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Scholars and Experts in the Arab World React to the Iran Nuclear Deal

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The recent nuclear agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1 in Vienna, or the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” is an historic agreement which is consequential not only for international security and nuclear proliferation but for Iran and the broader Middle East as a whole. In particular, one of the key arenas that the agreement will impact is Iran-Arab world security relations and, at its center, the Iran-Saudi cold war. Spawning regional conflicts and proxy wars from Yemen to Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, the confrontation between these two regional powers serves as the geopolitical and security background upon which the nuclear deal was forged

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The recent nuclear agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1 in Vienna, or the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” is an historic agreement which is consequential not only for international security and nuclear proliferation but for Iran and the broader Middle East as a whole. In particular, one of the key arenas that the agreement will impact is Iran-Arab world security relations and, at its center, the Iran-Saudi cold war. Spawning regional conflicts and proxy wars from Yemen to Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, the confrontation between these two regional powers serves as the geopolitical and security background upon which the nuclear deal was forged. How this cold war proceeds — whether or not it is effectively managed and resolved, or how it escalates — will largely determine the security dynamics and landscape of the Middle East for years to come.

As a potential catalyst for further diplomatic means of conflict resolution, the comprehensive agreement provides a unique opportunity to seriously engage Iran and possibly alleviate these tensions, especially if it leads to Iranian rehabilitation within the formal security architecture of the Middle East. In this light, President Obama’s call for a “practical conversation” between Iran and Arab states is an important step towards resolving the conflicts enflaming the region. Addressing the sectarian dynamics of the conflict, Obama recently stated that the best opportunity for “reducing the scope of those conflicts is for the Saudis and other Sunni states or Arab states to be at least in a practical conversation with Iran that says, ‘The conflict we are fanning right now could engulf us all in flames.'” Moreover, signaling a possible shift in U.S. policy towards its Arab partners, the president emphasized that “America has to listen to our Sunni Arab allies, but also not fall into the trap of letting them blame every problem on Iran. The citizens of more than a few Arab Gulf states have been big contributors to Sunni jihadist movements that have been equally destabilizing.”

Echoing these sentiments in a letter to the Lebanese daily, al-Safir, addressing the Arab world, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif warned of the shared security threats that confronted all Middle Eastern states alike: “it is incumbent upon us all to accept the reality that the age of scheming has long passed and that we are all together winners or we are all together losers. Thus lasting peace cannot be actualized with an assault on others’ security, and it is not possible for any peoples to actualize their interests without taking into consideration the interests of others.”

‘Lasting peace cannot be actualized with an assault on others’ security.’

Given the significant ramifications that these openings may herald for the future of Iran-Arab world ties, it is more important than ever to engage and analyze viewpoints from scholars and analysts based in the region on the future of Iran’s role in the Middle East and Arab security. In this light, this publication brings together a diverse set of voices from Arab world experts to comment on the implications of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 on Iran-Arab security relations. This chapter accordingly begins with a summary and brief analysis of Arab expert opinion in order to elucidate the broader trends and patterns of analytic thought on Iran and the Arab world. Thereafter, the chapter turns to an examination of the implications of the agreement on Iranian politics and the factors shaping the possibility of Iranian foreign policy moderation. It does so because no serious discussion on Iran-Arab security relations can ignore the Iranian decision-making process and domestic Iranian politics.

Summary of Arab Expert Opinions

We gathered the opinions of 15 of the leading regional experts in the Arab world to share their views on the implication of the Iranian nuclear agreement on the security of the Middle East. Our experts are located across the Arab world including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon, Kuwait and Qatar. Moreover, they have varied subject expertise from the international relations of the Middle East to the politics of regional security, as well as different country-level expertise, including but not limited to the politics of Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Specifically, we asked our contributors to answer the following two questions on this critical subject:

  1. What will the implications of the nuclear agreement be on Iranian foreign policy in the Middle East and, specifically, the Arab world?
  2. How will such a scenario impact the regional security architecture?

The answers we received from our experts are varied and reflect diverse analytic viewpoints and opinions in the Arab world. Nevertheless, there are certain similarities and differences that can be identified across several core themes within these commentaries that are of critical importance for understanding the dynamics of Iran-Arab security relations following the nuclear agreement. These themes include evaluations of the factors leading to a comprehensive nuclear agreement at this particular moment; the risk of nuclear proliferation in the region; Iranian calculations for engaging in conflict or cooperation in the Middle East; regional policy readjustments for Arab states in a post-deal environment, such as improving relations or escalating conflict with Iran and its allies; U.S. strategy on Iran in the region and U.S.-Iran relations; and, finally, on future regional scenarios. Summaries of the different viewpoints expressed on each of these themes is presented in the sections below.

I must mention, however, that not all of our contributors discussed each and every one of the themes listed above given the open-ended prompt. The analysis in the following sections thus represents a selection of topics that different authors chose to highlight in their own respective work. These themes figured prominently across the articles in this publication, and conflicting opinions within each theme reflect basic fault lines of analysis or attitudes on Iran-Arab world security relations held by our contributors.

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Factors leading to a nuclear agreement

Our contributors mentioned a variety of factors explaining why the nuclear deal was reached at this point in time. The most common answer provided was the impact of sanctions on Iran and Iranian desire to have them lifted. While not necessarily mutually exclusive, other explanations that pointed to Iran as the source of change allowing for successful negotiations included: a shift in Iranian foreign policy outlook following the election of Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, the generational gap between Iranian officials and the public and the military stalemate facing Iran in regional conflicts. A different factor provided to explain why Iran accepted the deal was because the country successfully attained one of its key objectives in its decade-long standoff with the P5+1: what Hilal Khashan describes as “Iran’s desire for recognition and partnership with the U.S. in the Gulf.” In contrast, some of our contributors identified another set of factors that pointed to the United States as the main driver pushing for a deal, including a U.S. desire for rapprochement with Iran and the Obama administration’s objective to alleviate Israeli security concerns without getting dragged into another war in the region. Whether mentioned explicitly or implicitly, the deal was largely seen as either a clear win for Iran or as beneficial to the country.

Impact of the deal on nuclear proliferation in the region

For those who discussed the nuclear agreement’s impact on regional nuclear proliferation, most experts believed that the deal would diminish the risk of proliferation and praised the settlement for this reason. The deal could also potentially advance the idea for a WMD-free zone in the region. As Tamim Khallaf argues: “both sides are adamant supporters of establishing a zone free from weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East and have been vocal in their criticism of Israel’s nuclear program and its non-adherence to the NPT. Now that an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program has been reached, Israel’s nuclear program should return center stage.”

‘Both sides are adamant supporters of establishing a zone free from weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.’

Several experts, however, predicted or expressed concern for the opposite effect: an Iranian drive towards weaponization or regional proliferation. As Abdulaziz Sager explains, “there are widespread doubts that Iran will stick to the letter and spirit of the agreement.” Likewise, Abdulwahhab Al-Qassab notes Iran’s potential use of “nuclear blackmail” against regional states as well as the heightened risk of proliferation that will ensue as a result: “A sort of nuclear race could be expected since the Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, are already embarked on sort of peaceful nuclear programs. This will bring the region into a warm sort of cold war where wars of attrition between subordinates will prevail on bases much more harmful than what we see now in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.”

In addition, a common sentiment found in the commentaries questions the view that an Iranian nuclear program poses a significant threat to the Arab world. Rather, it is traditional Iranian means for power projection in the region, including Iran’s support for proxy groups or its ballistic missile arsenal, which are considered to be paramount. As Marwan Kabalan expresses, “Iran’s ballistic missile stockpile, which can hit every spot in the Arabian Peninsula, is in fact Iran’s nuclear option for the Arab Gulf states.”

Impact of the deal on the Iranian position in regional conflicts

Our contributors were largely divided on whether the nuclear agreement would extenuate or ameliorate Iran’s threat to regional stability. For those who believed the deal would lead to Iranian foreign policy moderation, various factors were mentioned. Most identified the economy as the key mechanism: that Iranian concern for economic development would diminish its engagement in costly and high-risk conflicts in the region; that increased economic relations with the Arab world would bring about Iranian regional rehabilitation; or, that Iran’s successful economic development would strengthen the middle class and bolster the moderates inside Iran. As a result, as Rami Khouri states, “Iran could mirror Turkey’s transformation in the past quarter century, from an insular security state to a regional power.”

‘Iran could mirror Turkey’s transformation in the past quarter century, from an insular security state to a regional power.’

Accordingly, domestic Iranian politics and its impact on foreign policy was an interesting subject of analysis in the submissions. For some authors, domestic political moderation and reform were linked to the possibility of Iranian foreign policy moderation, and it was believed that the agreement would likely unleash new internal challenges to the Islamic Republic, which would pressure the state to moderate. For others, in contrast, Iran will be able to cope with its domestic challenges and achieve economic growth while simultaneously expanding its revolutionary ideology and influence throughout the region. In other words, Iran’s growing economy and its global economic reintegration will not divert the country from its current foreign policy path. According to Abdul-Salam Mohammed, “Iran has the ability to manage contradictions,” and the nuclear agreement, a case of contradiction itself, “may result in economic stability in Iran while it will continue its extension through the tools of violence and chaos outside its borders.”

Post-deal Arab policy responses to Iran

Most of our contributors believed that there will be an escalation in Arab aggressiveness and hostility to Iran in the region to weaken Iran’s hand in the Middle East, at least in the short term. This could potentially be followed by Arab-Iranian dialogue on regional affairs. Several of the authors also discussed the greater number of vulnerabilities facing the Arab world compared to Iran, including the growing instability and state weakness in the Arab world, the political divisions within the GCC that will play into the hands of the Iranians, the Gulf states’ reliance on external security provisions and the nuclear deal itself which will further tilt the regional balance of power towards Iran and away from the Arab world.

Heightened aggression by Saudi Arabia and its regional Arab allies may thus be used to overcome these weaknesses and shift balance back towards the Arab world, whether or not dialogue is successful. Increased Arab wariness and suspicion of the United States is yet another reason given for a more active and hostile foreign policy in some Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia. As Ibrahim Fraihat explains, “Arab countries still remember how President Obama behaved towards his ‘red lines’ with the Assad regime,” and these countries are “concerned that the West would make similar arrangements by sorting out Iran’s nuclear project to serve their own agendas and in return let Iran go on a rampage in the region.” In contrast, however, others believe these types of claims may be overblown; Khouri, for example, speaks of “Saudi exaggerated fears of Iranian hegemonic ambitions across the region that will eventually dissipate, as Iranian-GCC economic and cultural ties expand.”

‘Arab countries still remember how President Obama behaved towards his red lines with the Assad regime.’

Given the regional turmoil, the rise of other non-Arab powers, including Turkey, may also occur in tandem with Iran’s rise. Several of the authors also discussed the possibility of greater Turkey-Saudi coordination and partnership in the region in response to the deal and expanding Iranian influence. And many emphasized the need for greater dialogue between Iran and the Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, in promoting peace and security in the region. Otherwise, as Mahjoob Zweiri claims, the regional picture may become dimmer as the “nuclear deal seems to widen the gap between some Arab States, like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan on one side, and Iran on the other side.”

Post-deal U.S. strategy on Iran and the Middle East

The vast majority of our contributors saw the nuclear agreement as a clear signal of a change in America’s position on Iran and interpreted the United States to be moving closer to Iran and preparing for a greater rapprochement. This idea of course has been an important source of concern for many Arab leaders. Some authors claimed that this trend was initiated back in 2003 with the cooperation between the U.S. and Iran over post-Saddam Iraq. Other reasons given for a shift in U.S. policy on Iran included that the U.S. objective to craft a more effective containment strategy necessitated an Iran without nuclear weapons; that the U.S. wanted to increase its leverage in the Middle East by playing different countries off one another and hence the need to engage Iran; or, that the U.S. would like regional actors to shoulder more of the costs in managing their affairs and providing security. According to Imad Salamey, “a New Deal Middle East will feature international recognition and incorporation of Iran into regional power constellations, which will intensify rivalry to assert dominance.” However, simultaneously and “in light of power constraints and regional deadlock, the rewards attained will perpetuate Iran’s foreign and security aspirations in the Arab World within an arranged and internationally determined code of conduct,” which would presumably allow the U.S. and the international community greater leverage in managing and influencing the conflicts and politics of the Middle East.

Whether or not U.S.-Iran relations will fundamentally change with a potential “grand bargain deal” and solve any outstanding contentions between the two countries on the heels of the current nuclear agreement is still open to speculation. As Waleed Hazbun argues, “In 2003 the U.S. was in a far stronger position while now Iran holds important cards in conflicts across the region.” Although the nuclear agreement “suggests nothing of the sort of regional ‘grand bargain’ proffered by Iranian officials and dismissed by American ones in 2003,” it could potentially result in a more expansive agreement. As Hazbun continues: “The key question remains if the U.S. and Iran will seek to find common ground on mutually recognized legitimate security concerns or will exacerbate regional rivalries through military escalation.”

Possible future scenarios

The two most common future scenarios discussed are: 1) increased Iranian influence in the region and an escalation of conflict, or 2) increased cooperation and a resolution of tension in the Middle East. Nevertheless, most of our contributors believed that regional competition and regional power rivalry would increase in the foreseeable future. This trend, however, is not necessarily seen as driven by the nuclear agreement itself. Importantly, as previously discussed, structural factors such as instability in the Arab world and the resulting power vacuums left by weak states will make competition likely as regional powers like Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia may attempt to exploit the circumstances. Consequently, as Hazbun claims, “the Iran nuclear deal might forestall risks of catastrophic conflict relating to any possible Iranian weapons program but could exacerbate inter-state conflicts across the Saudi-Iranian rivalry while doing little to address critical security challenges caused by state erosion across much of the region.”

‘The Iran nuclear deal might forestall risks of catastrophic conflict relating to any possible Iranian weapons program but could exacerbate inter-state conflicts across the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.’

Moreover, as Yezid Sayigh suggests, “longer term trends” may not necessarily lead to sustained peace or even de-escalation of conflict, as the deal may “may revive and deepen strategic rivalry” between Iran and Arab states. Even if Iran “normalizes” and moderates its actions and ideology, Arab states will intrinsically fear the re-emergence of Iran’s role as a “regional policeman” — a role it had undertaken in the Persian Gulf in conjunction with the United States during the time of the Shah. By removing the ideological and revolutionary aspect of the Islamic Republic of Iran as an explanatory factor behind the Iran-Saudi rivalry, Sayigh thus highlights the purely geostrategic dimension of contestation that exists between the two states.

Finally, a trend that several authors discussed was the possibility of a Turkish-Saudi partnership in the region to counter Iran. This alliance could be used to curtail gains made by Iran through the nuclear agreement and constrain Iran’s ability to project power in the region. A more active and potentially militant Turkish policy in the Middle East may thus be one of the significant, and lesser expected, geopolitical consequences of the deal.

This piece is part of a larger report conducted by Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Read the full report here.

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Scholars and Experts in the Arab World React to the Iran Nuclear Deal

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