Shaking up the Middle East
The nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries (including the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) in Geneva on Nov. 24 came as a nice surprise, even if it was just announced as an interim measure. Since the disclosure of Iran’s nuclear activities in August 2002, both regional and international actors, including Turkey, have tried assorted methods to dissuade Iran from its nuclear ambition. At the crux of the matter lay geopolitical calculations and distrust between Iran and the most of the world.
With its geopolitical advantages (holding the world’s second largest oil and gas reserves, being situated in an optimum position, able to exert control of the Gulf, neighboring Iraq, Afghanistan, Central Asia and the energy-rich Caspian Basin and the Gulf region), capacity to control most Shia groups in the Middle East and influence over many powerful non-state actors, as well as having connections to various terror organizations, Iran is a key player in the Gulf and the Middle East. Even though its economy has been crippled and its power eclipsed by the long-standing U.S. embargo, acquiring nuclear weapons capacity has been assessed as the tipping point of the scales. It would not only reshape the balance of power in the region immediately, it would also prompt other players, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to seek a similar capacity to balance Iran, thus leading a regional nuclear arms race.
Nevertheless, hopes were raised after Hassan Rouhani assumed the Iranian presidency on Aug. 3, with an agenda calling for moderation and wisdom. In the end, after a decade of diplomatic haggling, the P5+1 and Iran finally agreed on a formula to suspend, even if temporarily, Iran’s nuclear activities, until “a mutually agreed long-term comprehensive solution” was found. Accordingly, Iran will cap its uranium enrichment efforts to 5 percent, refrain from installing new centrifuges, neutralize its stockpile of nearly 20 percent uranium, halt progress on the growth of its 3.5 percent low enriched stockpile, and stop development of the Arak plutonium plant, in exchange for the lifting some of the sanctions imposed upon it for six months, worth around $7 billion. With the agreement, the P5+1 acknowledged Iran’s right to enrich low-level uranium for peaceful purposes and Iran agreed to unrestricted international monitoring of its activities.
This might still not lead to a permanent deal, as hardliners on both sides are not happy. Although the risk of a military attack by regional players has lessened, Israel and Saudi Arabia have already declared that they would continue to do whatever necessary to protect their countries, stemming from their distrust of Iran.
However, if the deal sticks and becomes permanent, rolling back the Iranian nuclear weapons ambition peacefully would be the biggest foreign policy achievement of the Obama Administration so far. Even a permanent nuclear deal might not guarantee the future of U.S.-Iran relations as yet, since there are number of other disputes related to Israel, Syria, Hezbollah and so on. Nevertheless, it is a major step for now, and with presidents Obama and Rouhani at the helm of their countries, reaching a more comprehensive accord looks more possible than ever. A nuclear deal might then become the catalyst to a conclusion, once and for all, of the protracted hostility between the U.S. and Iran and jump-start a rapprochement process.
At another level, Iranian integration to the international system will not only allow the governing of its nuclear activities, but will also reshape the Middle Eastern political landscape. In that case, all other active players in the region would need to start recalibrating their foreign policies and geopolitical standings. They would also need to calculate their gains from possible regional and bilateral economic benefits versus losses in terms of political influence and geopolitical weight.