Brisbane, 16 July 2015 (Alochonaa):
After spending most of the 21st century so far arguing with Iran about its nuclear program, it seems that the USA has finally been able to strike an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program and economic-technological sanctions. The agreement appears to be acceptable to both regimes and a good section of the broader international community, and despite potential spoilers in both countries the deal may even hold for the foreseeable future. However, if you are breathing a sigh of relief that the ‘crisis’ is over, or you are joining President Obama in proclaiming this as a giant step for Middle Eastern peace, you have probably forgotten the fundamental dynamics of the Middle East – dynamics which remain unchanged, save the fact that the Iranian economy may now recover.
The Iranian nuclear deal has placed limits on Iranian nuclear expansion. Whilst I have never thought much political capital should be expended on this aim, it is a fair objective if it works. The problem is that Iranian foreign policy and politics remain unchanged, the civil wars rumble on in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, Hezbollah and Hamas continue to bash heads with Israel, the Israelis and the Arabs still dislike each other, the Israelis and the Iranians still dislike each other even more, and the Saudis…they are, unfortunately, still the Saudis. The Iranian nuclear program, if its aim was or is to create nuclear weapons, was a product of the region’s politics, not the cause them.
The Iranian nuclear program started to gain international attention when the USA had invaded Iraq and brought American power to the door of one of its most despised foes. Given that by 2003 the USA had easily knocked over both the Taliban and Iraq (not permanently in either case, but that’s irrelevant here), the Iranians had good reason to get a nuclear weapon for deterrence. The Americans knew this, as did the Israelis, Saudis, Russians and everyone else in the region, which was why Iranian denials of a nuclear weapons program were not taken seriously by many (the Iranian public was a significant exception to this) – an Iranian nuclear weapons program made sense in the context of the time.
Since at least 2006, in my view, things have been different. From that point on, as the Iraqi and Afghan quagmires began to tie the American military down and wear out the public appetite for more Middle Eastern wars, a limited military strike on Iran for almost any reason was unlikely, and an attempt at Iraqi-style regime change was pure fantasy. I never, ever believed that either the Americans or the Israelis would pre-emptively attack Iran’s nuclear facilities so long as they maintained the façade of peaceful research and energy needs, and the Iranians may have thought similarly. For the Iranians, however, once they had been told that they couldn’t have a nuclear program they could hardly be seen to back down to the foreigners and politely agree that America, the Great Satan, is entitled to tell Iran what Iran may possess. That’s an absurd proposition.
And so it was that Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia, Israel and the USA deteriorated throughout the nuclear argument (I use the term ‘argument’ and not ‘crisis’, as many do, because anything that lasts multiple election cycles and kills no one needs another descriptive word). Yet how much of Iran’s behaviour was connected to the nuclear issue? Did Iran suddenly start supporting Hezbollah and other terrorist groups because of nuclear disputes? Did the Iranians and Saudis dislike each other because of uranium isotopes? Did the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars come about because of Iran’s nuclear ambitions? Does Iran fund Iraqi Shia movements because it wants nuclear weapons? Is ISIS part of Iran’s nuclear program? (Hint – no)
The politics of the Middle East gave us a nuclear dispute with Iran – the prospect of a nuclear Iran did not give us Middle Eastern politics. Consequently, little will change as a result of the deal, even if the USA turns an increasingly blind eye to Iranian actions against ISIS, or support for Assad in Syria. In fact, Iran will have the chance to recover its economic strength and use the gradually weakening sanctions to build up its conventional deterrent and support its regional proxies. Iran is not going to roll over and give up on its Shia internationalism just because of the nuclear deal. Shia internationalism and Islamism are only (extremely) tangentially connected Iran’s nuclear program, if a connection can be drawn at all. If I was in the Iranian leadership, I would currently be breathing a sigh of relief as Iran may yet weather the financial cost of supporting Assad, turning Iraq into a Shia protectorate, encircling the Saudis and upholding the domestic dictatorship.
In short, the nuclear deal was a good one for Iran. On that score, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with Netanyahu, though not for all the same reasons. They don’t need a nuclear weapon, even if it would be nice to have one. Instead, they need money, they need to avoid losing face domestically, and they need to be able to support their proxies. These things they may now have, all at the price of letting the American and Israeli politicians pull each other apart in public over a program the Iranians may not have even been serious about pursuing in the current climate.
The international community has to be careful about expecting different behaviour from Iran in the near term. Whether Iran becomes more liberal and less revolutionary in the future is a difficult question to answer, but hopes of a different Iranian foreign policy emerging soon are probably misguided. Interestingly, Western policymakers appear very confused about whether the nuclear deal was, in fact, just a nuclear deal or an Iranian foreign policy deal. French president, Francois Hollande, summed up the confusion as he stated that the deal showed that Iran was ready to move forward on other issues, and that Iran “must show it is ready to end the Syrian conflict.” Why Iran “must” do this is unclear. Iran, as far as I can tell, “must” do no such thing, especially when it is no longer being coerced by sanctions. President Hollande, clearly confused about what Iran “must” do, later stated that because “Iran has a bigger financial capacity, we need to be extremely vigilant on what Iran will be.”
Vigilant he may be, but it changes nothing about the Middle East or Iran. Now, Iranians, Syrians, Shias, Sunnis, Druze, Jews, Saudis, Yemenis, imperialists, dictators and liberals, resume your normal places, one and all – there are still the usual things to fight over.
*Dr. Simon Leitch is the Editor in Chief, Foreign Policy and International Affairs, Alochonaa. He taught International Relations and Security Studies at Griffith University. His research interests are in foreign policy and strategy with a particular interest in the interaction of the great powers.
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