Good Regional Vibrations from a Nuclear Deal with Iran

September 18, 2014 Topic: Iran Iraq terrorism Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

Good Regional Vibrations from a Nuclear Deal with Iran

The negotiations between Iran and the consortium known as the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) about the future of Iran's nuclear program are inching back into the news after being largely obscured by other diplomatic tasks and events over the past couple of months. The two sides will be fully engaged in the talks during the remainder of this month, in anticipation of a late-November target date for completing a deal. We are hearing again technical and numerical details about centrifuges and capacity for enriching uranium that represent much of what evidently needs to be resolved for a final agreement. But the significance of an agreement, and thus what is at stake in whether or not one is reached, go far beyond the nuclear minutiae. They extend to the capacity of the United States to address fully and effectively many problems in the Middle East and South Asia.

This week The Iran Project, a group led by former U.S. ambassadors and dedicated to supporting U.S. interests through diplomacy on matters that involve Iran, released a report on likely regional implications of a nuclear deal with Iran. (I am involved with The Iran Project and participated in preparation of the report.) The report has some thirty signatories and endorsers, including former national security advisers and other former senior officials. A premise of the report is that a successful nuclear agreement, by resolving the issue that has so heavily dominated for years the U.S.-Iranian relationship in particular, is likely to have other repercussions in the Middle East. This is partly because it would open up opportunities in the U.S.-Iranian relationship itself to address other problems of mutual concern. It is also because, given the importance of the United States to many states in the region, there are apt to be secondary effects involving the relations of those states with Iran.

In anticipating any such regional changes, it is important to distinguish actual interests and likely post-agreement behavior from what regimes may say disingenuously for effect today. This is most obviously the case with Israel, where smart people concerned about a possible Iranian nuclear weapon realize that the object of their concern is much less likely to materialize with an agreement than without one, but where the right-wing government is doing everything it can to kill a deal in order to keep Iran in the international doghouse, suppress it as a competitor for regional influence and U.S. attention, and retain it as an all-purpose bogeyman to distract attention from things the Israeli government would rather not talk about.

To a lesser degree there is some of the same divergence with the Gulf Arabs and especially Saudi Arabia, whose preferences regarding Iran have long been subject to misinterpretation. Certainly the Saudis have long seen Iran as a competitor for economic and political influence, going back to the days of the shah. But the Saudis also have their own history of rapprochement with Iran, including with the Islamic Republic. The two big Persian Gulf states, along with the smaller Gulf Arab monarchies, share an interest in not letting instability in their neighborhood spin out of control and threaten, among other things, the oil trade. Over the last several months the Gulf Arabs, probably stimulated by the prospect of better U.S.-Iranian relations, have once again moved toward their own rapprochement with Tehran, as reflected in some high-level visits.

Iran's own perspectives toward the region have evolved significantly since the first few years after the revolution. In those early days of the Islamic Republic, there was a view that the revolution would not survive if it did not spawn like-minded upheaval in nearby countries. Three and a half decades later, Iranian leaders know that is not the case. There still is an Iranian sense—more ostentatiously apparent under the shah—of Iran as a nation with a glorious history and rightfully exercising a regional leadership role. But right now the main Iranian goal is to get out of the doghouse and enjoy full and normal relations with the rest of the region. That means all of the region, not just a Shia crescent. As Iranians know, there are more Sunnis that Shiites.

Some of the irreconcilable hardline American opponents of an agreement have been putting a few more of their cards on the table in the last few months and in effect admitting that what they don't want is not just a “bad” deal but any deal at all with Iran. Sign an agreement with Tehran and start lifting sanctions, they say, and Iran will exert more influence in the region—as if that were ipso facto bad. But whether it really would be bad, good, or neutral depends on what that influence would be used for, and how the Iranian objectives relate to U.S. interests.

In fact there are conspicuous parallel interests that the United States and Iran share in the region, and they have just gotten more conspicuous and parallel with the surge of alarm about ISIS. The parallel interests are most apparent in the countries immediately adjacent to Iran, to its east and its west. To the east is Afghanistan, where after 9/11 and the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, U.S. and Iranian officials worked very effectively together in forging a new and moderate Afghan political order under Hamid Karzai—until the George W. Bush administration slammed the door in the Iranians' face by declaring them to be part of an axis of evil. The United States and Iran continue to share interests in a stable Afghanistan in which extremists such as the Taliban do not rule, religious and ethnic minorities have their rights respected and share in political power, violence is not exported, and the drug trade is curtailed.

To the west in Iraq, the principal Iranian objective is never again to see a regime that would, as did Saddam Hussein in 1980, launch a war of aggression. The Iranians do not want endless instability on their western border. They want Iraqi Shiites to have power commensurate with their majority numbers, while they realize—as indicated by their welcoming the departure of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki—that narrowly sectarian or authoritarian rule does not serve either Iraqi stability or their own interests. They definitely oppose the rise of Sunni fanatics such as those of ISIS, as indicated by the very active support that Iran is giving to the Iraqi government in opposing ISIS. All of these objectives are consistent with and even supportive of U.S. interests. And on the last topic, they are directly supportive of what has come to be seen in the United States as a pressing policy priority.

The potential for—and the need for—greater coordination and communication between the United States and Iran should be obvious, and a nuclear agreement would open the door to more such coordination and communication. Evidently it is not obvious, however, to some of the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who questioned Secretary of State Kerry this week and wanted to make darned sure that the United States was not coordinating with Iran about confronting ISIS. Evidently some members, however much they may be fired up about anti-ISIS measures, believe that uncoordinated measures are better than the coordinated variety. Iran is more evil than ISIS, explained one member. Such attitudes are directly detrimental to the pursuit of important U.S. interests in the Middle East.

If the negotiators succeed in reaching a deal, by all means let us evaluate it according to the specific declared purpose of making an Iranian nuclear weapon less likely, and let us discuss whether the agreement does a better job of that than the absence of an agreement would. But let us also weigh an agreement versus no agreement according to all the other U.S. interests in the region that might be affected. Movement toward a more normal U.S.-Iranian relationship would be a step toward making possible the practice of U.S. regional diplomacy without having one hand tied behind our back—tied by ourselves because we have subordinated so much else to the nuclear obsession.                        

Image: U.S. State Department Flickr.