Today, diplomats from Iran and the P5+1 will meet to continue negotiations over Iran’s disputed nuclear programme. While most countries have welcomed this diplomacy, opposition to talks has primarily come from Israel and some GCC states. This opposition, however, is mistaken. In reality, the region will be a key beneficiary from a successful nuclear deal. Here’s why.
Contrary to the unfounded nightmare scenarios floating around, a deal would not leave Iran with an undetectable breakout capability. Through inspections and transparency measures, the international community would immediately be alerted if Iran’s nuclear activities were diverted towards military use, providing ample time to react and prevent it.
Eliminating the path to proliferation in Iran would also halt a nuclear arms race in the region. These are obvious benefits that should not be easily dismissed.
Equally important is that a deal also would prevent war with Iran. Short-sighted analyses claiming that “cutting the head of the snake” is a risk worth taking are sorely mistaken. In fact, the consequences of a US military confrontation with Iran, where Tehran would seek an edge by expanding the theatre to war to engulf the entire region, are particularly grave for the GCC states.
The open economies of the GCC states are particularly sensitive to regional instability. Moreover, if attacked, Iranian military commanders and politicians have hinted that Tehran might expand the war into the GCC states, just as Iraq expanded the war into Saudi Arabia in 1991. Even if such a strategy would not fully succeed, the instability could lead to a major exodus of the skilled foreign work force, without whom the GCC economies cannot function.
Some voices in the GCC have argued that military action against Iran is needed to restore the regional balance, which was thrown off by the US invasion of Iraq. Disregarding the advise from the GCC states, former president George W. Bush recklessly invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and unchained Iran from the two regimes that kept it in check, the argument goes. The ensuing rise in Iranian power ignited a regional power struggle with Saudi Arabia and other GCC states, which further destabilised the Middle East. The only solution, these voices maintain, is to undo the first mistake (the unleashing of Iran) by cutting the country down to size through military action.
But thinking that war would neatly resurrect the pre-2003 regional balance is as foolish as thinking that invading Iraq would bring democracy to the Middle East. One cannot mock the strategic ineptitude of the Bush administration’s Iraq war while urging the Obama administration to commit an even greater mistake by bombing Iran.
Similarly, the fear that a successful nuclear accord would lead to a US-Iran love fest is off the mark for two simple reasons. First, there is no desire for a Persian pivot in Washington as long as the Islamic Republic exists. Second, the Islamic Republic has no desire for such a relationship with the US as long as Washington seeks hegemony in the Middle East.
Tehran will not compete with Riyadh, Ankara and Tel Aviv to become Washington’s regional best friend. Rather, even after a nuclear accord, Tehran will continue to position itself as a challenger of the American order — even though its new rivalry with Washington will likely be friendlier and encompass both tactical and strategic cooperation.
Perhaps the most common fear in some quarters in the GCC is not that Iran and the US would become allies, but that the nuclear negotiations indicate that the US is withdrawing from the region and abandoning its objective to balance Iran. Consequently, the nuclear talks will further weaken US leadership in the region, followed by de facto acquiescence to Iran’s geopolitical advances. The “unleashing of Iran” will be accepted, endorsed and made permanent, it is feared.
But if the aim is to make US leadership sustainable, then a fundamental reality must be recognised: The less costly the American order is, the more durable it will be. Rest assure, the US public is strongly against engaging in more wars in the region and if US leadership means that America has to commit further blood and treasure for the Middle East, then an actual exit from the region will actually become more — not less — likely.
While the positives of a US-Iran war have been exaggerated at times, the positive regional impact of a nuclear accord has largely been neglected. Iran’s regional politics will not shift positively following a nuclear deal, it’s been assumed. Iran may become more aggressive following a thaw with the US, but it won’t become more cooperative and reconciliatory.
This skewed outlook neglects two critical factors. First, if the nuclear deal is followed by Iran’s political and economic rehabilitation in the region and globally, then the cost of Iran pursuing an adventurous and destabilising foreign policy will increase significantly. Compared to today, Iran will have something to lose in this scenario. This will likely temper Tehran’s appetite for regional conflicts.
Second, a nuclear deal will significantly enhance the influence of moderate elements in Iran’s political system. These moderate elements have long sought a more reconciliatory regional policy and did successfully take Iran in that direction under former president Mohammad Khatami. Many officials in the GCC told me during the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad era that they longed for the Iran that existed under Khatami. A nuclear deal can bring about exactly that.
Which brings us to the perhaps most important outcome of a nuclear deal: The opportunity to neutralise the primary driver behind the sectarian flames that are engulfing the region. While sectarianism may take on a life of its own, it is at its root more a symptom of a deep geopolitical conflict in the region than the cause of it. A critical step towards ending sectarian strife in the region is to resolve the geopolitical tensions underlying and fuelling it.
A nuclear deal that stops proliferation, evades war, reorients Iran in a more conciliatory direction, and increases interactions that make conflict more costly, can achieve just that.