The sealing of a nuclear deal with Iran on November 24 represents not only an explicit victory for diplomacy, but also an overarching recognition of the fact that negotiations and rapprochement are inherently more constructive than conflict.
The deal, although an interim one, is indicative of a profound shift of the western diplomacy away from confrontation towards strategic collaboration with the ultimate goal of containing Iran’s nuclear programme. Albeit being by all means a profound achievement, the deal is limited, temporary and reversible, and has yet to be cemented by a further agreement. It has well-known limitations and should by no means be portrayed as a sign of an inevitable Iranian retreat from its nuclear aspirations.
First and foremost, whatever the pressure of sanctions, Iran will never consent to an agreement it regards as national humiliation. In that regard, the Iranians believe the NPT confirms the inalienable right to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, and that this includes the enrichment of uranium for reactor fuel. This is already denied by the United States claiming that ‘[such a right] is not in this document’. The very division sows the seeds of protraction in striking further deals. Conspicuously, the U.S. Administration will have to persuade Congress to approve of sanctions relief – something the Congress is thus far loath to do. By the same token, Mr. Rohani has yet to sell the deal at home, which might prove to be a challenging endeavor. The ubiquitous and powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are still deeply involved in Iranian politics, their influence entrenched during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Presidential term. Many within the IRGC leadership oppose any deal limiting the Iranian civil nuclear program; some also adamantly oppose any rapprochement with the West per se. According to some scholars, these individuals could yet derail any follow-up agreements by obstructing inspections the deal requires and lobbying their interests in Majlis.
Even if Iran fully complies with the interim deal there remain major barriers to any follow-on agreement. Some within the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, fear that lifting economic sanctions will strengthen Iran’s influence within the region. Saudis are worried in particular that Iran, no longer at loggerheads with the US, could by inspiration, stir up its Shia co-religionists in the Saudi Eastern Province as well as in Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen in demanding democratic rights. In addition to that, the interim agreement and its implications seem to have started a process that shifts the matrix of regional alliances with the United States, and even within the Gulf Cooperation Council itself.
Saudi Arabia-US ties have probably never been worse. Saudis are furious about the back-channel US-Iran talks which helped procure the deal, of which they were kept aside for fears that it would make the deal less likely. The Omanis, hosting the secret talks, have distanced themselves from their Saudi allies and have this month blocked further progress on talks for greater integration within the GCC. The agreement has thrown US-Israeli relations back as well with Netanyahu calling it an ‘historic mistake’. US relations with Egypt and Turkey are strained too, contributing to an overarching retreat of US influence in the region thus leaving the political vacuum to be potentially filled by other states, including the Russians and the Iranians.
By the same token, some observers are more sanguine about the course of events, seeing Iran as a rational regional actor using its power to restore peace and stability. They argue that political rapprochement between Iran and the United States (for the first time since the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979) will have considerable positive ramifications for the region. Iran could hold an important key to the resolution of many regional crises, from Syria to Palestine, if brought into the international processes as a partner. In particular, given Iran’s close affiliation with Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq, it could contribute to the stability of its neighbor by supporting its security forces and enhancing border security checks.
Yet, despite the breakthrough, great hindrances, both internationally and domestically, still remain. A reluctant US Congress and an openly hostile IRGC need to be persuaded that the diplomatic path currently being trodden is the least bad option, as does public opinion in key states. A recent U.S. PIPA poll suggests widespread opposition to the deal, particularly amongst Republican voters. Ironing out the divisions over uranium enrichment, nuclear infrastructure, the nuclear facility in Arak, comprehensive sanctions (still subject to Congress), and many other issues, might derail and protract the deal.
The deal has global and regional implications. It accentuates the potency of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime – setting a positive precedent that diplomatic cooperation, rather than confrontation, can be effective in international negotiations over a nuclear program. At the same time, the regional repercussions of the deal still remain to be seen. The lifting of sanctions could encourage Iranian regional aspirations, which could trigger a Middle Eastern Cold War. More positively, Iran could find a stable position within regional politics.
The agreement is still temporary and completely reversible, so the future is difficult to predict. But it is an important leap forward in the possibility of comprehensive nuclear disarmament in the Middle East and the potential establishment of a nuclear weapons and WMD-free zone in the region.