Why you should care
Because the dynamics of an already turbulent Middle East are about to change. Big time.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
The recent deal between Iran and Western powers is a delicately balanced piece of diplomacy that is just barely acceptable to both sides. Iran will curb its nuclear program, and the West will ease up on sanctions that have crippled the country. It is an “interim” accord – really more of an intermission – that opens up at least six months of negotiations on a more comprehensive settlement. It has already garnered a host of critics and supporters.
Imagine what this will mean for a region whose dynamics have been largely defined by US-Iranian tensions since the Iranian revolution in 1979.
Supporters argue that it will reduce stocks of Iran’s most highly enriched (20 percent) uranium, prohibit enrichment of uranium above five percent, halt work on nuclear parts such as centrifuges, suspend construction at Iran’s reactor for plutonium production, and permit the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect all of this daily.
Critics assert that Iran’s $6-7 billion in sanctions relief will ease economic pressures and reduce incentives to comply, and that Iran gets an implicit acknowledgment of its right to enrich uranium – something Iran has wanted and the West has resisted for years.
Let’s be clear: no one can predict the outcome of the pending negotiations. The only thing certain is that they will be very hard.
But let’s boldly leap ahead and just make the assumption that talks succeed. And let’s try to imagine what that would mean for a region whose dynamics have been largely defined by US-Iranian tensions since the Iranian revolution in 1979. What are some of the issues we have to work though to begin thinking that far ahead?
Two countries are particularly wary – Israel and Saudi Arabia. But they have different reasons for opposing the agreement.
First, we have to know what would define success in the coming negotiations? Essentially, success would mean that Iran will give up the means to make nuclear weapons and limit its uranium enrichment to a level required for a peaceful nuclear energy program (3-5 percent). This would be verified by ongoing and intrusive international inspections to ensure against cheating. In return, Iran would have most sanctions lifted and would once again be able to export oil at normal levels, import goods for industry and consumers, and operate normally in the international financial system – in short regaining the potential to become one of the region’s more prosperous powers.
Second, we have to take into consideration what other regional powers make of the interim agreement. Two countries are particularly wary – Israel and Saudi Arabia. But they have different reasons for opposing it.
Israel is against the interim approach for many of the same reasons as American critics; basically they do not think it demands enough of Iran and they do not trust Tehran not to cheat.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, shares those misgivings but also worries that the deal has two other negatives. In the Saudi view:
- It could ultimately strengthen its Persian Shia rival for regional dominance at the expense of the Sunni Arab world, which the Saudis purport to lead.
- They think the deal amounts to the U.S. going wobbly in its long-standing opposition to Iran – basically tilting away from Riyadh in what the Saudis consider a zero-sum game.
The Saudis feel this all the more acutely because they are engaged in a proxy war with Iran on many fronts, most dramatically in Syria where the Saudis supply the anti-Assad rebels while the Iranians and their Hezbollah proxy support the regime.
A third thing to consider is what kind of Iran would emerge from a comprehensive settlement in which it renounces nuclear weapons. Would it affect any other aspect of Iranian behavior, or open the door to negotiations leading to a broader easing of tensions with the United States and its partners? Would intense engagement with the P-5 plus 1– the United States, Russia, China, the U.K., France and Germany – begin to alter Iran’s attitude toward Israel, which Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei two weeks ago called “a rabid dog”? Would Iran be open to talks on its robust missile program, which still aims for an intercontinental weapon, or its experiments with nuclear weaponization, which the interim deal does not cover? Would it renounce the use of terrorism (such as its unsuccessful attempt in 2011 to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to Washington)?
This timeframe requires a gargantuan leap of faith… But this region has been producing surprises with regularity since the Tunisian revolution two years ago.
Most experts will rightly say don’t hold your breath; expecting such changes in this timeframe requires a gargantuan leap of faith – perhaps even suspension of disbelief. But on the other hand, this region has been producing surprises with regularity since the Tunisian revolution two years ago. Moreover, in international affairs, impactful changes often occur at the margins and incrementally rather than in sweeping ways.
But of course changes like this would depend on some huge “ifs”:
- Whether Iran, with the nuclear irritant removed, could be induced to see its interests served by acting less as a “spoiler” in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It currently has this power via its influence with the Palestinian Hamas faction and Hezbollah terrorists. This would be a net plus for Israel and the United States.
- Whether Iran could be drawn into international negotiations on Syria and use its influence with the Assad regime to ease movement toward a political solution.
Viewed from today’s perspective, these are indeed fantastical “ifs”, but many people forget that Iran did play a constructive role in the international talks on Afghanistan’s future following the collapse of the Taliban government in 2001, largely because it concluded this was in its own interest. So the diplomatic challenge is to figure out what realistic inducements acceptable to the West might lead Iran to see an altered Middle East posture serving its interests.
If any of this came to pass, it would change Middle Eastern dynamics in ways that regional powers would have to take into account. Although Israel would still distrust Iran and worry about it as a conventional and terrorist threat, it would have to view a comprehensive nuclear settlement as a net gain and perhaps be less wary if the U.S. tried to draw Tehran into broader talks.
But it is harder to conceive of Saudi Arabia ever viewing such an outcome as a net gain. Yes, the Saudis would be pleased to see Iran denied nuclear weapons, but they would worry that the removal of sanctions was setting the table for a resurgence of its deadly regional rival. And they would see it as further reducing common ground with the United States, particularly knowing that the coming U.S. self-sufficiency in oil and gas will diminish Saudi Arabia’s economic clout with Washington.
The foregoing is admittedly highly speculative and easily open to argument. But one thing is clear: the stakes are very high for the United States, which has seen its influence in the region wane over the last decade. Depending on what reverberations come out of the negotiations and any deal, the United States could see its influence grow or shrink in the region. So while the two-year-old “Arab Spring” may have run its course, stand by for more surprises in a region that is bound to remain key to America’s power position in the world. As Middle East experts are wont to say: What starts in the Middle East never stays there.