The bomb bailout
Ottawa - International observers are divided over the potential ramifications of the Iranian nuclear agreement. Recently, 29 prominent US scientists praised the deal in a letter to US President Barack Obama, proclaiming that it has achieved “more stringent constraints than any previously negotiated non-proliferation framework”.
Enthusiasts claim that by curbing Iran’s capacity to construct a nuclear weapon the agreement has prevented the future escalation of a potentially devastating regional military conflict. Previously, simulated war games examining the regional repercussions of an increasingly nuclear Iran predicted a conflict spinning out of control, leading to the closure of the Strait of Hormuz, the mining of the gulf, the atrophying of world oil supplies, the exacerbation of sectarian violence and the intensification of asymmetric warfare across the various Arab states.
The Federation of American Scientists, a US think-tank, predicted that the initial three months of a war with Iran would cost the world’s economy more than $2 trillion. A figure that would increase in the event of a prolonged war, with potentially astronomical sums needing to be spent on post-conflict reconstruction and resettlement.
But reluctant Arab Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, remain suspicious of both Iran and the P5+1’s intentions. For them the pressing question is how the nuclear agreement can reap regional benefits. Will it help curtail Iranian interventionism in Arab affairs or signal a new power constellation that installs Iran as a protectorate of Arab Shias? The latter scenario is sure to send shivers throughout the Arab world as Islam would be destined to split into two major and irreconcilable discourses, proclaimed by rival power centres in Riyadh and Tehran, a déjà vu to the Protestant-Roman Catholic break-up. In Arab calculations, particularly in the minds of the leaders of multi-sectarian constituency states, such an arrangement would fertilise contentious seeds that would cultivate deep divisions.
In recent years, the United States has increasingly appeared to lean on Iranian assistance to curb Sunni extremists through proxy, and equally extremist, Shia groups and the suspicions of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have turned into convictions.
The United States’ covert and overt operations battling the Islamic State (ISIS) have been carried out in coordination with Iranian-sponsored Iraqi Shia paramilitary forces, known as Hashed al-Sha’abi, in addition to the pro-Iranian Iraqi government.
Meanwhile the United States has given the cold shoulder to a Saudi-sponsored air campaign targeting Shia Houthis in Yemen, favouring instead an Omani-sponsored settlement in which Iran’s influence is detectable. The United States and the West have also kept a low profile over Shia Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, which has culminated in a sectarian cleansing campaign, aimed at carving out an Alawite state in Syria’s western enclave.
In his press conference in July, Obama indicated the need to encourage Iran to play a constructive role towards a negotiated settlement in Syria.
Iranian leaders, on the other hand, are not at ease with the prospect of back-tracking on more than 30 years of denouncing the United States and the West. Yet choices are limited and gains are tempting.
In the background is a regional stalemate that has exposed the limits of Iranian offensive power. Regional contenders, namely Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have displayed resolve to sabotage the Islamic Republic’s regional ambitions. In Syria, Iraq and Yemen the crusade waged by the Revolutionary Guards has been drifting away from exporting the revolution in favour of defending what is left of it. Meanwhile, the carrot appears too appealing to resist, given that the unfreezing of assets and the prospect of foreign investment will revive an otherwise ageing army and a collapsing economy. The prospect of an improved relationship with the United States that could lead to a regional Iranian Shia protectionism is the cherry on top. Now, all that is left is for Iran to declare its triumph.
Iranian moderates can also proclaim victory. Thanks to statist figures such as President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, also the chief nuclear negotiator, who have saved the day through laborious diplomatic shuttling. At hand is a safer Iran: relieved from the threat of a looming military attack, released from international sanctions and detached from the curse of being internationally designated a “rogue state”.
The Iranian reformist camp that has sought closer relations with the West under the presidencies of Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami can now pick up domestic steam. At least for the coming ten years, during which much uranium enrichment would be frozen by the agreement.
This trial period will reveal the international and domestic competency and appeal of the Iranian moderates while testing the resolve of the radicals before, perhaps, the bomb’s clock starts ticking again.
A post-deal Iran will emerge eager to seek regional settlement and assert the newly acquired and internationally recognised status. The challenge ahead, however, lies in the Turkish and Saudi response to a regional power-sharing arrangement devised according to sectarian calculus: a formula that could weaken their respective regional power leverage as they give way to Shiism and Iranian auspices. Such a predicament will most likely continue to infuriate power rivalry for the years to come.
On the other hand, the P5+1 can breathe with ease as it has at last succeeded to “domesticate” Iran and divert a costly and unpredictable confrontation. Thus, they have diffused US-Russian tensions in the Middle East and North Africa and transferred the burden of conflict settlement on to regional adversaries. Locked in a stalemate, regional powers have the choice of maintaining the status quo, escalating or settling the dispute. At the moment, none of the choices seems ripe enough to pick.
What is certain, however, is that the bomb bailout has driven the region into a race to stockpile Western and Russian arms. At the same time, foreign investors have been lining up to grab a piece of the Iranian pie. Evidence that points to the prevalence of contentious Middle Eastern politics orchestrated and tuned to the P5+1’s pitch.