What a difference a year can make in the Middle East.
Just 12 months ago, Iran was facing some daunting prospects: Painful western economic and financial sanctions, the potential downfall of its key Arab Syrian ally, and a resurgence in anti-Shia and anti-Iran rhetoric spurred on by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbours seeking to undermine Iranian influence in the region.
But as 2014 kicks off, the tables have turned rather dramatically:
A historic compromise in Geneva between the P5+1 and the Islamic Republic recognised Iran’s nuclear aspirations, rolled back some sanctions and replenished the country’s coffers.
International consensus is starting to gather behind Iran’s Syrian ally and against its Saudi Arabian adversary, tipping the regional balance of power in Tehran’s favour.
Moreover, the Islamic Republic is now widely seen as holding key levers in the resolution of conflicts from Lebanon to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and beyond, placing Iran at the table with global powers who need its regional clout quite suddenly.
Diminished US influence in, and commitment to, the Middle East has peeled the constraints off Iran, which appears keen to assume a more prominent regional role.
Iran has gained critical support from UN Security Council permanent members Russia and China, also eager to end the dismal era of American hegemony in the Mideast.
Both states are committed to pushing a new global political and economic agenda based on multilateralism, and with Iran and Iraq set to becoming the Persian Gulf’s new energy hub, Moscow – and especially Beijing – are keen to protect those interests.
While 2014 is already looking much brighter for Iran, there are some significant dangers that will not make this an easy ride.
The Salafist Threat
For starters, Shia Iran – and its multi-sect regional allies – is a huge target for sectarian Salafist militants and Al Qaeda wannabes throughout the Levant and the Gulf.
Corridors of political violence have opened up from Lebanon to Iraq, threatening to destabilise the entire region unless there is a dedicated global effort to roll back Sunni extremism.
Iran is taking the regional lead in tackling this problem, placing the country in direct confrontation with longtime foe, Saudi Arabia. This battle is viewed as an existential one for the now boldly sectarian Riyadh, which is committing serious money and clout to thwart Iran’s ascendency, overthrow Syria’s government, destabilise Iraq and destroy Lebanese resistance group and close Iranian ally, Hezbollah.
Oddly enough, Iran and its allies will gain support in this fight from their adversaries in the West. The Salafist threat has grown too strong, its destabilising potential too obvious, and the threat of jihadism spreading westward too likely – and so there is a noticeable western narrative building against Saudi Arabia and its sponsorship of radicalism and militancy.
While Iran and its allies will lead the battle from within the region, with some key intelligence and support coming from new western partners, these are uneasy alliances with divergent interests…it will not be a smooth ride.
The Iranians are seasoned pros in the art of diplomacy, however, and have always chosen the soft power route over a military alternative, so we can count on some fights being won at the negotiating table instead of the battlefield.
Just recently, when the Saudis pushed their GCC partners to form a union to strengthen their hand in the Persian Gulf, it was Iran’s proactive diplomacy that threw a wrench in the works. Oman, which had quietly been courted by Iranians, refused to participate, and the UAE expressed disinterest too.
Call it a divide-and-rule strategy of sorts, if you will. But as the Iranian negotiating team headed to Geneva in November to iron out details of a nuclear deal, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif penned an unusual op-ed in leading Saudi paper Asharq al-Awsat entitled “Our Neighbors Are Our Priority”.
This remarkable commentary sought to assuage the concern of Arab neighbors that an impending nuclear deal would be “pursued at their expense” – and urged Gulf nations against adopting a “zero sum mentality” over this historic rapprochement.Shuttle diplomacy involving several Persian Gulf states ensued, and was undoubtedly pivotal in alleviating concerns about Iranian “intentions” in the region.
Most importantly, during these visits, Tehran managed to dissuade several GCC states from following the confrontational Saudi lead.
Nuclear Deal Has Pitfalls
Once the euphoria over the historic Geneva nuclear deal subsided, the myriad obstructions that could derail a final agreement became fairly obvious.
First, there are potential spoilers everywhere: the US Congress, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iranian skeptics, even France – vested interests in scuttling a deal abound. Second, any series of events in the Middle East could change the calculations that brought the various parties to the negotiating table. Third, there will be numerous points along the path to a final agreement when the interest of one party or another will shift because of domestic or foreign policy considerations. Fourth, mistrust between the parties is high and can hamper progress indefinitely over mechanisms of implementation.
The forecast is not all bleak, however, particularly not for Iran. The Islamic Republic has already essentially gained recognition of its right to enrich uranium at 3.5 per cent levels, which is what it has always sought. Inside Iran, it is no secret that building new nuclear facilities, jacking up the number of centrifuges, and upping enrichment levels to 20 per cent were all very helpful negotiating tools in reaching this outcome.
And that genie can’t be put back in its bottle.
Just as important for the Iranians is why this deal was done. A year ago, there was no real P3 interest in resolving the Iranian nuclear issue – just in slapping on more unilateral sanctions to affect “behavior change” in the Islamic Republic.
Over the past year, the Russians, Chinese and their BRICS partners have drawn red lines around further punitive Iran sanctions, thwarting US, UK and French (P3) attempts to up the ante.
But the reason the P3 showed up in Geneva, finally ready to “do a deal” with Iran, had little to do with nukes and centrifuges. The nuclear agreement was struck because the West had lost control over its Mideast agenda – and Iran was increasingly looking like the only regional state that could offer up solutions.
Iran as a regional power
The Middle East is suddenly falling apart at the seams.
Foreign-backed regime-change operations in Syria and Libya have spawned a jihadist revival, with armed ideological fighters traversing borders with impunity and tearing at the territorial integrity and sovereignty of states.
The US cannot rely on its old allies in the region – Egypt is in turmoil; the Saudis, Qataris and Turks, with their various Islamist alliances, hidden agendas and support for militants are no longer trusted; Israel has become marginalised and cannot play in any Arab theater for fear of backlashes. Washington needed a new regional partner – even if a foe – that shared the mutual goal of rolling back extremism and re-establishing stability in the key Levant and Persian Gulf areas.
So, no – Geneva did not happen because of the incoming “moderate” Iranian president, though he undoubtedly helped make it an easier sell to western audiences. Geneva took place because of the Salafist/jihadist threat – and Iran’s unique position to help troubleshoot the problem.
There is always the danger – as the year progresses – that as the threat of militancy diminishes on the ground, the P3 will scuttle some Iranian gains to level the playing field once more.
It’s an old tactic to keep adversaries in check, and it is likely to be put back into play at various intervals.Will this nuclear deal reach its intended goals in the one year allocated to finalize a comprehensive agreement? Unlikely, at this point, I suspect. There are too many divergent interests between the P3 and Iran still.
Washington has little incentive to remove all sanctions and let Iran off the hook for launching an indigenous nuclear programme and pursuing independent policies. That would require expending vital domestic political capital at a time when foreign policy is of little importance to Americans more concerned with jobs, healthcare, economy.
But they may intermittently roll back further sanctions, which is all Iran’s current and potential trading partners need to start the process of bypassing unilateral sanctions altogether.
The sanctions regime will not hold once that dam is broken – even collectively, the US and EU do not have the same clout they once enjoyed to dictate terms in a fast-changing global economy where every penny counts.
The US has spent three decades building up the “mad mullah” and “dangerous Iranian nuclear weapons” narratives – it will be extremely difficult to reverse that storyline and remove all punitive sanctions against Iran in the one short year allotted in the Geneva deal. Signs that things are on track for a final agreement? Watch for clear and drastic narrative changes favoring the Islamic Republic.
It is more likely that the agreements struck during and after Geneva will simply continue to be extended indefinitely, with perhaps some minor revisions and additions that suit the various parties. Only a huge “game-changer” is going to get us to a final agreement.
The West will look to “contain” Iran’s influence in a different way than in the past, but today Iran also has plenty of tools to reciprocate in areas important to the P3 – in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Lebanon – and it will employ these cards for gain anytime the West decides to make things difficult for Iran.
In this, the two sides are well-matched, with Iran having a slight advantage of the home court and some new support from rising powers.
Right now, tentative, positive steps continue to be made behind the scenes in areas where P3 and Iranian goals converge. The Geneva “deal” was only a Joint Plan of Action, and an actual agreement has not yet been put into play.
Both sides confirm that the bilateral and multilateral meetings now taking place are ironing out some key mechanisms and details, and all parties currently expect to finalise the implementation plan shortly.
Then the clock starts ticking.
This is a big year for Iran. In many ways, the Islamic Republic has already achieved several long-held goals: recognition of its position as a regional power and its policy independence, and recognition of its inalienable right to a peaceful nuclear programme.
Iran kicks off 2014 playing a much larger regional and international role, but does so facing the biggest threat to its national security since the Iran-Iraq war. One thing worth remembering this year: Iran plays the “long game” where others are impatient for quick results and rewards.
Thirty-odd years after being sidetracked in the world of international politics, the Islamic Republic has stepped back in, at the top of their game.
This is one country to bet on.
This article was first published by The BRICS Post on January 7, 2014.