The United States and Iran seem to be on the verge of a historic agreement that puts limits on Iran’s nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief for its ailing economy. Thus will begin the slow process of rehabilitation and integration of Iran into the international community.
There will be much in the way of resistance by a skeptical Congress as well as traditional US allies in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel, that will perceive this agreement as part of a larger “grand bargain” between Washington and Tehran. They need not worry — there are myriad of issues that make such a scenario unrealistic.
The benefits of the US-Iranian detente are obvious. Given the multitude of threats that emanate from the Middle East, removing the spectre of an Iran with nuclear weapons may well allow for the two sides to tackle some of them.
The fact that US and Iranian negotiators can now sit across a table and engage in intense diplomacy is itself a feat that was anathema for 35 years. Differences that seemed insurmountable suddenly have a hint of the possible.
But despite this progress, the United States and Iran do not yet have formal diplomatic ties. Hardliners in both Washington and Tehran will stymie normalisation, as entailed by the opening of embassies, especially while serious divergences in policy remain.
In a speech last week, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei made it clear that if a nuclear accord was reached it would not mean broader rapprochement between the two rivals. The US and Iran will remain entrenched and opposed in longstanding security dilemmas on multiple fronts.
After a deal, expect the Obama Administration to move quickly to assure Gulf allies (Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular) that long held security commitments will be enhanced with an offer of a “nuclear umbrella”. This is similar to security arrangements the United States has in East Asia with Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea.
If Iran were to ever abrogate its nuclear pact and make a dash for the bomb, the mutual defense of these allies would be assured. Tehran will likely view such defense pacts with its neighbours as fuelling instability and further encroachment by Washington in its sphere of influence.
Nowhere is the rivalry between Iran and the United States as “hot” as it is in cyber space. In a recent testimony to Congress, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey has raised concerns about Iran’s offensive cyber capabilities. Iran has been more forceful in unleashing those capabilities since the unconfirmed joint US-Israeli operation that targeted its nuclear facility at Natanz in 2011.
The United States has claimed Iran has responded in kind by targeting computer networks of major banks in the US and those of state run energy companies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Despite progress in the nuclear negotiations, cyber warfare between Iran and the US continues to escalate.
In Iraq, Iran and the United States find themselves going to great pains to insist that they are not collaborating with one another even though both have a common goal in degrading and eventually eliminating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
From the US perspective, having Iran playing a central role in Iraq runs the risk of inflaming Sunni Gulf monarchies who view Tehran as a hegemonic power on the rise. Furthermore, the US believes that it will only be through engagement of Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria that ISIL will eventually be defeated.
From Iran’s perspective, ISIL is an existential threat that needs to be confronted with all forces at its disposal — irrespective if those forces are predominately Shia militia. How Iran uses its influence to restrain those Shia militias under its control once victory is achieved on the battlefield is an open question.
Is Iran going to become a responsible regional actor and push Baghdad’s Shia-led government to listen to Sunni grievances, or stay intent on settling old scores? The United States, no doubt, will be watching closely.
In Syria, a devastating civil war has brought about a humanitarian catastrophe. Up until now the US has said unequivocally that President Bashar al-Assad must go and that his failure to offer reform effectively gave birth to ISIL.
From Iran’s perspective, Assad’s ouster has always been a nonstarter. They assert that Sunni insurgents backed by Gulf States — with the tacit approval of the Obama administration — are the instigators of the chaos. US President Barack Obama’s overtures to discuss the situation in Syria with Iran has been rebuffed by the Supreme Leader; it remains to be seen how both sides intend to untangle this knot.
The nuclear deal will only lead to true rapprochement between the United States and Iran through a continued series of negotiated actions, a push and pull that may or may not be resolved over many years.
As of yet, there has been no mechanism spelled out by either country for managing these issues. It is a necessary, but not sufficient condition of a wider detente. Opponents of diplomacy need to take a deep breath. Their worst fears haven’t materialised yet.