After the Iran deal, what next?
BEIRUT - The July 14th agreement between Iran and the US-led major powers to curtail Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting crippling economic sanctions has been called a historic breakthrough that could reorder the turbulent Middle East.
It has also been branded the greatest act of appeasement since Neville Chamberlain caved into Adolf Hitler in Munich in September 1938 and will plunge the region into cataclysmic convulsions.
Time will tell which of these verdicts is correct as the Middle East stumbles through a geopolitical tectonic shift that will reshape the region’s strategic landscape just as global alignments are changing,
The Vienna agreement, the culmination of two years of the kind of intense diplomacy not seen since the Madrid Middle East peace process in 1991, has the potential of not simply delaying the Islamic Republic’s emergence as nuclear power, but to bring it in from the cold and moderate its mischief-making as it seeks to become the region’s paramount power.
Keep in mind that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s ground-breaking Islamic Revolution in 1979 toppled the Peacock Throne of the Pahlavis, then the key US ally in the Gulf, launched radical Islam as a geopolitical force that led to al-Qaeda and then the apocalyptic horrors of the Islamic State (ISIS).
Bear in mind, too, that although the agreement gives a big boost to Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who showed his hard-line opponents that negotiation rather than subversion can succeed, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has made clear that the revolutionary and ideological nature of the Tehran regime remains intact.
Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens observed that “the agreement must be measured against the unpalatable alternatives”: endless conflict, a possible Israeli pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and a descent into all-out sectarian warfare in the Muslim world.
The agreement is not a magic wand that, at a stroke, will halt the bloodletting across the region. But it could demonstrate to Tehran that it can achieve through negotiation what it is trying to do by subversion and military force. As Stephens so grimly observes; “We live in a world of least-worst options.”
Here is a look at how the July 14th agreement could impact across the Middle East:
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): The kingdom, appalled at the US retreat from the Middle East and fearful that the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf are being left in the lurch, has shed its traditional policy of using its vast wealth to buy itself out of trouble and taken up the cudgel to confront what it sees as Shia Iran’s bid to become the region’s hegemon.
It is engaged with increasing violence in Yemen, its southern neighbour, to crush an insurgency by Shia Houthi rebels it asserts are backed by Iran as part of an ever-widening sectarian war against the Sunnis. Riyadh, furious at the United States for dealing with a power that was once the enemy of both, sees the July 14th agreement as a stab in the back.
The GCC leadership has been cautious in its official reaction to the deal but officially sanctioned unofficial comments say it all, such as this from Mohammed al-Mohya, news anchor on the state-run Saudi Channel 1, “Iran made chaos in the Arab world and will extend further after the agreement, and the GCC countries should reduce their confidence in America and turn their focus to Russia and China.”
There are fears too of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The Saudis have warned that they may pursue the nuclear option, a step that would intensify the swelling Riyadh-Tehran power struggle that is becoming the defining conflict in the region.
The Saudis also signalled that they will step up their Yemen campaign, currently limited to air strikes, with ground troops, a move that would sharply escalate the increasingly sectarian conflict.
Riyadh’s efforts to build diplomatic and energy links with Russia and China speak volumes about how the regional order is being upended, possibly sharpening fractures within the six-member GCC.
The US swing towards its old adversary, the Shia Islamic Republic, has appalled the largely Sunni Arab world despite its bumpy relationship with the Americans over the years. Walid Jumblatt, the charismatic leader of Lebanon’s Muslim Druze minority who knows all about survival in a tough neighbourhood, was dismayed enough to observe, “The agreement ends the Arab world as we know it.”
Iraq: For the embattled Sunni minority, and indeed their co-religionists across the region, the July 14th deal signifies how the United States is prepared to accommodate Tehran in recognising the Arab protectorates it has carved out in Iraq and Syria, not to mention Lebanon, in return for a joint campaign against ISIS.
The Shia-dominated Baghdad government, its army collapsed, is heavily dependent on Iran’s al- Quds Force, the foreign operations wing of the Revolutionary Guards, and the Shia militias it has trained and armed to fight ISIS, which controls about one-third of the country.
The dismay of the increasingly marginalised Sunnis at the US action could drive many to join ISIS rather than be under Iran’s thumb, escalating the war. The fear is that the $100 billion in frozen assets Tehran will soon get its hands on will allow the Iranians to step up their military campaign and consolidate their grip on their Shia-majority western neighbour under cover of the war against ISIS.
Syria: The fledgling rapprochement between Iran and the West has raised hopes that Tehran may be persuaded to back off its massive support for the beleaguered regime of President Bashar Assad.
But US Republicans, the Israelis and others vehemently opposed to the agreement attest that Tehran, awash with some $100 billion in unfrozen assets, will simply use this windfall to bolster Assad as he reels from a series of military setbacks by rebel forces financed and armed by the Saudis and their GCC partners.
But bolstering Assad has become immensely costly and Tehran needs to address the growing clamour for reform from the Iranian street. Khamenei decided to allow Rohani’s outreach and to make the painful compromises Tehran made because he clearly fears internal unrest with elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, which appoints the supreme leader, scheduled for February 2016.
There seems little prospect of the clerical regime being seriously challenged now but any major gains by Rohani and his so-called reformers could antagonise Iran’s hardliners, particularly the Revolutionary Guards.
Israel: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has long viewed a nuclear Iran as an existential threat to the Jewish state and wanted to launch pre-emptive air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, has denounced the agreement in the strongest terms, raising again the spectre of Israeli military action that would ignite even wider violence.
“The Iranian leadership is notoriously untrustworthy,” warned Israeli analyst Ron Ben-Yishai. “Israel should therefore take the necessary precautions and prepare for an Iranian violation of the agreement… and prepare for a potential pre-emptive strike.”
This attitude will further worsen relations between Netanyahu’s right wing and the White House that have been steadily eroding. Netanyahu now plans to rally Israel’s many supporters in the Republican-controlled Congress to crush the agreement — a move unlikely to succeed, but one that will deepen the rift in an alliance on which the Jewish state has counted on for survival.