Less than two months after the Iran nuclear agreement officially began its implementation stage on January 16, the agreement itself is largely off the radar in the region, both in Arab states and in Israel. This was the consensus of a group of experts who gathered for a recent conference on the topic at the RAND Corporation. My own visits to the region since the July 2015 agreement have given me the same impression—the region has moved on from the nuclear deal to other pressing issues, most significantly the conflict in Syria. Given the high profile and high stakes negotiations and debates over the nuclear deal last summer, this is a remarkable development.
That is not to say that Iran’s neighbors, or many in Washington, like the agreement. But active opposition has fizzled as the reality of the deal takes hold. And so far, the agreement appears to be working, with Iran meeting the nuclear commitments that paved the way for the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions.
Across the spectrum, for both those who had supported as well as opposed the deal, there is a common assessment that the Iranians are likely to continue meeting their nuclear commitments to maintain the economic relief that played a major role in bringing them to the negotiating table in the first place. There are more pessimistic views of Iran’s motives (e.g. they are waiting the deal out before returning to their nuclear weapons ambitions) and more positive spins (e.g. they do not see a nuclear weapons program as in their national interests). But the resulting conclusion is largely the same: this agreement buys up to fifteen years. The question becomes what happens during this time, both within Iran and in how the region and the United States handle Iran?
To be sure, there will be a multitude of technical challenges and disputes over Iran’s compliance with the agreement in the months and years ahead. And it will be critical for the United States and its international partners to carefully monitor the agreement and ensure Iranian compliance. Nonetheless, the debate has discernibly shifted from Iran as a nuclear problem to Iran as a regional problem.
The nuclear deal has only increased the incentive for Iran’s neighbors to confront its broader regional reach, particularly its involvement in regional conflicts like Syria and Yemen (not to mention its links to Shi’a groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shi’a militias in Iraq). The confrontation has moved beyond rhetoric to active proxy wars and a deterioration in Saudi-Iranian relations. One could argue that such confrontation would have occurred with or without the nuclear deal, particularly since the main concern of most of Iran’s neighbors has always been these nonnuclear issues.
But the nuclear deal certainly hasn’t helped, particularly given the common view that the international community’s growing acceptance of Iran will only strengthen and embolden its incentives and capabilities for mischief-making in the region. While the reality of Iran’s ability to project power in the region is far more limited than this widespread regional perception (and Iran’s reasons for doing so may be driven as much by Iran’s sense of vulnerability as by a quest for hegemony), perceptions matter in the Middle East. So proxy conflicts between Iran and its neighbors (and possibly escalation to direct confrontation) may be difficult to tamp down in the years ahead.
At the same time, Iran’s domestic environment is dynamic. A real competition for the future vision of the country and its place in the region and in the world is playing out between hardliners and more pragmatic and reformist factions. With over 60 percent of Iran’s population under the age of thirty, revolutionary ideology has lost its appeal for the majority of the population. Iran has the human capital and economic promise to attract major investment if domestic obstacles, particularly corrupt and repressive leadership, are overcome with time. Whether the current system can allow such transformation is still uncertain, and comparisons to China may be overdrawn. But what is certain is that it is a mistake to assume the status quo will endure; Iran will likely be a different place when major components of the nuclear deal expire.
Which raises questions about whether U.S. policy needs to adapt to these new post-deal realities to better shape outcomes more to its liking.
On the one hand, the United States is facing increasing pressure from regional allies who perceive a declining U.S. commitment to the region and seek a more robust (e.g., military) response to regional conflicts, most notably in Syria. In the short-term, U.S. policy will continue to focus on how to “reassure” allies, particularly in the Arab Gulf, that the United States is still committed to countering Iranian influence in the broader region. It’s difficult to know what type of reassurance measures would satisfy partners given the current hostility to U.S. policies in the region.
The presence of U.S. military bases and forces in the region that are the foundation of U.S. containment policies toward Iran have not fundamentally changed since the nuclear deal. And the dominant view in Washington across the political spectrum is that the United States should find new ways to contain Iran to compensate for the nuclear deal and demonstrate American commitment to allies in the region. Yet such realities are unlikely to dispel the perception in the region that the United States is walking away.
On the other hand, there are some in the U.S. policy community who believe the United States needs to focus more on its relationship with Iran following the agreement, finding new ways to lay the groundwork for normalizing relations over time and seizing opportunities for engagement when they might arise. The premise of this approach is that more engagement and integration into the international community can help shape the domestic struggle taking place within Iran, bolstering more moderate forces. This line of thinking suggests that the United States may already have the containment and deterrence tools in place to keep Iran in check and should instead be thinking about how to build on the nuclear agreement to shape a different relationship with Iran in the longer run.
In practice, U.S. policy will likely continue to balance the tensions between containing and deterring Iran with regional allies, while testing areas where engagement with Iran might either be unavoidable (as in Syria) or desirable (such as in counternarcotics cooperation or efforts to stabilize Afghanistan). And Iran’s behavior will to a large extent determine how this balance is struck.
But despite uncertainty in the current regional environment and within Iran, now is the time to start thinking carefully about how to use the fifteen-year clock this agreement may have bought, and prepare for a variety of potential outcomes.
Dalia Dassa Kaye is the director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy and a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
Image: Flickr/U.S. Department of State.