Iran Deal: What happens now in the region?

Sami Hamdi Iran, Middle East/North Africa, World Politics

IranAfter tense, lengthy negotiations, the P5+1 and Iran penned the long awaited nuclear deal that will see sanctions lifted and the Iranian nuclear programme reined in to lengthen the time Iran would need to build a nuclear weapon. However given the ongoing situation in the region; notably Iran’s support for rampant militias in Iraq; a brutal regime in Syria that has plunged the country into a bloody civil war; and Hezbollah in Lebanon which has effectively prevented the appointment of a President for over a year and half, the concessions granted to Iran are nothing short of incredible.

The Agreement

  • Iran will be allowed to continue enriching uranium. However the deal imposes restrictions which effectively mean that in the event Iran does decide to build a nuclear weapon, it would take one year as opposed to 3 months, essentially giving time for the international community to react effectively.
  • IAEA inspectors will be allowed access to the nuclear facilities to ensure that Iran is abiding by the agreement. Though many question whether Iran will be honest with the inspectors, it is important to remember that the failure of Saddam Hussein to cooperate whole-heartedly with the inspections essentially allowed the US to propagate the argument of hidden weapons of mass destruction and subsequently invade Iraq. Iran will want to prevent such a scenario occurring.
  • Iran will see a substantial lifting of economic sanctions which will see the release of potentially $120 billion in frozen assets. Iran will be allowed to export worldwide and the economy will see an influx of Western companies eager to take advantage of the lucrative opportunities.
  • Iran will no longer be considered a ‘terrorist’ state but will now be brought into the fold of the international community.

The Context

In Iraq, Iran has gradually emerged from the shadows to become a key force in the fight against ISIS. Having supported the Iraqi government for over a decade behind the scenes, ensuring Maliki’s ability at all times to form a government even after his fall-out with the other members of his Shia alliance, Iran has now emerged as an open power, sending military advisors, commanders such as Qassem Suleimani, and fighters to wage war on ISIS on Iraqi soil. It has developed a patronage system for the militias ensuring their loyalty, reflected in Prime Minister Abadi’s frustrated attempts to create a National Guard. Iran has essentially outwitted the Americans at every turn in the appointment of ministers and ensured the impunity of its allies, in spite of alleged war crimes.

In Syria, despite gains made by the revolutionary forces, Assad’s regime has continued to operate as a result of undying Iranian support. Iranian military advisers regularly travel back and forth (via Iraq) conducting military campaigns to drive back the revolutionary forces.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah-backed by Iran and involved in Syria at Iran’s behest-continues to block the presidential vote ensuring a vacuum in the post for over a year and a half. In fact, but for Hezbollah’s sudden entry into the Syria conflict in the battle of Qusayr, which cut off the rebel supply line, the conflict could well have turned out differently from what it is today.

In Yemen, few could have honestly predicted that Houthi would march once more from Saada and, this time, reach the doors of Sana’a. Even fewer could have predicted that Houthi would eventually hold the keys to the capital and expand his reach to the key areas of Hodeida on the Red Sea, Taiz, Al-Daali’, and the border crossing with Saudi Arabia at Haradh. However Houthi, who has made no secret of his admiration of Iran and whose brand of Zaydism, the prominent sect of Islam in Yemen, appears to veer closer to the Shia brand of Islam propagated by Iran, now controls the north of Yemen. Furthermore, Iran is now providing logistical and military support via an air route established by agreement between Sana’a and Tehran following Houthi’s success. Such success prompted Alireza Zakanian, an Iranian member of Parliament, to claim that ‘[Iran] now controls four capitals; Baghdad, Sana’a, Damascus and Beirut’.

Obama

Obama’s heavy lobbying to push the deal through cannot be ignored either. With his term coming to an end and the traditional retrospective analysis of his reign beginning to emerge, many perceive Obama’s tenure to have been ordinary, cautious, and, at times, indecisive. Obama failed to react quickly to the events of the Arab Spring and failed to maintain a coherent policy concerning the promotion of democracy and human rights when he failed to put pressure on Egypt following the coup. Furthermore, Obama’s tenure has seen a retreating US foreign policy, allowing Iran to expand its influence in Iraq to such an extent, that the US knee-jerk reaction to remove Maliki following the rapid ISIS advance was tempered by Iran’s swift mobilisation of its allies to ensure a government that promotes its interests.

In light of these foreign policy failures, Obama’s energetic approach to the nuclear deal has more to do with his desire to claim some sort of legacy as being the president who opened the door between Iran and the US, much as President Nixon did between the US and China. The personal desire of Obama for such a legacy is a key drive behind the revival of US-Iran relations and provides some explanation behind the US’s blind eye to the regional power play. Although many point to the possibility of Congress striking down the deal, as the Republicans have indicated they will, Obama has put greater pressure on them by presenting the deal for a vote by the Security Council, effectively placing international pressure on Congress to respect the agreement.

The Regional Impact

There can be little doubt that Iran has offered some concessions in the region to the US and it is timely that the sudden Houthi reversal in Aden comes about as soon as the nuclear deal is signed. However commentators note that these concessions are likely to be seen solely in Yemen which, as one source put it, “was used by the Iranians to put pressure on the US for the nuclear deal”. It is noteworthy that Houthi supporters on social media have begun to turn on Iran citing a reduction in supplies and support.

Such concessions are unlikely to have been given in Iraq and Syria whereIran is deeply embedded. Moreover, the US does not have an appetite to commit ground troops in the fight against ISIS and is only more than happy to allow the Iranians, and the Popular Mobilisation Force (or “Hashd Al-Shaabi”), to commit the necessary manpower. This also applies in Syria where the US remains concerned with the participation of ISIS in the war against Assad. Iran may well cement its position in Iraq and Syria with its restored resources reported to include $120 billion in frozen assets.

Although Saudi Arabia and Iran share an open enmity to each other, many Gulf States look set to gain from the Iran’s re-entry to the global market. Most notable of these states is the UAE (and in particular Dubai), which assisted Iran in exporting its goods during the sanctions era; Oman which has remained neutral throughout the regional conflict and which mediated between Iran and the global powers on numerous occasions; and Kuwait which regularly hosted Iranian leaders including Ali Larijani and whose Emir has made a number of trips to Tehran to boost relations.

Saudi Arabia

Prince Turki al-Faisal and Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, two senior figures in Saudi politics have indicated that a nuclear arms race can be expected in the region and that trust in the US as an ally has deteriorated substantially. Given US shale oil success, Saudi Arabia no longer wields the defining influence on the US it once did and Obama has shown little empathy with complaints regarding Iran’s antics in the region, believing instead that it is the kingdom that needs to reform and adapt. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has been unable to unite the Gulf behind a coherent stance towards Iran with many of the States secretly preparing for the new status quo by improving relations.

Yemen will remain a key battleground in the Saudi-Iran proxy war. However with little success so far in driving the Houthis out of the areas they occupy and a mounting humanitarian crisis, pressure is mounting on the Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to bring a swift resolution to the conflict.

Saudi Arabia also faces a growing international media campaign that portrays Saudi Arabia as ‘standing in the way of peace’ and beginning to sympathise with Iran’s purported aim of becoming part of the international community. Whilst Saudi Arabia insists, and rightly so, that it is engaged with a hostile Iranian foreign policy of which it is the ultimate target, the inability to form a coherent foreign policy has alienated allies and resulted in a lack of faith in the Kingdom’s ability to provide stable leadership in the region.

Oil, oil and more oil

One of the most defining aspects of the deal is the lifting of economic sanctions which will see Iranian oil flood the market at a time when oil prices are already low (near $50 per barrel). Whilst many have been pointing to this as to the detriment of the Gulf States, it is difficult to imagine OPEC not taking Iranian oil into account in their decision to maintain production levels. Indeed the Gulf were resigned to the fact that the US had ‘abandoned them’ in favour of the Iranians and therefore have begun to implement a policy that anticipates the re-entry of Iranian oil. In fact, it may well prove that the low oil prices will eventually put a strain on the Iranian economy, particularly in light of the Gulf’s vast reserves that allow them to temper the effects of low market prices.

The Humanitarian Perspective

Politics aside, the deal is a victory for the Iranian people who have felt unfairly isolated from the international community by an establishment that does not necessarily reflect the people’s desire for open relations with the world. The huge focus on the political and regional implications have dominated all discussions on Iran without consideration for the ordinary Iranian. From this angle, the Iranians should be welcomed back into the fold and due congratulations is in order to, and I stress, the Iranian people.

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Sami Hamdi is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Interest. An experienced geopolitical risk consultant, Sami assists blue-chip clients around the world in monitoring and advising on highly volatile business environments.

Sami has extensive experience in the MENA region having been a television reporter and talk-show host for over 10 years. He has reported on key events in the region including the Arab Spring, the fall of Morsi in Egypt, the Houthi crisis in Yemen, as well as the battle of influences between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In his freetime, Sami is a passionate and stubborn Arsenal fan, and loves travelling. Perhaps a bit too much…