By Dina Esfandiary and Amir Handjani
With a nuclear deal done with Iran, attention shifts to its impact on regional security. The nuclear agreement will ensure that a barrier to dialogue with Iran is removed. In the short term, its regional impact will be minimal, but over time the agreement should temper Iran’s regional policy.
There is little doubt that a strong, more moderate and independent Iran will naturally pursue its own interests. But Tehran will be more understanding of Western goals if it develops ties with the European Union and the United States. While partnership isn’t in the cards, the deal opens the door to sustained, tactical cooperation with Iran — a necessity in a crumbling region. And opportunities for that are numerous, including in the fight against Islamic State and in stabilizing Afghanistan.
The battle against Islamic State in Iraq presents the most immediate opportunity for engagement. Iran is more committed to Iraq than any other regional player. Because it’s impossible to contain and roll Islamic State back with just U.S.-led air strikes, ground assistance of the type Iran is providing is welcome, so long as it doesn’t come at the expense of Iraq’s Sunni population.
With the deal, coordination among all sides becomes easier. While no one envisages joint combat roles, separate and complementary tactical approaches, and coordination between the coalition and Iran, will ultimately make the fight against Islamic State more effective. Working with Iran may give the United States and its allies greater influence over Iranian actions on the ground. As the campaign progresses, it will be increasingly important to manage the Shi’ite militias under Tehran’s influence.
Syria is more problematic. Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad contradicts Western goals. The nuclear negotiations have facilitated dialogue with Iran. The nuclear deal could ensure Tehran plays a more constructive role in resolving the crisis and managing the humanitarian catastrophe created by Syria’s civil war.
The Gulf Arabs have not made it a secret that they oppose the nuclear deal with Iran. Their primary concern is Iran’s expansionist regional policy. They believe the deal will provide Iran further means to fund its proxies and destabilize the region at their expense.
Saudi Arabia was most vocal in its skepticism of the negotiations. With its recent assertive foreign policy, Riyadh intends to counter perceived Iranian influence either overtly or through check-book diplomacy. This has proven to be largely ineffective. Yemen is the best example. Sustained Saudi bombing hasn’t change facts on the ground in its favour. With the agreement, the need to counter Iran will become further entrenched in Riyadh’s mind. This will inflame sectarian conflicts in the region for the foreseeable future.
While also skeptical of the deal, the United Arab Emirates was the first Persian Gulf state to send a congratulatory note to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. Abu Dhabi will have to navigate the post-sanctions environment carefully to avoid a reemergence of tensions with the emirate of Dubai as Iran opens up to business and it reemerges as a trading hub. While Dubai will welcome the business opportunities, Abu Dhabi will remain sceptical of Iran’s ability to play a constructive role in the region.
But the Gulf Arab states are limited in their ability to respond. The threat to acquire nuclear weapons is unlikely to materialize, and reckless action like that taken in Yemen won’t help their cause. They should welcome the deal, which will empower the team in Iran that actively seeks normalization with the rest of the region.
The deal sent shockwaves through Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing cabinet riled against any compromise with Tehran that would leave it with indigenous uranium-enrichment capability. But Israel’s options were always restricted. Outside a unilateral military strike plunging the region into chaos, a negotiated settlement curbing Iran’s program was the best it could hope for.
Netanyahu’s saber rattling leaves Israel worse off. By rejecting anything short of Iranian capitulation, Israel is at odds with the major world powers. Ultimately, Netanyahu should view its greatest adversary and its greatest ally at the negotiating table as being in Israel’s long-term security interest. Who better to pass messages to Tehran about regional concerns than Washington?
No doubt Netanyahu will lean on the Republican-controlled Congress to reject the deal. His standoff with President Barack Obama will further undermine his relationship with an increasingly popular president. But this, too, shall pass; Israel’s security will continue to be the bedrock of U.S. foreign policy. Over time, the deal will allow for a constructive dialogue on regional issues that Tehran, Washington and Jerusalem must participate in. Islamic State, Syria and Lebanon won’t go away. All three are on Israel’s doorstep. All three require Iranian involvement to manage.
A widespread fear is that Iran will use the frozen assets it will get from the lifting of the sanctions to fund its regional ambitions. But Tehran’s regional forays have been conducted despite the stringent sanctions. Iran faces massive unemployment, runaway inflation, devaluation of its currency and a decrease in oil prices. If anything, it needs to bring some of that money home to rehabilitate its beleaguered economy. And that’s exactly what Rouhani aims to do. Such fears are misguided.
Today, Iran’s influence in the region is a fact of life. The deal makes dialogue with Iran the norm rather than the exception. The wager is that this will make Tehran a more constructive and responsible regional player.