The impact of the Iran nuclear deal is unlikely to be limited to the nuclear proliferation arena. While the question whether the deal has prevented Iran from ever developing nuclear weapons capability or has merely postponed the inevitable by a few months or years will continue to be debated, one should not ignore the wider strategic consequences of the agreement for several reasons.
First, it has the potential of introducing a sea change in the relationship of the United States that could unfetter Iranian diplomatic capabilities that can be used in pursuit of its broader regional goals. This is the reason why Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have reacted so harshly and negatively to the agreement. If things proceed down the path of an Iranian-U.S. rapprochement in the context of a war weary American public opinion, Riyadh can no longer automatically depend upon U.S. diplomatic and military support against Iran in its competition for power and influence in the Persian Gulf.
Second, it has demonstrated unequivocally that on vital strategic issues in which U.S. and Israeli interests diverge Washington does possess the residual political will to make hard decisions in the teeth of Israeli opposition, something that analysts of all hues had doubted for a long time. This may signal the beginning of the unraveling of the prevailing myth that U.S. policy toward the Middle East is shaped in Tel Aviv and not in Washington. It also explodes the myth that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is an all-powerful force when it comes to fashioning U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Its consequences, therefore, go beyond the Iranian nuclear issue and are likely to impact public perceptions in the United States and abroad regarding the deadlock over the Palestinian issue and the likely direction of U.S. policy on the unending Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This explains Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s uncompromising hostility toward the Geneva agreement even at the expense of doing grave damage to Israeli-U.S. relations.
Third, even a nascent Iranian-U.S. rapprochement is likely to have major consequences for the Syrian conflict. It may persuade Iran to somewhat dilute its support for the Assad regime. It is more likely that it may lead to a visible softening of the U.S. stance on the issue of President Bashar al-Assad’s removal as a precondition for a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Washington had seemed to be already moving in this direction because of a number of factors — above all the jihadis’ prominent role in the military opposition to Assad and the latter’s pliable behavior on the chemical weapons issue. Prospects of improved relations with Iran are likely to nudge Washington further down this road thus fracturing the international alliance against Assad and reducing prospects of genuine regime change in Damascus.
Fourth, Iraq has become another arena of contention between Iran on the one hand and the United States and its Middle Eastern allies on the other. With the country approaching another round of elections this competition for influence was bound to heat up thus threatening the prospects of the Iranian-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for staying in power. The Iranian-U.S. rapprochement is likely to lower the political temperature in Iraq and improve Maliki’s chances of maintaining control thus conceding to Iran the role of the primary external player in Iraq at least for the next several years, if not indefinitely.
Fifth, Iran’s neighbor to the east, Afghanistan, is also on the cusp of change with presidential elections due in a few months. The battle for a post-Hamid Karzai Afghanistan is already on between the Taliban and the Kabul regime on the one hand and among the various factions and ethnic groups contending for power and influence in the country on the other. Prospects of easing U.S. pressure on Iran will allow Tehran to act more boldly in Afghanistan in support of its allies. Notably, Karzai was anointed president at the Bonn conference in November 2001 as a result of an agreement between the United States and Iran largely engineered by Mohammad Javad Zarif, then chief Iranian negotiator and now foreign minister and principal architect of the nuclear deal. A similar arrangement cannot be ruled out now.
The Obama administration is very apprehensive of a resurgent Taliban in the post-Karzai context, the country is threatened with anarchy because of the inept and corrupt nature of the current regime and the Pakistani support to the Taliban, and Iran is worried about a resurgence of Pakistani and, therefore, Saudi influence in the country through the medium of the Taliban. Consequently, there is once again a convergence of interests between Washington and Tehran on Afghanistan. The standoff on the nuclear issue had made cooperation between the two on Afghanistan extremely difficult if not impossible. The interim agreement may, therefore, recreate the positive climate that had prevailed at Bonn in 2001 and lead to an outcome that would allow the United States an honorable exit from Afghanistan while placing Iran in the position of principal power-broker in the country largely at the expense of the Saudi-Pakistani axis.
The interim nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 may, therefore, become the harbinger of major geopolitical shifts and realignments in the Middle East. All this may, of course, change if the interim arrangement does not lead to a permanent agreement. This may well happen if the Obama administration caves in to Israeli and congressional opposition or if Iranian hardliners are able to undermine the deal in Tehran. However, present indications are that both sides are firmly committed to taking the process forward and, with luck, to a positive conclusion. If this prognosis holds true then the interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 has the capacity to rearrange the regional chessboard substantially if not immediately then over the medium term.
Mohammed Ayoob is an ISPU Adjunct Scholar and University Distinguished Professor of International Relations.
This article was published on Foreign Policy on November 27, 2013. Read it here.