A lot of ink is being spilled analyzing the pros and cons of the recently concluded US-Iran nuclear deal between Iran and the 5+ 1 countries (4 permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany), and there is ample show of emotions about this deal involving different actors. The Arab states are upset because they concluded that its successful implementation would lead to an era of US-Iran rapprochement in which Iran, more than the Arab states, would be the focus of America’s attention. The Israelis are mad because they see the emergence of a nuclear Iran in the distant future as a result of it. More to the point, Israel’s Prime Minister , Benyamin Netanyahu, envisions that deal as the first historical step toward bringing about an end to Israel’s own preeminence, related to its nuclear deterrence in the region. A study prepared for the RAND Corporation addresses precisely that point when it notes, “Nuclear weapons would probably reinforce Iran’s traditional national security objectives, including deterring a U.S. or Israeli military attack.” The American side—mainly the Obama officials and pro-nuclear-deal Democrats in the US Congress—is hoping that it has succeeded, at least in postponing Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons aspirations into the distant future. The American neocons and the Republican legislators, on the contrary, think that Iran has fleeced the Obama administration into lifting the economic sanctions without giving up anything of substance.
Inside Iran, the reaction is also mixed. The liberal/moderate sections envision the nuclear deal as a harbinger of better economic days for their country, and as an important step toward reintegration of Iran into the world economy. While Iran’s Supreme Leader, Sayed Ali Khamenei, seemingly approved the deal, he is also keeping his powder dry, just in case the deal is overwhelmingly rejected by the US Congress and then cannot be vetoed by President Barack Obama. He fully comprehends the potency and the depth of anti-Iranian feelings at the official level in Washington. He is also doing more than his fair share of public tweeting, through which he might be signaling the hardliners that he has not yet abandoned their deep distrust of the United States. He also stated that his country would continue to support the Palestinians, the Houthis, the Bahraini reform movement, and the Shia militias operating in Iraq.
These intricate narratives of the positions of various actors notwithstanding, the US-Iran nuclear deal contains tremendous potential tof open a new era of rapprochement between Tehran and Washington. However, a vital precondition is that both sides must be willing to bury the past thirty-six-plus-years hatchet of ill-will, suspicion, and bad blood.
The most significant aspect of the US-Iran nuclear deal, which none of its critics is mentioning, is that, by negotiating that deal, the Obama administration has legitimized the Islamic Republic of Iran, something that the latter had long aspired to achieve from the US government. That, in itself, has created a fact that cannot be undone by the Israelis, the American neocons, or the Republican critics.
By concluding that deal, the Obama administration has explicitly recognized the fact that Iran, indeed, is the new rising power of the Middle East. As such, it has acquired political prestige, which is bound to come from the West, China, and Russia in the form of billions of dollars worth of business deals aimed at reindustrializing Iran. Iran is not only ready, but it is anxiously waiting for the lifting of the economic sanctions to start a tsunami of industrialization of its economic and military sectors.
It should be remembered that, even in the case of Nixon’s opening with the PRC in 1972 (something that some American supporters of the US-Iran nuclear deal are comparing it with), China’s industrialization had to wait until after 1978 when Deng Xiaoping declared his now famous four modernizations (agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology). Iran, on the other hand, is ready to reap a bonanza from the nuclear deal. Years of US/Western imposed sanctions have created a powerful tradition of economic self-reliance inside that country. That tradition, with the injection of Western technology in the form of oil and gas, information technology, and a massive upgrade of its civilian infrastructures, promises to catapult Iran into a new fledgling industrial power of Middle East when the economic sanctions are lifted. In that capacity, it will attempt to inject its economic prowess into its already assertive foreign policy throughout the Middle East. That is precisely the source of the chief concern of Iran’s West Asian neighbors.
Iran’s admission into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), even though it remains as one of the least publicized development in the Western press, is an important symbolic nod of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia to the impending rise in the global prestige of Iran. That issue should be viewed with the generally recognized downward slide of the United States in the global arena.
As the United States’ prestige to influence events in the Middle East has taken a palpably downward turn, since the Arab awakening that started in December 2010, and in the absence of Egypt as the leader of the Arab block in the post-Hosni Mubarak era, Saudi Arabia in particular, and the Gulf sheikhdoms in general, have attempted to fill the gap by attempting to play a leadership role in the Arab world, but without any consequential success. Egypt, under the dictatorship of president Fattah el-Sisi, remains a state that is descending steadily toward mounting turbulence and instability. The ouster of that country’s first democratically elected President, Mohammad Morsi, seems to have transformed Egypt’s Islamic Brotherhood into a violent and anti-government entity. To worsen the situation, the Islamic State is also making its increasing volatile presence felt inside Egypt. Saudi Arabia and the UAE attempted to shore up the military regime of Egypt by providing billions of dollars in financial assistance. However, even that assistance does not seem to be transforming that country into an economically prosperous and politically stable place.
As Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz are on a public campaign to create a congressional majority for the approval of the US-Iran nuclear deal, its Congressional critics have adopted a venomous and offensive language to condemn Iran, feebly arguing all along that there is nothing in that deal for America and Israel, and that Iran still remains a “rogue state.”
While the critics of the deal whimsically expect Iran to transform itself into America’s poodle for its passage, Iran, for its part, is making it clear that it has no intention of playing that role, either now, or in the distant future. Quite realistically, the top Obama officials, including President Obama himself, are declaring that the focus of the US-Iran negotiations was only the nuclear issue and nothing beyond that. Other strategic issues—like Iran’s continued incarceration of American prisoners, Iran’s hostile attitude toward Israel, and its support of Lebanon’s Hezbollah—have to be negotiated separately and through quiet diplomacy.
Without beating their chests about it, US officials point to the fact that the United States and Iran are helping each other in their mutual fight against the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/Daish) in Iraq. In fact, Iran is the only outside actor whose ground forces are actively fighting that terrorist entity.
Where Iran and the United States differ is the issue of engaging the Sunni forces of Iraq in that fight. Obviously, Iran would not do anything in the Iraqi theater of operation that would jeopardize the presence and its attendant influence of the pro-Iranian Shia militias. The Obama administration grudgingly recognizes that Iran’s influence in Iraq is there to stay. Thus, the second best option for the United States is to still find avenues for the participation of Iraqi Sunnis in Iraqi governance. Without such participation by the Sunni forces, Iraq is not likely to become a stable polity. Iran also reluctantly recognizes that fact. That is why it does not publicly assert its opposition for the increased participation of Sunnis in the governance of Iraq. Thus, credit should go to the Obama administration for not only understanding that reality, but also attempting to make the best out of the situation by letting Iran have its own say in the Iraqi operation, since America has no intention of recommitting its ground forces in that theater.Even in Syria, the United States and Iran do not wish to see the end of the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad, but for entirely different reasons. Iran remains a staunch supporter of Assad, while the United States, in its own convoluted way, is preparing anti-Assad (but anti-IS) forces to bring about an end to Assad’s rule. However, the United States has no precise idea as to who or what forces would replace Assad.
In West Asia, the United States does not have any particular heartburn regarding the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as long as that rivalry does not bring about regime change in Bahrain and Yemen, places where Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of conspiring for such changes. For the Obama administration, Tehran and Riyadh are fully capable of reaching a rapprochement on those issues, especially if the hardliners in both of those countries do not gain an upper hand. President Hasan Rouhani will have no problem having secret and prolonged negotiations with the Saudis on the subject. However, under the new King Salman Ben Abdel-Aziz, the Saudi foreign policy appears to be in the hands of a team of amateurs. It will be awhile before King Salman makes his own mark on Saudi foreign policy, one of whose leitmotifs would be to reach a regional accommodation with Iran.
Despite these difficulties, the passage of this nuclear deal requires Iran to moderate the tone of its bellicose rhetoric, especially the mordant rhetoric that Khamenei is generating through his fixation for tweeting. The least he should do is to lower his profile for the duration of the congressional hearings on the subject. The moderates inside the United States and the Obama administration should have ample opportunity for making the case that Iran is ready to bury the hatchet without looking over their shoulders and fretting about when the noxious and tactless tweet from the Ayatollah springs up next.
The long-term process of burying the hatchet has to be followed by several rounds of negotiations between the United States and Iran on a number of heady issues. The downside of that proposition is that there is very little time left for Obama administration officials to carry out those negotiations. The next administration may or may not share the Obama administration’s zeal to find avenues of cooperation, unless it is successful in concluding that Iran’s cooperation is vital for the emergence of a stable Middle East. On the Iranian side, a genuine attempt has also to be made to demonstrate its own inclination to pursue the opening of a new era of cooperation with Washington. As difficult as that issue is, neither Iran nor the United States can afford to ignore it in the coming months and years.