An Unsanctioned Iran Is Scary—Nukes or Not

Iran's might is destabilizing. A big sanctions deal risks increasing it.

Anwar El Sadat’s historic 1977 trip to Jerusalem changed the political dynamics in the Middle East. The current rapprochement between Washington and Tehran could have the same effect. A comprehensive deal between America and Iran would change the balance of power in the region.

Cynics of the nuclear negotiations insist that Iran is seeking a nuclear bomb, and the danger of that scenario is quite obvious. But the nuclear threat should not distract the international community from the very real, nonnuclear dangers posed by a resurgent Iran free of economic sanctions. Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region will grow if sanctions are lifted, strengthening the regime and the Iranian economy. The direct involvement of Tehran in illicit activities in the Arab world is a major source of mistrust between the strong Sunni ruling families of the Gulf and the Shia mullahs in Iran.

Iran’s regional ambitions make key U.S. allies—such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel—hesitant to embrace any rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. While the nuclear negotiations are still a long way from a complete agreement, it is virtually certain that any final deal will include major sanctions relief. This will improve Iran’s economy and strengthen Iran’s role in the region. But this is precisely what the rest of the Middle East fears: a resurgent Iran meddling in the domestic affairs of Gulf countries like Bahrain, UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. For the rest of the region, an economically strong Islamic Republic of Iran is a frightening prospect, even if nuclear weapons remain off the table.

A strong Egypt-Gulf relationship has historically been a pillar of regional security and stability. But the warming of Egypt-Iran relations under the Muslim Brotherhood drove a wedge between Egypt and the Gulf countries. This in turn directly threatened regional stability by opening the opportunity for Iran to undermine the critical security relationship between Egypt and the Gulf. With the removal of the Brotherhood, Egypt’s rapprochement with Iran stopped and relations with the Gulf improved, becoming stronger than ever. The Gulf’s robust security cooperation with the Egyptian military will only increase if a Washington-Tehran alliance becomes more likely.

Since 1979, America has been a major force in containing Iran’s influence in the region. All of Iran’s regional meddling to-date has been hampered by the sanctions and a worsening Iranian economy. In the event that Washington and Tehran are suddenly aligned and the Gulf finds itself under the full pressure of an uninhibited Iran, the only military in the Arab world capable of providing meaningful security assistance would be the Egyptian Armed Forces.

This scenario is made even more likely due to President Obama’s growing fatigue in the Middle East and the West’s obsession with a nuclear deal. There is a growing risk that Washington will overlook Iran’s destabilizing regional activities in a shortsighted attempt to sign an agreement, score a win for diplomacy, and pivot away from the Middle East. Without America’s economic containment of Iran, the regime in Tehran will be able to invest ever more time and energy to exploiting instability in the Gulf and beyond to increase its influence and achieve its aspirations of regional dominance.

Still, the likelihood of Iran and the P5+1 agreeing on a comprehensive final solution remains low. Just as the rest of the Middle East has several reasons to mistrust Tehran’s true intentions, so too does Washington fear deception on the Persian end of the negotiating table. The list of grievances in US-Iran relations is long and serious, ranging from the 1953 CIA-orchestrated coup against Iranian prime minister Mossadegh to the taking of hostages in the American embassy; from Iran’s inclusion in the Axis of Evil to the alleged plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US.

The latest obstacle to an agreement and rapprochement is the U.S. Congress. Although lawmakers have recently suspended their efforts to work against the Obama administration in order to pass yet another round of sanctions against Iran, the prospect of new sanctions emanating from Capitol Hill hangs over attempts to reach a deal. Imposing new sanctions would contradict the spirit of the Joint Action Plan signed in Geneva. In exchange for temporary relief from some minor sanctions, Iran agreed to suspend expansion of its highest level of uranium enrichment and increase transparency. The actual substance of this deal is relatively insignificant. The real purpose of the agreement is to build trust between Iran and the West. If Washington threatens even more sanctions, then Tehran might walk away from the negotiating table altogether. After signing the November 24 interim nuclear agreement, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif stated plainly that, “If there are new sanctions, then there is no deal.”

Jay Friedel co-produces The Middle East Video Blog and self-publishes

Image: Flickr/dynamosquito. CC BY-SA 2.0.