The interim agreement with Iran has left the regional players bewildered. World powers now have a short period of time to make it work.
On the nuclear deal, the hard work has only just begun
Barack Obama described the interim nuclear deal with Iran as a “first step which achieves a great deal”. The agreement limits Iran’s ability to enrich uranium, seeks to eliminate its stockpile of highly enriched uranium and stops the construction of its heavy water reactor in Arak.
However, the deal puts aside the question of whether Iran has a right to enrich uranium or not. In effect, it delivers a “freeze”, a temporary diplomatic fix, which opens up the possibility of both a transformative era in the history of the Middle East and a period of heightened uncertainty.
For allies of the US in the Middle East, this agreement leaves open the possibility that Iran will reverse its setbacks under years of diplomatic pressure and international sanctions. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has already described it as a “historic mistake,” while others in his cabinet are again openly speculating about launching military action.
The deal may also lead some Arab nations – especially Saudi Arabia – to conclude that it is time to accelerate their own nuclear programmes.
As the US and the West build trust with the new Iranian leadership, Iran’s actions in the region – most notably in Syria – are antagonising some of America’s Arab allies. For that reason, it is time for Iran to demonstrate its peaceful intentions through actions rather than words.
The next six months – the time allotted for concluding a comprehensive deal – are likely to be a period of uncertainty and suspicion.
The region’s main players are already engaged in a power struggle encompassing Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Some leaders in the West talk of not wanting to engage in the sectarian-fuelled conflicts raging in these states.
Many Western analysts also talk of the possibilities of a transformation in relations with Iran’s leaders that would be as significant as Richard Nixon’s engagement with China.
But talk of Iran as a “natural ally” rather than as a state sponsor of terrorism leading an “axis of resistance” will not make many in this region feel particularly comfortable.
In Syria, 2014 promises to be the bloodiest year yet of this conflict. Moderate opposition forces are likely to be swept aside as a fight rages between Assad’s Iranian-backed regime, a newly resurgent coalition of Islamist brigades called the Islamic Front, and Al Qaeda-affiliated foreign fighters.
Iran has the unique ability to curtail the fighting and its disastrous consequences. It could do so by acceding to the terms of the 2012 Geneva communiqué, an agreement brokered by the former UN-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan.
If Tehran agrees to Assad leaving power and to the formation of a transitional government, the chance of a diplomatically brokered political solution for Syria becomes real. An inclusive dialogue process that enables Syrians of all backgrounds to negotiate an agreement for a new Syria, free of the regime’s ability to harm them, then becomes a distinct possibility.
Instead, Iran continues to prop up a brutal regime with military hardware, expertise, funding and political support.
With an interim deal done, the US has a crucial role to play in building trust in the region. Some regional powers, including five of the six Gulf states, have cautiously welcomed the deal more out of hope than conviction. As it is, many in the region believe that Obama is being played by Tehran. For this reason, the president has to take on a greater role to bridge the obvious gap between the US and its regional allies.
What has been averted for now, however, is the prospect of a devastating military conflict with Iran. But we have to be cautious.
If the US was to acquiesce to Iran’s belief that it has an inalienable right to enrich uranium, it would lead to a catastrophic breakdown not just in US-regional relations but also in the region itself. This could lead to the further nuclearisation of the Middle East region and to a far more dangerous world.
If the US and world powers continue to ignore Iran’s destructive actions elsewhere in the region, particularly in Syria, then we will see regional turmoil spreading like a virus – an arc of conflict stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to the waters of the Gulf.
In the long run, it just may be possible to gradually shift attitudes among regional adversaries from seeing everything as an existential struggle to a belief that dialogue can open the door to future cooperation and mutual security.
Today we are a long way from that. The interim nuclear deal with Iran has left the regional players bewildered. World powers now have a short period of time to make it work.
Salman Shaikh is Director of the Brookings Doha Center and Fellow, at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC He previously served for nearly a decade at the United Nations in various Middle East policy-related positions