Friday,17 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)
Friday,17 August, 2018
Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Changing US Middle East politics?

The nuclear agreement with Iran will not have a very deep impact on US policy in the Middle East, writes Gareth Porter

Al-Ahram Weekly

The arrival of “implementation day” of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and Western powers over Iran’s nuclear programme, the central elements of which went into affect earlier this month, has made the agreement a fact of life in global and regional politics for many years to come. But will it have a profound impact on the region?

This is the argument that both the Obama administration and US allies in the Middle East that opposed the deal have made in the past. Washington has said that the agreement makes it more likely that Iran will eventually come to terms with its neighbours. Israel and Arab states have advanced precisely the opposite forecast, suggesting it will inevitably encourage Iran to be far more aggressive and uncompromising.

With the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia worsening over the past year, it is now clear that focussing solely on whether the agreement will reshape Iran’s policies is the wrong way to define the problem. Far more important is whether it will create the impetus for a realignment of US policy in the region.

Both sides have used their arguments to advance their political interests rather than offering serious political analysis. The Obama administration has argued that by closing off the pathways to an Iranian nuclear weapon, the agreement opens up the possibility of domestic and foreign policy changes in Iran.

In perhaps the most far-fetched expression of that argument, US Secretary of State John Kerry suggested in an interview with Reuters last August that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had been “counting on this nuclear thing to give them the umbrella of protection over their nefarious activities, and they object to this precisely because it takes that umbrella away.”

That was a poorly conceived and self-serving argument: the imagined possibility of having nuclear weapons in the future was totally irrelevant to IRGC involvement with Hizbullah in Lebanon, and to its presence in Iraq and Syria.

The Israelis and Saudis have insisted that the nuclear agreement will empower the Iranians to be far more interventionist in the region, as well as to continue to seek nuclear weapons. The Israelis have pushed the idea that Iran will use the additional income gained from the lifting of the sanctions against it to fund Hizbullah and the Syrian government, making the region more unstable and more threatening to Israel.

The Iranian support for Hizbullah, however, is a fundamental national security investment that has never depended on any additional infusion of resources from the nuclear deal. In fact, the Iranian commitment to support Hizbullah troops in Syria was made in 2012, well before the nuclear negotiations had even begun.

Both Israeli and Saudi officials have suggested that the Obama administration’s negotiation of the agreement represented a decision to fundamentally alter its policies by entering into a quasi-alliance with Iran.

The Saudis have carried that theme to a much greater extreme. As commentator Gregory Gause wrote in late 2013, the Saudis were already expressing fears that the United States would “ratify Iranian hegemony in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Persian Gulf in exchange for a nuclear deal.”

The Saudi fear of an entente between Washington and Tehran may have deepened since the agreement was reached, but Saudi fears of US acquiescence in a regional distribution of power, which Riyadh has found unacceptable, are not really about the nuclear deal itself. Instead, they centre on Saudi unhappiness with the failure of the United States to go to war in Syria.

Similarly, the Israeli objection to the nuclear deal is ostensibly that it is not really going to end Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. What the Israelis really want is to reduce Iran’s military and economic power, either through military confrontation between the United States and Iran or through crippling sanctions.

The agreement represents the ultimate failure of that long-term Israeli strategy, but that has nothing to do with the longer-term issues and forces at work in the region.

The agreement is clearly not going to influence regional politics by depriving Iran of the nuclear weapons that it had no intention of obtaining anyway. The real issue is whether the process of negotiating has created a new US-Iran political dynamic that can influence the outcomes of the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

That is what both the Obama administration and the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appear to be hoping for. Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif have both suggested that the new relationship helped to quickly resolve the recent incident involving two US navy ships that sailed into Iranian waters.

Even so, it is highly doubtful that the agreement will have a very deep impact on US policy in the next few years, or affect any of the intertwined conflicts that are reshaping the Middle East. US policy towards Iran is the product of decades of constant anti-Iran news, official pronouncements and opinions. The idea of Iran as an aggressive threat to US interests is deeply embedded in the country’s electoral and bureaucratic politics.

That assumption has been translated into laws and programmes that have created new institutional interests in maintaining the status quo. Not the least of these interests is that Iran has long served as the primary rationale for the US military presence and role in the Middle East, as well as for the sale of weapons and anti-missile systems to regional allies.

Iran has also long been a major focus — if not the leading target — of CIA and US National Security Agency spying efforts worldwide. Obama’s apparent view that Saudi Arabia can serve as a partial substitute for direct US military operations to combat terrorism and Iranian influence in the region has added yet another obstacle to the realignment of US regional policy.

Six months after the nuclear agreement was first signed in July 2015, Obama has shown no willingness to break openly with the Saudis on Syria or Yemen, despite the recklessness of Saudi policies in those countries.

The recent moves by the Saudis to raise tensions with Iran suggest that they are still hoping to force the Obama administration into a more aggressive anti-Iran posture in the region.

That may well fail, and in the long run the US may well adopt a more even-handed posture towards Iran to deal with the chaos that has descended on the region. If and when that happens, the nuclear agreement will not have loomed very large in the decision.

The writer is an investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 UK Gellhorn Prize for journalism.

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