Nuclear talks between Iran and the ‘P5+1’ are once again in the news, with the sides having initialled a framework agreement (with a final, more detailed agreement to be negotiated over the next three months). The complexity of these negotiations boils down to a Western desire to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability and an Iranian desire to have the crippling sanctions against it removed.
As I have written previously, the West appears to want an agreement more than the Iranians, so seems willing to offer larger concessions. This is unfortunate, because the Iranian march toward nuclear weapons capability is bad for the region.
But there is a bigger picture here, and it remains that keeping the sanctions regime in place is more important for Western interests than reaching a deal—whatever its terms—that removes those sanctions.
Iran wants to exert its influence over the region. It supports, arms and trains regional Shi’ite or heterodox Muslim militias and countries (such as the Shi’ite Hezbollah, the Zaidi Houthis and the Allawite Syrian government) in order to advance Iranian interests. What are these interests? Principally, to undermine the countries of the Status Quo Bloc (and the US, which supports them).
Due to its efforts, Iran now possesses significant control and/or influence over four regional capitals—Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana’a. But there are other countries with sizeable Shi’ite populations—not least Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—which Iran could also use to destabilise its neighbours.
Israel’s position on the nuclear talks with Iran is well known. But Israel isn’t the story here. It remains that other Western friends in the Middle East see Iran as their principal enemy. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the two leading Arab countries, and both see Iran—and, particularly, Iranian foreign policy—as a threat to their countries. Remember, the Middle East is divided into the Status Quo Bloc (led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt) and the Resistance Bloc (led by Iran). (There is also a nascent Sunni Islamist Bloc, which both the Status Quo Bloc and the Resistance Bloc fear, hence the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the Iranian cooperation with the US in fighting Islamic State.)
While the Status Quo Bloc has long relied on American support, it sees current American policy as distancing itself from its Middle Eastern friends. It sees American willingness to agree to a nuclear deal well-short of original American goals not as a sign of the US pragmatically achieving what is possible, but proof that America wants to get out of the Middle East. This perception has the effect of undermining regional stability. Their thinking goes that if the West won’t protect the Status Quo countries, then those countries will have to protect themselves. On a very high level, it means they will look to start their own nuclear programs, to balance Iran. But it also means they will look to counter Iranian actions on the ground—hence the recent Arab coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Houthis’ recent takeover of Sana’a was seen in Arab capitals as a victory for Tehran.
The sanctions regime against Iran over the past few years has crippled the Islamic Republic economically (as has the current low price of oil), meaning Iran is increasingly having to choose between paying for services inside its borders or servicing its proxies in foreign wars.
Regardless of the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran, removing or lessening the sanctions against it will significantly improve the Iranian economy. Not only will Iran be able to export oil and other commodities, but foreign companies will be able to invest in Iran, and its banking sector will once again have access to international markets.
This will strengthen Iran and the Resistance Bloc, and further worry Iran’s enemies, adding to regional tension.
Sanctions are a tool used by the international community to force a country to change its behaviour. The Iranian attempts at nuclear weapons capability—which I believe will continue regardless of whatever deal is reached at the and of June—is not the problem, but only a symptom. The West should maintain a clear-eyed, strategic view of the region in the context of Western interests, to determine what it wants. I fear that, in its rush to sign a deal with Iran so as to notch up a foreign policy achievement, it is in the process of scoring a dangerous, strategic own goal of emboldening Iran and scaring the Status Quo Bloc, thereby further reducing regional stability.