by Emile Nakhleh
Much has been written about the Iran nuclear deal and the threats that a post-sanctions Iran could pose for the region. This fear is primarily driven by Saudi Arabia’s pathological obsession that a resurgent Iran would eclipse Saudi Arabia and other members of the primarily Sunni sheikdoms of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
If Iran adheres to the conditions of the agreement without cheating or engaging in prohibited underground enrichment activities, if it is given tangible relief from the sanctions, and if Western countries reopen their embassies in Tehran, Iran could become a positive force for stability in the region, not a stoker of chaos and war, as Saudi Arabia and Israel have been claiming.
Israel, Saudi Arabia, and its Sunni allies should also embrace a possible détente between Iran and the West because as their long-held obsession with Iran abates, they would have more resources to spend on other national security and domestic needs. Their push during the negotiations for an Iran with zero enrichment and permanent international isolation under a crippling sanctions regime was unrealistic and of course unsuccessful.
Neither the Obama administration, which believed in the efficacy of diplomacy to avert war, nor the Rouhani government and its domestic supporters, wanted a permanently marginalized Iran. The administration accepted the assessment of its Department of Energy nuclear scientists that, despite the sanctions, Iran’s enrichment activity—qualitatively and quantitatively—expanded significantly, and the number of its centrifuges increased considerably. The sanctions, in other words, did not restrain Iran’s nuclear program.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, on the other hand, was committed to an agreement because of the belief that ending the sanctions could usher in a period of economic growth, increased international investments, and perhaps a decrease in unemployment. Iranian youth, digitally wired but unemployed, aspire to connect with their Western counterparts. They certainly abhor the radical Sunni ideologies of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and other militant and terrorist groups. Obama and Rouhani seem to view the agreement as an omen of better future relations. Even Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei has not objected to the nuclear deal despite his recent rhetorical animus against the United States.
The expected US-Iranian détente is not unprecedented. A similar relationship prevailed among Iran, the United States, and Saudi Arabia during the Shah’s reign before 1979 when the Islamic Republic was established. Even under the Ayatollahs’ rule, but especially since 9/11, the United States and Iran cooperated in the fight against terrorism and al-Qaeda. The two countries also forged a working relationship for a unified Iraq and more recently against IS in Iraq and Syria.
Iran could fully display its new sense of confidence and national pride in its indigenous scientific brainpower through regional and international cooperation and diplomatic engagement, vibrant economic activity, regional stability, containment of terrorism, and the peaceful management of sectarianism-based conflicts with its neighbors. This type of engagement would accrue benefits for Iran and its neighboring states and would also serve the national interests of the United States and other Western countries. Iran must know that an environment of peaceful engagement with the West and with states in the region can only occur through a full adherence to the nuclear deal without equivocation.
As the agreement goes into effect and the sanctions are gradually lifted, Iran could emerge as a willing partner in the search for regional stability in several specific conflicts, including Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and other issues.
Ending the War in Yemen
The Saudi war should not have happened and should be stopped. The Houthi rebellion resulted from the flawed post-Arab spring agreement that Saudi Arabia and the United States worked out following the collapse of the Saleh regime. Deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh was allowed to return as part of the agreement that elevated his deputy Abd Rabbu Mansur al-Hadi to the presidency.
Saleh reneged on his promise not to get involved in politics, but once he returned to Yemen, he started conspiring with the Houthis, his relatives, and other remnants of the old regime against the Hadi government. Yemen became a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia to the detriment of the country.
Envisioned rapprochement between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States could chart a path out of Yemen’s misery. Part of the Yemen deal would be to dismantle the pro-Saleh powerful elements of the old regime and deprive them of political influence and resources. Saleh would be “invited” to Saudi Arabia for an “extended” stay. A coalition government of pro-Hadi Sunnis and Houthis would be formed, which Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States would endorse and financially support. The immediate twin mission of the new government would be to create economic opportunity and fight both IS and al-Qaeda.
Syria and Iraq
Iran’s continued support of Bashar al-Assad is no longer worth the cost. As Iran re-integrates in the international community and begins to seek investments from Western countries, and as the Assad regime loses more and more territory, Iran’s stark choice would be whether to support a losing and precarious regime—and face the real prospect of a dismembered Syria—or support Assad ouster. Iran must be aware that high-ranking Syrian military officers have already begun to quietly flee to Lebanon and even Turkey.
Although Iran and Saudi Arabia have been on the opposite sides of the Syrian divide, they both support a unified Syria, which Assad can no longer hold together. Iran is positioned to play a critical role in ending the Assad regime and at the same time reducing Hezbollah’s military support for Assad. On this point, Iran could urge Hezbollah to speed up the process of electing a president for Lebanon. The country’s parliament has been unable to elect a president for over a year. As an influential political party in the Lebanese body politic, Hezbollah could move the parliament to elect a president and then call for general elections. Otherwise, IS could easily play the Lebanese political stalemate to its advantage.
Iran and Saudi Arabia see the IS threat from the same perspective. IS opposes both the autocratic Sunni Saudi monarchy and Shia Iran. Iran’s leadership could soon begin to view Assad as a low hanging fruit. An Iranian-Saudi agreement on Syria, which would be bolstered by Turkey and Jordan, could call for placing a United Nations peacekeeping force for a specified time in Syria to effect a reasonably less chaotic transition period after Assad. The self-proclaimed “Caliphate” in al-Raqqa and other parts of Syria would pose the greatest danger to a post-Assad Syria, which the regional states, including Iran, will have to jointly combat.
Meanwhile, Iran cannot possibly ignore the systemic exclusion and disgruntlement of Iraqi Sunnis and the reasons underpinning their support of IS. While joining Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey in fighting IS in Iraq, Iran could be a positive partner in Iraq.
Because of its influence in Baghdad and its continuing military support of the Shia militias, Iran could play a pivotal role in “persuading” the Iraqi government under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to make his government more inclusive and to open up employment opportunities for Sunnis in the defense forces, industry, and senior-level government positions. Iran should encourage al-Abadi to reach out to Sunni tribes in the Anbar province and tangibly incentivize them to combat IS in western Iraq. Iran’s support for the restructuring of Iraq’s political system cannot be overestimated.
A New Gulf?
Continued civil strife in Bahrain, caused by the minority Sunni government’s mistreatment of the Shia majority, does not serve the interests of either Saudi Arabia or Iran. Two potential dangers are facing the Al Khalifa ruling family: growing IS influence and presence among some segments of the Sunni population, and potential radicalization of some younger elements within the Shia community.
The regime continues to incarcerate community leaders from the Sunni and Shia communities who speak out against its abhorrent human rights record. The vicious crackdown has resulted in the arrest and conviction of Sheikh Ali Salman, head of al-Wefaq Shia political party and a pro-dialogue activist, and Ibrahim Sharif, head of the Sunni Wa’ad group, who also has been critical of the bloody repression.
As it views the strategic horizon of the Gulf following the nuclear agreement, the new Saudi government, led by the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and his deputy, Muhammad bin Salman, under the direction of King Salman, must surely realize that continued violence in Bahrain is a threat to Al Khalifa and to the region. Here again, Iran and Saudi Arabia could find common ground on the basis of fairness, equity, and equal opportunity. As the Shia community has done in the past, if it’s brought into the political process with access to economic and employment opportunity, it would be willing to operate under the Al Khalifa umbrella.
If the International Atomic Energy Agency and American nuclear scientists are satisfied with Iran’s behavior and the nuclear deal does not unravel, Western companies would soon flood the Iranian market, which would be welcome music to bazaaris’ ears. Many Americans and Westerners would learn to appreciate Iran’s rich cultural heritage and history. More American students would flock to study Farsi or Persian, an Indo-European language written in Arabic script. The Arab world and Israel would do well to move in that direction.