If Washington intends to put in place a new regional order, then it must take measures first to frustrate and reverse Iranian assertiveness, says Michael Young.
If a nuclear deal is done, the US will have to tread carefully
Next week, Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany will resume negotiations for a final deal over Iran’s nuclear programme. While obstacles remain, a broader question is how a breakthrough in talks, if it occurs, will affect American-Iranian relations in the Middle East.
There is a perception among many governments that the Obama administration sees a nuclear accord as an opportunity to advance American disengagement from the region. Only by reaching a broader regional understanding with Iran, the argument goes, is such disengagement possible.
While this may be overstated, there is some truth that the Obama administration sees a nuclear accord as potentially transcending nuclear questions. In the minds of American officials, an improved relationship between Iran and the United States could facilitate resolutions to a number of problems in the Middle East. The administration has made no statements in this regard, but any reconciliation with Iran could, for all practical purposes, expand Iranian influence in the Arab world.
That is the interpretation reached by many Arab states and Israel, which is why they worry about the nuclear talks. Reports earlier this week, as well as a statement by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, may have kept up their hopes.
By most accounts a major obstacle to an accord is the P5+1’s insistence that Iran cut the number of its uranium-enriching centrifuges from 19,000 to a few thousand. Iran, in turn, has indicated it intends to expand the number, saying they would serve to fuel a civilian nuclear power programme.
Ayatollah Khamenei has echoed this view, declaring that Iran would expand its nuclear infrastructure, while on Sunday he rejected Western efforts to limit Iran’s missile programme as “stupid and idiotic”. Some Iranian statements may be posturing, but the administration of President Hassan Rouhani will not be able to pass an agreement that is strongly opposed by Ayatollah Khamenei and Iranian hardliners.
The position of the Obama administration has been that there will be no discussion of regional issues until after a nuclear deal is concluded. It fears that widening the negotiating agenda now would only create new obstacles to a nuclear accord. That’s perhaps true, but in the context of new-found concord after an agreement, the ambition to do more could suddenly rise.
And here is where the Obama administration must manage its strategy carefully. For while President Barack Obama may want to lower American commitments in the Middle East, he has no interest in allowing a destabilising free-for-all provoked by his allies’ fear that Washington is abandoning them to Iran.
The problem is that this administration has shown a noticeable willingness to tolerate spheres of influence, and none of America’s regional allies believe it will oppose one in Iran’s case. In both Crimea and the South and East China Seas, for instance, the Americans have allowed Russia and China to expand their zone of control, reacting in only limited ways.
On the other hand, if a nuclear deal is reached, the United States could not simply avoid engaging in a wider discussion over the future of the region. If it were to do so, Iran could take advantage of this by exploiting the termination of economic sanctions to finance a series of regional power plays.
That is why better preparation for a post-negotiations phase is required from the Obama administration. There has been much talk of a new regional security architecture in the Gulf region and beyond, and Washington would be in an ideal position to help bring such an idea to fruition. But would Iran go along with it?
The probable answer is no it wouldn’t. By announcing it would effectively pivot away from the Middle East, the Obama administration created a conundrum. Given its overwhelming power, the United States never had the luxury of simply turning its back on the region. In doing so, however, it created a vacuum others have sought to fill.
Iran has striven to consolidate its power in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian areas. In Iraq, the Americans pulled out early, leaving behind a volatile situation ripe for manipulation by regional states. In Syria, after the 2011 uprising, the Americans never contemplated defeating Iran. Instead, they limited arms supplies to the rebels, allowing the stalemate to continue while pursuing an unrealistic path of negotiations.
On the Palestinian front, too, US-sponsored talks recently reached an impasse. As for Lebanon, the Obama administration has been indifferent, merely supporting measures to reduce tensions in the country, with otherwise limited involvement. Nowhere has there been visible planning for a region in which America no longer chooses to play a central role.
That is why negotiations with Iran over the region are so disquieting. If the aim is merely to facilitate America’s regional disentanglement, the consequences could be chaotic as Iran seeks to enhance its hegemony. But if Washington, instead, intends to put in place a new regional order, then it must take measures first to frustrate and reverse Iranian assertiveness.
Yet such a venture would serve only to underline that America intends to remain the predominant regional actor, when Mr Obama has done everything to dispel such an impression. That is why a nuclear deal with Iran, as desirable as it may be, will launch a thousand American foreign-policy contradictions.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.
On Twitter: @BeirutCalling
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. On twitter @BeirutCalling