Iran deal could be good news if US did it right
Here in Washington and across the Middle East, many are holding their breath as they wait for news of the outcome of the P5+1 negotiations with Iran.
But the reality is that whether or not an agreement is reached on Iran’s nuclear programme, the US and the Arab world will continue to face major challenges that will require urgent attention.
Deal or no deal, the following will still be the case: ISIL will continue to menace Iraq, Syria and beyond. Iraq’s sectarian governance issues will continue to fuel Sunni Arab and Kurdish unrest. Syria’s long civil war will continue to rage out of control, feeding a growing refugee tragedy and political crisis and threatening the stability of neighbouring countries. The tragic humanitarian disaster and failed state that is Yemen will continue as it is. The ever simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stoked by Israeli intransigence, will still threaten to boil over into renewed hostilities. And Arab leaders and public opinion will continue to lack confidence in the United States as a supportive ally that has their interests at heart.
This is the setting in which the negotiations are taking place and this is the lens through which Arabs are viewing the entire process. And this defines a reality that US policymakers need to consider – deal or no deal.
As Arabs see Iran’s hand in many of the region’s crises, they are less concerned with the number of centrifuges at Tehran’s disposal after a deal than with what they see as the destablizing expansion of its influence in Iraq, Syria and now Yemen. For Arabs, there can be no good outcome of the negotiations if the US fails to address the impact of a deal on these conflicts and Iran’s role in them.
If there is a deal, Iran’s nuclear programme might be reined in, but the very real Arab concern is that the loosening of sanctions and unfreezing of assets will give Iran an immediate boost in revenues (estimated to be at least $150 billion). This, they fear, will not be used only to expand services for the Iranian people. The concern is that in the post-deal period, Iran will use its new riches to invest more heavily in its regional adventures. This will only create greater Arab anxiety and cause them to take steps that will result in even greater conflict.
In all of my polling of Arab public opinion, I have never found Iran’s nuclear programme to be a major concern. The Arab preference has always been to see their region become a nuclear-free zone, a goal they feel has repeatedly been frustrated by the US refusal to challenge Israel’s well-established nuclear capability. In recent years, as Arabs have grown wary of Iran’s involvement in Iraq and Syria, they have told Zogby Research Services that they do not want to see Iran as a nuclear power. However, that concern has been muted by their fear of Israel and anger at US double standards.
Nevertheless, I hope that the US president succeeds in these negotiations for two important reasons.
First, he will have demonstrated that difficult issues can be solved through thoughtful and forceful diplomacy. While his domestic opponents will continue to rage, they have demonstrated that they have nothing better to propose than more sanctions or the use of force, neither of which will yield any positive outcome and may, in the case of military action, only serve to make worse an already dangerous situation.
The second reason I hope that president Obama succeeds is that it will give him a strengthened hand at home and in the region enabling him to take the next steps needed to address the Middle East’s broader conflicts.
Here is what I would urge him to do.
First, he should take a strong and decisive stand on the Israeli-Palestinian issue at this year’s United Nations General Assembly. He should support a Security Council resolution that backs recognition of a Palestinian state and of the Arab Peace Initiative and imposes a deadline of two years to complete the negotiations needed to resolve the issues that will end the conflict.
Riding on the crest of regional support that such an initiative will bring to the US, president Obama can then take the necessary steps to achieve broader regional peace by using forceful US diplomacy, backed by its allies, to negotiate an Iranian-Arab regional security framework a bit like the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This will be a huge but necessary undertaking. Iran should not be able to emerge from a deal feeling that it has carte blanche to meddle in the affairs of Arab states.
It is high time that it is recognised that neither Iran and its allies nor Saudi Arabia and its allies can really win in any of the countries in which they or their proxies are currently engaged in conflict. Neither side will or can win a decisive victory in Iraq, Syria, or Yemen. What is needed is a regional security framework that brings the parties together to negotiate solutions. These solutions will be imperfect, but they will help create the security and stability needed to begin to heal the region’s many wounds.
Finally, if there is a deal with Iran, the US and its partners can ensure that the region’s nervousness about the terms of any arrangement do not lead to an arms race. This could be done by focusing on the creation of a nuclear-free zone across the Middle East.
If the US can pivot from a completed deal to a broader regional peace the outcome could be judged a success. But a deal without a determined follow-up programme may be just a bad as (and maybe worse than) no deal at all.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute