By John Bell
The debate over the Iran nuclear agreement has been vibrant and will continue all the way up to the American Congressional vote. Progressives have lined up with the deal, as has most of the world. However, there are many voices in the US, Israel and the region lined up against it.
The primary objections are not that the deal is technically flawed, but that Iran will be free to build a bomb after 15 years, or that the agreement empowers a rising Iran against some Sunni Arab states and Israel. Obama has promised to stand by US allies, and he has pointed out that moderate forces may now have a better chance to change the nature of the Islamic Republic. He also makes the case, quite rightly, that there is no real alternative today to this deal but conflict.
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The uncomfortable reality, however, is that both sides of this debate may be right. This is a good deal – it does contain Iran, technically, and there is no current alternative; but in the long term, continued distrust and hostility in the region may prove the naysayers correct, if not for the reasons they now cite.
A necssary deal
It is difficult to accept that a deal that is necessary now can become problematic in the future. We tend to think of the world in binary and linear-logical tracks. Either diplomacy is the best way to ensure a good outcome and that will endure, or we need to be tough to ensure that evil does not spread. A fixed allegiance to either paradigm may not match Middle Eastern realities.
Something more basic may be driving both the need for the deal, as well as its potential unravelling. The disregard for any rules or limits to the game of geopolitics defines the Middle East. One’s interests, however they’re perceived, are a permanent green light for violence, subterfuge, or the use of proxies.
This applies to Israel, the Arab states, as well as Iran before and after the nuclear. It is distrust of Iran as a nuclear power that propelled the need for a deal, and it is distrust of Iran as a regional power that may now propel others on dangerous paths.
The deal may diminish the likelihood of an immediate arms race, but the possibility looms large in the longer term.
The regional perception of Iran is that it is as a hegemonic power that has to be checked. Few believe it will ever become Denmark, or like China after the diplomatic opening with US President Richard Nixon in 1972. This may be pessimistic and a misperception, but those in conflict with Iran will not change their minds easily about its nature and motivations – unless Iran goes out of its way to make them do so.
By empowering one side, some fear that the deal will only heighten the ardent geopolitical competition in the region. In such an environment, over time, the temptation for other states to match Iran’s nuclear capacities will not go away.
The deal may diminish the likelihood of an immediate arms race, but the possibility looms large in the longer term. A region bred on the logic of distrust is bound to confront the danger of WMD proliferation again and again.
‘If you can get away with it’
In the past, Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran, and someone in Syria used them against civilians. In both cases, the assumption was “if you can get away with it, do it”. Unless regional rules are developed, agreed to or imposed, the region risks a continued escalation.
An obvious answer is one that Iran itself has put forward even recently: a Middle East free of WMD. This is the ideal. However, the possibility of Israel giving up its weapons without concomitant political developments is zero. Peace between Israel and the whole region is a long way away. Indeed, that would require Iran to move politically as far as Israel would have to move in terms of its WMD arsenal.
Others recommend the development of an OSCE like structure in the Middle East, building confidence slowly. However, the OSCE developed within a Cold War context of relative equilibrium. The Middle East does not enjoy this today; the battle is still on for territory, power, and control. If such stable ground is found in the future, such discussions can proceed realistically and fruitfully.
The nuclear deal is really about Iran and the West and does not begin to address fundamental regional tensions. This suggests that another approach is needed today. Although it may seem counterintuitive after a deal with Iran, what might help is to empower the troubled Arabs.
Perception of the Iranian threat
A renewed sense of Arab confidence can help change their lens of perception of the Iranian threat, and makes the desired equilibrium state more likely.
The EU may have an important role on this file. The US is already involved with all in a confused and contorted process, and Russia seems to have already begun its own rebalancing by courting the Arabs. It seems that over the coming months, the rulers of Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Egypt are expected to visit Moscow.
The EU remains the power with the interest and the weight to engage further and more ardently with key states in the Arab world – and the power to make a difference.
Rushing to do business with Iran – or worse: to look to it as primary in managing a chaotic region – may make sense after a successful deal, but it does not attend to the deeper ailments of the region. Empowering the Arabs, especially through a special relationship with the EU focusing on economics and security, may prove to be more stabilising.
John Bell is director of the Middle East programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat