What Does The Iran Deal Mean For Middle East Geopolitics?

The Saudis and  the Israelis need to review their analysis and examine the positives of the deal rather than stick to clichéd approaches to maximize their own takeaway.

The excitement is not about the technical detail. That can wait. When historic events take place, it is time to step back, take a deep breath and savor the moment. The six nations have apparently nailed it technically; they have had scientists and technicians peering at every document and assessment to see just how Iran could be stopped in its tracks from becoming a member of the nuclear club, clandestinely.

However, for a realistic assessment of the post-deal effects on the world in general and the region of the Middle East, in particular, the technical detail needs to take a back seat but only briefly. The details will be scrutinized to the last full stop to ascertain whether the negotiators have succeeded in staving off the threshold that Iran may have achieved over an indeterminate timeframe; whether the breakout time is truly extended to the desired degree and whether the monitoring mechanism is sufficiently robust to deter a clandestine program once again, if at all.

Carnegie’s spokesperson summed it up well by saying “on balance, the world with the Iran Nuclear Deal is definitely better off than without it”. The question is how exactly? With one more nation away from the nuclear club and possibly overcoming the ‘rogue state’ label, making it more responsible and predictable. That nation of 77 million with billions of US dollars in frozen assets promises to be the newest market to exploit. More importantly, the animosity of 35 years with the US, one of the worst relationships that the superpower has had internationally may not be restored to business as usual but will certainly be less acrimonious. With its improving relations with Cuba, the US appears on a roll to finally draw down one of the last stand-off relationships of the Cold War era. North Korea remains.

An improved US-Iran relationship appears to be seen as the beginning of a strained US- Saudi relationship with a dented US-Israeli equation. This is really less a zero sum game than it may seem and an opportunity to do some rebalancing of power in the Middle East where Iran’s absence from the established order was an unnatural phenomenon. From well before the Cold War ended Iran has remained in the status of a pariah and the nuclear issue drove it further into isolation. Its diplomacy was virtually restricted to the nuclear issue and survival with the sanctions in place.

Its strategic posturing was based upon the creation of limited space in the Middle East, and the contestation was not always within established norms. As per western perception it was largely responsible for the enablement of Hezbollah and the Alawite regime in Syria which gave it opportunity to muscle strategic advantage against Israel and balance the singular influence of Saudi Arabia in the region. With Egypt choosing to play a lower profile role Iran emerged as the only Middle Eastern power which credibly threatened the pre-eminent military strength of Israel.

From an economic point of view its oil sales were also hit due to trade restrictions, traditional methods of payment being unavailable as well as US watchdog monitoring. It’s crucial geostrategic position as a natural gateway to the Central Asian Republics (CARs) and as a potential sub-route of the New Silk Route could not be exploited. Even the North-South Corridor with CARs and Russia remained dormant. Lastly much of the turbulence and instability of the Middle East was laid at its doorstep due to the increasing sectarian divide between the Shia and Sunni worlds.

It is not as if the Nuclear Deal will turn the clock back to pre -1979 era and have Iran return fully integrated into the new geopolitical order. Much has changed since then. It cannot even be assessed that Iran will be a willing horse to do so. Over a period of 35 years, it has occupied a certain position within the Islamic world. In fact, it is largely assessed that it was the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that gave the largest trigger to the rise of Political Islam, later occupied more by the Salafi strain. Iran does not hold the key to turning the clock back in this sphere either. The sectarian confrontation between Sunni and Shia Islam playing out politically between nations is a natural phenomenon of evolution within a faith. Iran will continue to champion the Shia cause which drives its own political importance within the comity of Islamic nations. Its re-entry into the international community will, however, create more transparency in its diplomacy and thus help reduce tension.

Improvement in Iran-US relations, hopefully leading to the establishment of full diplomatic relations in the near future, will result in lesser tension in the Persian Gulf. However, the Gulf nations themselves would continue to remain wary because of the anticipated greater stand-off between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The US, despite its regressing interest in the affairs of the Middle East in favor of its rebalancing to Asia, will have a major role to play in diluting this tension.

US-Saudi relations have undergone testing times in recent years ever since the US decided that Iran needed to be positively engaged to ease it back into the strategic order for it to give up the dangerous course of becoming nuclear armed. It is up to US diplomacy, and Secretary John Kerry has it in him to play the difficult role set out, to convince the Saudis that Iran as part of the established order is a far more predictable nation. That, in a sense, spells stability.

The Saudis and for that matter the Israelis need to review their analysis and examine the positives of the deal rather than stick to clichéd approaches to maximize their own takeaway. There is no doubt that both nations have much to be concerned about. A change in the strategic order is difficult to comprehend, but it also needs to be seen that it was not purely externally driven. Internal dynamics of Iran has much to do with the approach it adopted. Ayatollah Khamenei‘s climb down from the pedestal approach was partially pragmatism and partially forced by internal public opinion that old world confrontation was hurting and unacceptable.

The expected re-entry of Iran into the strategic order on more transparent terms is likely to have a major effect on many of the current conflicts in the Middle East. The Islamic State which is currently on every mind can be contested more stridently, and Iran could now play a more legitimate role rather than the obfuscated role it has had thus far. Perhaps, the boots on the ground and higher quality ones at that, which have been desired for long to confront the Islamic State may finally come from Iran which has large stakes in preventing the terrorist organization from further military gains. The Saudis should not have much objection to that because they face the same threat. With the US military commanders in a position to interact more freely with the Iranians, the effect on the military situation should turn more positive in the future.

It is a question of then convincing Israel that its interests are not being hurt and that the international community’s actions are as much in its interest. Israel’s stance is based upon its experience of having Iranian leaders such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who spewed venom against it. Its own intelligence surmises that the controls on the nuclear program are insufficient to prevent Iran acquiring a clandestine weapon capability which will have all nuclear weapons pointing either at Tel Aviv or Riyadh. This notion has brought the two strange bedfellows together into consultation fearing mutual threats. The P5+1 will have to work on this rather than ignore Israel and Saudi Arabia’s concerns. Without that the benefits to stabilize the region will remain elusive. The US needs to invest its own diplomacy in this to take the situation forward.

The complex situation in Syria is unlikely to see any positive effect in the near future. There the difference between enemies and friends is marginal and Iran is unlikely to work towards anything which will dilute its long term interests.

How will this affect India? India has treaded a difficult path all these years due to the choice it had to often exercise between interests and reality. We have enjoyed a healthy relationship with Iran in the past, and it has been one of our major sources of energy. However, the relationship has never been in the realm of passionate friendship. India’s large Shia community does have a very endearing relationship with Iran and drives the emotive. However, potential exists for an enduring and endearing relationship.

With Iran’s population of 77 million people, the economic opportunities are large, as sanctions have emasculated growth and development. It will be a competitive market, and India will need to move quickly. Sanctions will take time for removal, but the government has been anticipating movement on the nuclear deal, so visits have been more frequent in the last few months including by senior ministers, bureaucrats and the strategic community.

Principally, issues concerning the stabilization of the situation in Afghanistan and feasibility of the Chah Bahar route have been under discussion. Iran’s relations with Pakistan have improved off late especially after the Pakistani refusal to send troops to Yemen. However, Iran has a major role to play in the stabilization of the situation in Afghanistan. India’s interests lie in ensuring an equation with Iran to play a joint role in countering the undue influence of Pakistan. The access to Western Afghanistan through Iran will allow India to play its legitimate role which Pakistan has been denying. This should be the end of Pakistan’s sole control over access to Afghanistan and help in the latter’s economic development much more positively.

The 25 years of unrealized potential of India’s relationship with CARs can be fully realized with Iran’s cooperation as the North-South Corridor opens up huge opportunities. Similarly, this is the direction from which India can exploit China’s infrastructure of the New Silk Route.

As the Islamic State gathers confidence to step well beyond the borders of Iraq the first area it is known to be targeting is Afghanistan, primarily for the narcotics trade. Spread thin for financial gains Islamic State has found the power of narcotics as the money spinner. Iran’s interest lies in countering this phenomenon and also preventing its further spread into the CARs. Russia similarly fears the entry of the Islamic State anywhere near its borders.

Lastly, the historic moment is poised delicately. It has to be converted into a UNSC resolution and US the principal player has its own legislative dynamics for final approval. It must not get unstuck due to insensitivity and lobbying by Israel and the Saudis who term it a historic mistake. India can play a positive role in influencing opinion on this through its diplomatic and strategic community.

More than anyone it is Iran itself which owes it to its people the peace and development that has eluded them. That will ensure that Iran will quickly reintegrate and play the legitimate role it is set to play in the Middle East theatre and beyond.

Source: http://swarajyamag.com/world/what-does-the-iran-deal-mean-for-middle-east-geopolitics/

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