By Syed Mohammad Ali
July 24, 2015
The deal brokered with Iran over its nuclear capacity is a major international event the ramifications of which are being discussed the world over. The ongoing analysis concerning this development includes a broad spectrum of views ranging from predictions of increased instability in the Middle East and beyond, to a major breakthrough which will lessen a lingering source of international tensions and create varied opportunities for inter-state cooperation.
While the UN Security Council has also endorsed the nuclear deal, events unfolding since the initial euphoria surrounding it reveal that the long negotiated deal was just the first step in Iran’s rapprochement with the West, especially the US. Many senators and congressmen within the US continue expressing their opposition to the deal, with some going as far as to have labelled it dangerous for US national security, and it being akin to declaring war on Arabs and Israel.
While Barack Obama remains adamant to use his veto powers to preserve this deal, he is trying hard to assure other Middle Eastern governments including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Bahrain, as well as Israel, that the changing relationship with Iran does not mean that the US will compromise on their security concerns, or turn a blind eye to pending human rights and other issues of contention with Iran. Conversely, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also vowed that the newly negotiated deal on his country’s nuclear programme would not alter Iran’s policies towards the “arrogant” government of the US, nor would it affect Iran’s stance on other regional or bilateral matters.
The nuclear deal is significant in terms of enabling oversight of Iran’s nuclear ambitions in lieu of easing economic sanctions. Moreover, its potential impact in the Middle East may not be as adverse as many analysts predict. Israel’s fear of Iran potentially challenging its nuclear monopoly in the region notwithstanding, the probability of Iran exacerbating ongoing conflicts in the region is not very convincing. The Iranian’s potential capacity to boost support to the Syrian government in Damascus, or the Houthis in Yemen, and even to Hezbollah and Hamas is unlikely to change the reality of the conflicts there.
Take the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, for example, which is an indigenous movement and thus not entirely reliant on Iranian support. The fear of Iran’s increased support to Hezbollah and Hamas due to the lifting of economic sanctions is also not substantiated. Sanctions on Iran during Israel’s first Gaza War in 2008 did little to prevent Iran from supporting Hamas. While the US and Iran will remain at odds over support for President Assad in Syria, the fact of the matter is that the US and Iran have already become de-facto partners in combating the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria.
Therefore, with or without a nuclear deal, Iran would have probably continued to act in its perceived national interests within the Middle East, and the interests would continue to be influenced by the individual compulsions of other regional players, as well as the changing contours of the ongoing conflict within the region.
International powers would do well to undertake diplomacy at this stage to assuage Middle Eastern and Israeli fears of easing sanctions against Iran, instead of enhancing defence pacts alone, which will merely lead to an arms race in the region.
Nonetheless, lifting sanctions against Iran is itself going to create several opportunities for increased cooperation within the Middle East and beyond. Although Iran and Turkey support opposing proxies in the Syrian civil war, lifting of sanctions would also allow Turkey to resume trade with Iran.
Easing of Iranian sanctions will also give impetus to the planned Indian-Iranian deal that could offer India access to the Chabahar port and related infrastructure projects, opening up India’s access to Central Asia and Afghanistan. One wonders if our own policymakers are going to seize this opportunity and not only expedite completion of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project but also extend it to India, as originally planned.