The Iran question
Six months after the breakthrough deal between Iran and the P5+1 group in July 2015, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, International Atomic Energy Agency, declared on Jan. 16 that Iran has complied with the initial requirements of the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” As a result, the U.N. sanctions on Iran and its international isolation are ending after several decades. The re-engagement with Iran has been an important success for global diplomacy, and its effects will soon be felt both on regional and international politics.
Since the beginning of the negotiations, Iran’s main regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Israel, have tried to stall its return to international arena as regional balancer. Besides, the long-simmering ethnic and sectarian fractions of the Middle East, which were deepened through the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and which Iran has been an important part of, has flared up recently.
The regional power competition has also turned into proxy wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen between Iran-led Shiite and Saudi-led Sunni blocs. The tension between them increased following the execution of a prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, in Saudi Arabia earlier this month with terrorism charges. It sparked protests among Shias across the region and resulted in subsequent attacks on Saudi missions in Iran. The ensuing crisis added instability to an already volatile region.
In addition, the founding of the Islamic Military Alliance, openly designed as a Sunni front against Iran as well as Iraq and Syria, with the participation of 34 countries in mid-December 2015, enlarged the camps. The structure of the alliance is a clear Sunni axis against Shiite grouping around Iran and reflects that the widespread threat perceived by the Gulf countries from Iran resonates with other mainly Sunni governments in the region and beyond.
Although the implementation of the plan cleared the way for recognition of Iran’s nuclear program by the major powers in return for its dismantlement of more than 12,000 centrifuges, shipping of nearly all of its low-enriched uranium stockpile to Russia, and removal of the core of a heavy-water reactor at Arak, hardliners in the U.S. and Iran are still trying to undermine further dialogue between the two countries.
In Iran, the achievement of reformist President Hassan Rouhani in the nuclear issue just before the parliamentary elections has deeply disturbed the hardliners. To prevent him benefitting, they have managed to get two-thirds of the moderate candidates, politically close to Rouhani, disqualified by Iran’s hardline watchdog body, the Guardian Council.
As for the Obama administration, critics focus on the chating potential of Iran. Iranian ballistic missile tests that violated U.N. Security Council resolutions, as well as last week’s detention of U.S. sailors drifted into Iranian waters have strengthened their hands momentarily.
Amid these strains, President Rouhani is trying his best for a quick economic progress to relieve his hard-pressed electorate base, but boosting Iranian economy will not be an easy job considering declining oil prices, which have dropped to their lowest levels in years, and the limited impact of returning frozen Iranian assets from abroad.
Iran desperately needs to revamp its industrial base and start trading extensively with its regional partners, both of which look increasingly difficult in the face of increased regional tension. Although the nuclear deal will assist some progress, adverse effects of economic sanctions cannot be remedied in a short time without political stability in and around the country. Besides, the nuclear deal will clearly not be a panacea for all Iran’s problems. For that, Iran needs to undergo a serious political and economic transformation.