What will the Middle East look like after Iran
and the great powers that are negotiating over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) – sign a deal that ends the confrontation? It’s time to ask the question, because there is going to be a deal.
It didn’t get signed in Geneva last weekend, but it came close. The only foreign minister at the Geneva talks on Friday was Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, but progress was so rapid that by Saturday almost all the foreign ministers of the “P5+1” – American, British, French, German
– dropped whatever they were doing and flew in for the grand finale. Only the Chinese foreign minister was absent.
The grand finale has been postponed. There were just too many details to clear up in a single weekend, and a couple of sticking points that have yet to be resolved. But the date for the next meeting has already been set (20 November), and nobody went away angry. “We are all on the same wavelength,” said Zarif. “There is a deal on the table and it can be done,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
There are “still some gaps” between Iran
and some of the other countries present, Hague said, but “they are narrow gaps. You asked what went wrong. I would say that a great deal went right.” Even French
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the one who apparently dropped a last-minute spanner in the works, said that “we are not far from a agreement with the Iranians, although we are not there yet.”
One immediate consequence of the deal will be that Israel
has to stop threatening to attack Iran. The threat was always 90 percent bluff – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s own military chiefs would probably refuse to obey him if he ordered such an attack without American
support – but now it will be simply ridiculous. Which will swing the spotlight back to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Iran’s economic isolation will also end, although it may take several years to unwind all the economic sanctions. The gradual return of prosperity in Iran
will make the current Islamic regime more secure (which may be the main reason that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, authorised newly elected President Hassan Rouhani to negotiate the nuclear deal and end the confrontation.)
But the big question is whether a nuclear deal with Iran
will cool the rapidly intensifying Sunni-Shia conflict that threatens to suck in the whole of the Fertile Crescent and the Arabian Peninsula. The answer, alas, is probably not.
Iran is the sole Shia great power, so it is inevitably the focus of the fears of Sunni
Arabs and the hopes of Shia Arabs. Moreover, given Turkey’s semi-detached relationship with the region, Iran
is in practical terms the greatest power in the entire Middle East.
For the past decade, Iran
has been greatly weakened by the arms and trade embargoes that the West imposed because of the nuclear issue. Once those embargoes are removed Iran
will regain much of its former strength. This is already causing great anxiety in the Sunni
Arab countries, especially those that face it across the Gulf.
Even quite experienced people in Washington and other Western capitals don’t realise the extent to which the Sunni
Arab countries of the Middle East thought that their close ties with the Western great powers gave them a kind of guarantee against Shia power –and how betrayed they feel now that they think that guarantee is being withdrawn.
Sunnis outnumber Shias almost ten-to-one in the Islamic world as a whole, but in the smaller world that stretches from Iran
and Turkey to Palestine and Yemen, the “Middle East”, Shias make up more than a third of the population. The war is already hot and quite openly sectarian in Syria and in Iraq. In many other places (Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen) it is bubbling just underneath the surface. It will get worse before it gets better.