by Gary Sick
What are the regional implications of the Iranian nuclear deal (the JCPOA)?
A good place to start may be to ask what has not happened since the JCPOA was signed:
(1) The regional states have not rushed to acquire independent nuclear capability. You may recall that this was widely predicted at the time. I am aware of no evidence that any of the states who have expressed skepticism about the agreement have changed their nuclear policies or even hinted at their intention to develop a nuclear capability beyond the peaceful nuclear power plants that are in various stages of planning.
(2) Iran has not dramatically increased its activities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen or elsewhere, despite the fact that they now have access to $50b or more in frozen assets. Again, you will recall that there were predictions that Iran would use these funds to enhance its support of Hezbollah, Assad or other regional surrogates and allies.
(3) By the same token, however, Iran has not shown any signs of changing its fundamental policy objectives in the region. Iran continues to support the Assad regime, it continues to rely on Hezbollah as an important proxy force, it has not changed its rhetoric in opposition to Israel, and it makes no secret of its opposition to Saudi Arabia’s policies in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria.
The JCPOA was about one thing – Iran’s nuclear program. It made no attempt to influence Iran’s behavior with regard to human rights or its foreign policy. There were hopes that an agreement with Iran would lead to a gradual moderating impact on its domestic and foreign policies.
There is no question that President Rouhani wants to portray Iran in the most positive light possible, if only because he wants to attract desperately need foreign direct investment to reinvigorate the Iranian economy. That is also linked to his reelection campaign, with a national vote in June 2017, less than a year from now. He needs to show progress.
But the Iranian hardliners are determined to demonstrate that they are still very much in charge, despite their loss on the nuclear issue. The Supreme Leader reluctantly validated the JCPOA against the wishes of the hardline conservatives in the Revolutionary Guards and in key domestic positions. But he is now giving those forces leeway to make life difficult for Rouhani and the reformist elements.
So the long-term implications of the JCPOA for Iranian policy are being fought out by rival forces in Iran. We won’t know the outcome for some time. The first real marker will be the Iranian presidential election next year. Rouhani will be opposed by his hardline opponents, and the outcome will be a test of strength.
To return to my list of things that have not happened since the signing of the JCPOA, there is very little talk today in the region about rising nuclear threat – from Iran or anyone else. That is a real change.
In the years preceding the JCPOA, the so-called nuclear threat was at the center of almost all foreign policy discussion. You will all recall PM Netanyahu’s appearance before the UNGA with a cartoon drawing of an Iranian bomb. It showed an impending red line that at least implied that Israel or others would be forced to take military action.
There is no such talk today.
In fact, if you listen to the pronouncements of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, you would never know that their primary concern just a year or two ago was the Iranian nuclear threat.
But as you know, this has not silenced their concerns about Iranian actions. On the contrary, they are now concerned that Iran’s successful negotiation of the nuclear agreement with all the major world powers has empowered it to play a much more influential role in the region, to the detriment of the other regional states.
In the past, Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies relied on the United States to keep Iran contained. That began to break down when the Bush administration invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq, thereby eliminating two of Iran’s worst rivals – the Taliban and Saddam Hussein – and leaving it essentially unchallenged.
That was reinforced by the Obama administration’s decision to pursue a nuclear agreement with Iran. As a result of those negotiations, the top leadership of both Iran and the United States have become accustomed to direct contact. John Kerry and Javad Zarif email back and forth, and they meet regularly.
This new level of contact has had some positive impact, since it lets both countries maintain contact during periods of tension, such as the US Navy boat that strayed into Iranian waters and was taken prisoner by Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
But these contacts have also stoked fears on the part of many regional states that the United States and Iran are returning to the days of the shah, when Iran was America’s leading ally in the Gulf.
When these fears are combined with U.S. statements about rebalancing or pivoting away from the Middle East, there is something like hysteria that U.S. traditional allies are being abandoned.
In my view, those views are hugely exaggerated. The United States may reduce our military footprint in the area, but we are not going away from the Gulf. Nor is there any likelihood of a new Iran-U.S. alliance. Just listen to the voices in Washington, on both sides of the aisle, if you have any doubt about that.
So the bottom line, I guess, is that the JCPOA has effectively removed the so-called nuclear threat from the headlines in the Middle East. But those headlines have been replaced by fears about Iranian hegemonic ambitions and U.S. betrayal.
So the tone of the foreign policy debate in the Middle East has shifted due to the JCPOA, but it turns out that plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose – the more it changes, the more it looks just the same.
Photo: High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on the JCPOA’s implementation day.
Gary Sick, a scholar at Columbia University, served on the National Security Council under Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis. Reprinted, with permission, from Gary Sick’s blog.