POMEAS OP-ED, 20 March 2015
When the Obama administration's ground-breaking effort to carve out a nuclear deal was in its initial phases, the process carried the potential to lead the region towards a more secure and stable future. With pros and cons of the talks, there was a general awareness that any rapprochement should not be limited solely to a nuclear-focused deal between the U.S. and Iran and should address the broader regional security concerns, which would otherwise pave the way for a new destabilizing spiral of Iranian expansionism and sectarianism effectively leading to regional confrontation and nuclear proliferation.
Washington has taken rather a shortsighted view to sideline the regional element in the talks, which not only emboldened the Iranian imperial vision, but also led to the alienation of pro-American actors in the Middle East. Under current conditions, U.S. is better advised to prolong the talks with a broader perspective rather than sealing a half-empty deal next week, a scenario that could unleash yet another conflictual spiral of intraregional rivalry.
The nuclear deal
The deal is still one of the optimistic scenarios that could open an alternative channel of regional reconciliation. Iran is indisputably a key regional actor with well-established strategic assets. It was a travesty to assume that without Iran's input and cooperation, the U.S. and allies would steer Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon into a secure and stable future. However, under pressure from all directions, Iran has every reason to ward against regional attempts towards unity and moderation, which could in the end undermine its domestic and foreign policies. Therefore, Iran did not shy away from playing the sectarian card and direct military involvement in defense of its strategic interests.
The nuclear deal carried the potential to ameliorate Iran's historical sense of encirclement. First, it would write off the revolutionary raison d'etat for fighting against "the Western conspiracies." Second, it would give Iran a stake at the current global and regional order with legitimate interests. Third, it would partly open up Iran's economy and society, which in the end would empower the reformist political wing and weaken the confrontational hardliners.
Rather than designing the negotiations in accord with these, frankly idealistic, objectives, the Obama administration opted for keeping the scope and goal of the talks to a strictly technical nuclear deal. This stemmed from an approach not to further embroil U.S. in regional conflicts and possibly to manage the current disorder with minimal American responsibility. In this "hands-washing scenario," the U.S. neutralizes the possibility of direct involvement and threat, leaving the region to its incurable destiny. This thinking assigns regional powers a central role in managing the regional affairs and, in return, assumes a cooperative approach in the absence of American leadership.
A crude disregard about the strategic value of the nuclear program for Tehran and neighbors aside, the problem with the current American approach has been twofold as it neither gave way to the imagined cooperation among regional powers by giving them leeway, nor empowered the U.S. vision for a secure and stable Middle East. Oscillating from an earlier policy of "democracy promotion" to detachment, Washington failed not only to coax adversaries like Iran and its partners, but also alienated allies such Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and even Egypt for different reasons.
On the other hand, President Obama's quest for a legacy contradicts the Iranian vision. Iran is no China, and Rouhani has no political sway anywhere close to Deng Xiaoping. The Islamic Republic's overall goal is regime survival, not economic prosperity. And regional hegemony is deemed the optimum route to that end. Siding with Assad, Iran gave away any claims for reaching out to the Arab street. Therefore, absent compelling international, i.e. American, pressures, Iran is unlikely to forgo its sectarian and conflictual approach to regional matters.
Iran as a responsible actor?
Turning Iran into a responsible actor is one of the perennial questions in the Middle East. Surely, the nuclear talks will not in itself bring about this result. Yet, the U.S. should at least have given it a try, given that Iran has more to lose from the failure to make a deal than P5+1. Notwithstanding its grand illusions about regional hegemony, Iran is confronted with formidable domestic and regional challenges. The succession process to elect a new Supreme Leader would undermine the present semblance of internal stability. Plus, Iran desperately needs both economic resources to fend off a repetition of domestic disturbances and more room for maneuver to confront ISIS, which is a growing threat against Iranian expansionism. Thus, the negotiations in Geneva should make the best of the Iranian conundrum, i.e. the need to both compete and cooperate with the West.
The U.S. has two trump cards in the negotiations: Overall international support for efforts to bring the Iranian crossing the line to an end and financial sanctions to compel Iran for an acceptable result. As long as the American side holds on the latter card, it will have the luxury to define the scope of limiting Iran's behavior. With plans for a broader opening up of the Iranian market shelved again, Washington will not face significant intruders to narrow the limits of the talks. Energy markets in turmoil, Russia will be content to see Iran's possible role in global energy markets checked. EU3 will not press for a hasty conclusion, given their loss of appetite after testing the limits of entry into the Iranian market. China prefers a passive stance, not to harm its shaky regional ties. Iran, on the other hand, is overstretched to take the risk of a new confrontation. The alternative break-up of the talks would have negative repercussions in Iranian domestic politics, this time with little room to export the crisis to the regional sphere.
A regional reckoning
On its current course, Iran's Syrian and Iraqi policies will keep nurturing new crises. Desperate for support in the fight against ISIS, the U.S.-led coalition chose to disregard Iran's growing interventionism in Iraq and Syria. Yet Tehran is obliged to understand that foreign intrusion, particularly with sectarian colors, brings nothing but Lebanonization, which is indeed the case in Iraq and Syria. Iran's pretense to fight with ISIS and command of Shia militias will only prolong the sectarian conflict. Therefore, if the U.S. is serious about its stated objective to 'degrade and destroy ISIS," it must find a way to minimize Iranian direct intervention by acknowledging Iran's strategic interests and pondering upon a larger security setting to stabilize Iraq and Syria.
Notwithstanding the "smiling diplomacy" of Rouhani and Zarif, Iran has been far from getting into "constructive engagement" with regional interlocutors. Neither the Gulf monarchies, nor Arab countries in transition, namely Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya are convinced about Iran's positive turn. Even Turkey, one time advocate of Iran, today appears frustrated by Iranian duplicity for talk of peace and quest for seeking sectarian clout. Unless Iran is willing to design a new Cold War in the region by playing for frustrations and sectarian cleavages, it needs to reach out to regional actors. The U.S. should better orientate Iran for the latter choice.
Above all, the sort of a deal the Obama administration seems ready to approve will be construed as appeasement by major regional powers. This will set the stage for rival nuclear programs in the Middle East. This in turn would not only overturn the nuclear deal's viability, but also complicate efforts for regional normalization.
The U.S.-Iran nuclear deal has bigger than itself implications. On its current course, it will sign on a technicality, but will leave broader regional issues unaddressed. The case for a deal with earlier assumptions about Iran's reintegration to regional and global order are long left behind. Unless the U.S. keeps in sight the broader regional balances and employs the right tools to force Iran to a constructive role, a new deal would be a precursor to heightened regional upheaval rather than an interlude to nuclear confrontation.
1. Kemal Kirişci and Emirhan Yorulmazlar, "U.S.-Iran Détente Would Be Welcome News For Turkey," The Brookings Institute, 11 October 2013. http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2013/10/11-us-iran-detente-welcome-news-turkey-kirisci-yorulmazlar.
*Foreign Policy Institute (FPI) Fellow, SAIS, Johns Hopkins University