Continuity in a post deal Middle East

A report argues that a settlement between Israel and Palestine could end the possibility for an agreement to the long running conflict, “Whether you’re for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), against it, or somewhere in between, the Iran nuclear agreement will have profound consequences for a Middle East already in the throes of turbulent change. For 40 years, American policy toward Iran was based on the containment of Iran — at times even confrontation. That paradigm will now change. An agreement this complex will require interaction between the United States and Iran at many levels. To what extent that interaction, cooperation, and problem-solving (rather than problem-creating) will extend from the nuclear issue to regional issues is another matter”.

The author tends to jump to conclusions. He assumes that a 40 year old paradigm will now change. Certainly it may change but to assume it will after the deal is something of a stretch. There are still vast areas of disagreement such as Iran’s use of Hezbollah and other organisations, to say nothing of its support for Assad. To think that 40 years of history can be undo with the stroke of a pen would be a dangerous assumption to make and to therefore assume that they will work together is also an assumption that must be tested over time.

He correctly argues that “Time will be the ultimate arbiter of how this agreement will shape regional trends. And we should be careful not to make hard-and-fast predictions for a region that more often than not confounds rather than confirms experts’ views. But assuming the nuclear agreement reaches the implementation phase, here’s a first cut at seven regional trends that will likely be set into motion by one of the most portentous Middle Eastern events in decades”.

He argues that the first of these trends would be a regionally powerful Iran, “As the Arab world melts down as a result of no governance (Syria, Libya, and Yemen) and bad governance (Iraq and Egypt), a highly functional, newly empowered, legitimized, and cash-flushed Iran will be rising. Indeed, the three most functional states in the region right now along with Arab Saudi Arabia are the three non-Arabs: Turkey, Israel, and Iran. All are stable with great economic potential and the capacity to project power. And at the moment, the JCPOA and the financial resources, economic recovery, power, and legitimacy it will bring suggest an Iranian moment”.

He goes on to make the valid point that there will be substantial continuity, “Nothing will happen quickly. In the period ahead, the agreement needs to be sold and made normative (or not) in Washington and Tehran and at the United Nations. The International Atomic Energy Agency needs to validate Iran’s disclosures of its “possible military dimensions” by separate agreement and certify that Iran is complying with its commitments within the JCPOA. And then there’s sanctions relief, probably in early 2016. How Iran seeks ultimately to use this opportunity is not yet entirely clear. The smart money would bet on more continuity than change. After all, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s decision to approve the nuclear agreement wasn’t to undermine the hard-line, ideological, and revolutionary character of the regime or its support for its regional allies, but to conserve, preserve, and strengthen it. And at home, the key to that is to get out from under the kind of financial and economic pressures (in this case, crushing sanctions and isolation) that can make publics restless, alienated, and even revolutionary”.

Crucially he notes that “Speaking after the end of Ramadan, while praising his nuclear negotiating team’s efforts, the supreme leader made clear that any “dreams” that Iran and the United States would cooperate on other matters wouldn’t become reality, casting the United States’ actions in the region as “180 degrees” different from the Islamic Republic’s agenda. And the crowd responded with the usual cries: “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” The Iranians see the essence of the nuclear deal as merely transactional, not transformational — it buys time, resources, and a nuclear option for the mullahcracy”.

On the increasingly chaotic Middle East he writes that only Iran can balance Saudi Arabia, “In a dysfunctional Arab world, the only real regional counter to a rising Iran — and that isn’t saying all that much — is Saudi Arabia with a few Persian Gulf Arab states in tow. The Gulf states have different agendas vis-à-vis Tehran. Think Oman — the only Arab kingdom not to participate in the Saudi-led offensive against the Houthis in Yemen. And Oman, and even the United Arab Emirates, may well see benefits in testing the possibility of closer cooperation with Iran, particularly on the economic side. As evidenced by its tough (and so far unsuccessful) campaign in Yemen against the Houthis, Riyadh sees Tehran’s hand everywhere and fears that the nuclear agreement will only empower Iran further. Its checkbook diplomacy will continue to be used as a hedge against Iran. Indeed, even before the accord, the Saudis had forged a reasonably common front with Turkey and Qatar to support Islamist fighters against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. That coalition is likely to become more active. Moreover, Saudi King Salman’s meeting with Hamas leaders last week would have been unthinkable a year ago and reflects the reality that Riyadh may be more open to aligning with Muslim Brotherhood types to counter Iran and its Shiite allies. Saudi Arabia is demonstrating new assertiveness and in the process a new independence from the United States too”.

What the author does not address is now that Egypt is undergoing huge problems and Syria has its own issues there are few nations that can restrain the Saudi-Iran struggle. While not likely it is certainly possible that the proxy war between them could increase dragging in more countries in the region and beyond.

Writing on Iraq and Syria he mentions that the “strain is driven primarily by Iran’s behaviour (or misbehaviour) in the region. Or what Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir calls Iran’s “adventures.” The problem of course is that Tehran — even though its allies (Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, and Assad) are overextended and comprise pretty weak tea — has managed to hold its own and become the dominant regional power in Iraq and Syria. In Yemen, by providing relatively low-cost support to the Houthis, Iran has managed to bog the Saudis down in an unwinnable air campaign and blacken their image as their airstrikes claim civilian lives. And an infusion of even 10 to 20 percent of the $100 billion in expected unfrozen oil revenue next year would be useful in bucking up Iran’s allies. Financial and economic support for what’s left of the Syrian regime is critically important to Assad’s survival, as are the Shiite Iraqi militias, Hezbollah, and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which are in Syria shoring up the regime. It’s no coincidence that Assad welcomed the nuclear accord, which he sees as producing a cash windfall — some of which may be coming his way. There’s little doubt that Iran and the United States — and the Saudis too — have a common stake in checking the Islamic State’s further gains in Iraq and even in Syria. And since tacit cooperation was established before the nuclear agreement, it’s likely to continue on that front”.

Interestingly he writes that “The key question of course is Syria and under what circumstances would Iran consider changing course and cooperating with the United States to bring about a new reality there. We wonder whether this is even a relevant question now? Syria and Iran have been allies now for four decades, and while Assad has been an increasing drain on Tehran, Iran needs an Alawite stronghold in Syria to avoid encirclement by Sunnis — both Saudis and the Islamic State — and to preserve the connection to Lebanon and Hezbollah. And the last thing the supreme leader can afford now on the heels of a U.S.-Iranian agreement is to signal that Iran is abandoning its allies and cooperating with the “arrogant” Americans. In fact, just this month in the midst of the nuclear talks, Syria ratified a $1 billion line of credit from the Islamic Republic to buck up its fledgling economy. Iran is likely to try to keep an Alawite enclave in Syria viable as long as possible until a new balance of forces on the ground either undermines Iran’s position in Syria or secures it”.

On Israel he makes the case that “Some Israelis have made the case that the nuclear deal carries one large advantage for Israel: the key decision point at which Iran would get the bomb and Israel would have to bomb has been put off, perhaps by a decade. But the majority of those in the political elite, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have reacted vociferously against the agreement. The argument is that the agreement will not stop Iran’s nuclear weapons clock and that lifting sanctions will only fuel Iran’s regional misbehaviour. And for Netanyahu, the issue is deeply personal. He has been focused on Iran for decades. Not being able to prevent the accord, given the risks he took, is something of a political defeat. But more than that he now has a continuing mission to keep on opposing the deal. But he has very limited options. Israel will have no more success lobbying Congress this time around than it did in January”.

Correctly he argues that “unless Iran violates the agreement in some major way, Israel will have no choice but to work closely with the United States on intelligence sharing to monitor the accord and to see what the Americans are prepared to offer Israel in the security field in return. But none of that is going to substantially improve the U.S. president’s relationship with the Israeli prime minister”.

He ends noting that the peace process is dead, “One issue that could help drag the U.S.-Israel relationship down is the peace process or, more accurately, the absence of one. There are enough nails in this coffin already: big gaps on the core issues between Israel and the Palestinians and between the United States and Israel, the Palestinian decision to take Israel to the International Criminal Court, splits between Hamas and Fatah, and an Israeli government that has neither the will nor the capacity to take this issue on. But fearing violence on the ground and looking for some idea that will stabilise the situation for the remainder of its term and also leave a legacy, the Obama administration has been considering some kind of framework on Palestinian statehood. This could take the shape of either a U.N. Security Council resolution — already a favourite project of the French (complete with a draft) — or a U.S.-initiated set of parameters that would be designed to reaffirm the feasibility and desirability of a two-state solution, including the key elements necessary to make it work. Neither could actually trigger a serious negotiation under the current circumstances, let alone produce an agreement, and it’s by no means certain that the Palestinians would sign on”.

He ends “Faced with tremendous uncertainty in a region that’s out of control, the president will likely try to secure the single accomplishment he has: making sure the Iran nuclear agreement is implemented. That will be tough enough. As for keeping busy until 2017, we kind of figure an unpredictable Middle East will take care of that”.


3 Responses to “Continuity in a post deal Middle East”

  1. Order and Tradition Says:

    […] piece argues that the Iran deal is transformational for the region. This counters an opposite piece that has argued that there will be little change in the […]

  2. Order and Tradition Says:

    […] the previous articles about the Middle East after the Iran deal another article from Foreign Affairs discusses […]

  3. Order and Tradition Says:

    […] Again a note a caution is advised. Sweeping statements about a radically reshaped international order should be met with caution. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: