existential enemy, a contention which cannot remain in the modern, civilised, progressive world.
Such a suggestion does not survive a collision with reality. The first tremor has already come, and the lacquer is already becoming somewhat chipped; as time wears on and the situation described above begins to play out, it seems likely that this presentation – and the reputation of the President who ordered it – will incur some serious damage.
The United States has declared itself ‘shocked’ at ex post facto Iranian criticism of the settlement. Not only has Tehran had the temerity to suggest that it will continue to work to defy any restrictions placed upon its capacity to develop the nuclear weapons this deal was meant to prevent, it has done so at a time which had hitherto been reserved for celebration. But let us not forget that despite the prevalence of Western-educated negotiators and the slight suggestion that President Rouhani represented a new way of doing things in the Islamic Republic, the crowds are still chanting ‘Death to America’ after Friday prayers.
Perhaps the champagne corks were popped a little prematurely in Vienna and Washington.
A version of this article will be published in an upcoming edition of The Transnational Review, a journal of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.