Friends and foes of a US-Iran nuclear agreement

Friends and foes of a US-Iran nuclear agreement

Expectations are running high that Iran’s nuclear standoff might eventually be solved after representatives from Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) reached an interim agreement in Geneva.

The United States, Europe, Israel and Arab countries maintain that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program in contravention of its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations. Iran insists that its intentions are peaceful. With the Geneva deal, after years of false starts, accusations and sanctions the parties have taken a first step towards addressing their reciprocal concerns. The end goal is negotiating a final agreement that would end the nuclear crisis once and for all by next year.

Undoubtedly, Iran could greatly benefit from a solution to the dispute. The lifting of sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the EU would breathe desperately needed fresh air into its economy, notably by recreating an investment-friendly environment in its lucrative yet underdeveloped energy sector. The rewards for the U.S. would be significant too. Defusing the nuclear crisis, with its potential for escalating into a military confrontation, would greatly reduce the risk of a fully destabilized Middle East.

A deal could also pave the way for further agreements on critical regional issues, including Syria’s pacification (hardly attainable without Iran’s involvement), containment of ethnic and religious tensions in Iraq (where Iran-backed Shiite parties control the government), and the fight against al-Qaeda, a sworn enemy of both Shiite Iran and Western “crusaders.”

Turkey’s position is harder to read. For a while Turkey was the regional player most interested in solving the nuclear dispute. It tried to achieve this – unwisely, without genuine U.S. support – via an ill-fated agreement with Iran that was brokered along with Brazil in May 2010. But the Syrian civil war has since then driven a wedge between Iran, an ally of President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey, which supports the rebels. Yet, the original calculation at the core of the now defunct “zero problems with neighbors” policy still retains strategic sense: in no way would Turkey benefit from further regional destabilization. A U.S.-Iran nuclear deal would help in that regard, even though it could result in a partial marginalization of Turkey on issues ranging from Syria to Iraq or even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hence it is unlikely that Turkey will play the spoiler’s role. But other regional players, notably Israel and Saudi Arabia, might think otherwise.

Israel fears that U.S. President Barack Obama, aiming to score a major foreign policy point, will consent to an agreement that provides insufficient guarantees that Iran would not resume military-related nuclear work. Moreover, the Israeli government is concerned that a resolution to the nuclear dispute might clear the field for a progressive American-Iranian rapprochement that would lend Iran sufficient credit to support an agenda opposed to Israeli interests, especially in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main rival in the Gulf, has worked intensively on isolating it. Behind the scenes, it has supported an aggressive policy revolving around sanctions and a credible threat of a U.S. military intervention. The Saudis fear that, if Iran manages to build a constructive relationship with the U.S., over time this will lead Washington to accord preference to Tehran over Riyadh.

It comes as no surprise, then, that both Israel and Saudi Arabia have expressed signs of growing frustration, if not outright anger, with Obama. These are all messages to U.S. supporters of the alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia that they should oppose any deal that would strengthen Iran’s position in any way.

If Obama wants a chance to sell to U.S. regional allies and domestic constituencies a final nuclear deal with Iran that will inevitably include concessions also by the U.S. he will have to challenge them to show that their alternative strategy better serves the U.S. interest than his. To that end, he will have to go beyond prudence and show vision and determination.

Riccardo Alcaro is a senior fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) of Rome. This article is an abbreviated article version of an original article published in the Fall 2013 issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ). For more information, please visit