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Peril and Opportunity: The Nuclear Deal and the Expansion of Iranian Influence

Posted September 10th, 2015 at 12:13 pm (UTC-5)
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By Marcus Boykin

Following a decade-long sequence of events: international pressure, unprecedented economic sanctions, regional instability, and a new Iranian president, the United States, as a leading member of the P5+1 and the Islamic Republic of Iran, embarked on a diplomatic process to address the international concern over Iran’s nuclear program.

Conducting nuclear negotiations, at least on the surface, signals that diplomatic relations have improved. However, Iran’s multiple violations of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) coupled with its support for terrorism still characterizes Iran as an international pariah. U.S. allies in the Middle East are fearful of Iran’s creeping influence, destabilizing behavior and the threat of possible nuclear breakout. Iran stands to benefit amidst the chaos, and ironically, so does the United States.

Regional Setting

Policy and strategy are not created in a vacuum. National interests drive foreign policy. For the U.S., interests in the Middle East are numerous, complex and sometimes run counter to one another. In the case of Iran, the administration’s overarching goal has been to counter the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the entire region. But that is not what the deal represents in its entirety. U.S. interests in the Middle East are centered on regional stability, the security of Israel, counter-terrorism and the secure flow of oil to world markets. Iran is literally and figuratively at the center of this equation. The nuclear deal signals that the U.S. is willing to allow Iranian influence to spread its influence throughout the Middle East, a central piece of the Islamic Republic’s stated goals.

Iran’s Role in the Region

Iranian influence thrives on weak central governments and sectarian instability. Ayatollah Khamenei stated Iran will continue its support to Hamas, Hezbollah and Shia militias that are tied to the regime’s ability to allocate funds and weapons to their proxies “We will continue to aid the people of Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and the fighters of Lebanon,” Khamenei said in his Eid Al-Fitr speech in July. Syria is currently the main focus of Iran’s regional struggle to balance the power of Saudi Arabia as well as maintaining the supply route to Hezbollah via Syria.  In Iraq, the message is the same. Hakim al-Zamili, a lawmaker from the party of the anti-American Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, stated, “The agreement is a victory to Iran’s foreign policy…and it increases Iran’s power.”

The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend

The U.S. needs a strategic partner in the region that is not a non-state actor, and with the rise of ISIS, Iran is seemingly the only regional player with enough vested interests to ensure a lasting presence to combat the growing threat. Prior to the signing of the nuclear deal, the U.S. and Iran demonstrated a mutual interest, defeating ISIS. The deal strengthens this partnership by giving Iran what it wanted, a nuclear program, and what the U.S. needed- a strong regional player. The U.S. might be short-sighted in allowing ISIS to provide a lubricant to seal a nuclear deal with Iran. But in the long-term, Iraq will be in the crosshairs of an Iranian agenda. Iran does not share the same goals of the U.S. in the region. Iran views itself as the bastion of the Muslim world, armed with a revolutionary ideology that seeks to increase influence in the region. U.S. involvement in the Middle East in the past decade weakened the U.S. financially and strained the military, but what cannot be debated is the need for security and stability in the region. Therefore; the U.S. needs a new strategy in the Middle East; a state actor. Iran’s role in the transitional phase in the region cannot be overlooked, given its clout over a number of capitals in the region.

Arab Concerns

Shortly after the nuclear deal was announced, Saudi Arabia and its allies declared that the agreement had only reinforced their determination to push back against Iranian influence, with or without Washington. The cooperation between Washington and Tehran is perceived to be tearing away the fabric of a military and strategic alliance between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the U.S. The Gulf States are understandably concerned that the deal will bolster Iranian influence in the region and increase instability. An internationally approved nuclear program coupled with lifted sanctions will give Iran bargaining chips and a stimulus package to fund Shia proxies that are locked in an intense regional battle. According to the BBC, “giving Iran access to more money and more weapons may well serve to intensify the confrontation.” The most dangerous scenario that could play out in the long-term is an attempt by GCC states to balance the power of Iran by developing their own domestic nuclear capabilities, triggering a regional arms race. The regional war between; Sunni and Shia (Saudi vs. Iran), is deeply rooted not only in the Islamic Republic’s behavior, but in the geopolitical positions and aspirations of the two countries. It is not merely Iran’s policies that worry Saudi Arabia, but Iranian power itself. This fear will be difficult for U.S. diplomats to manage in the region. In order to pacify regional concerns and prevent a regional race to nuclear arms, President Obama must reassure the world that this deal increases security while also scrutinizing the reality of Iranian activity in the region, and begin to push back against Iran’s ambitions with more alacrity than he has done so far. If the administration focused more on the Islamic Republic of Iran, it would be able to address the concerns of the U.S. allies in the region including Israel. However, the focus was on getting a deal with Iran regardless of other nations concerns. It was the pursuit of presidential legacy and a short-term strategy. One senior Gulf diplomat told the BBC’s Kevin Connolly “Let’s just agree that the search for a legacy doesn’t make us stronger.” Hopefully this short-sightedness will not come back to haunt the U.S. or its allies.

Israeli Concerns

Israel is understandably opposed to a deal that it perceives it to be not in the best interests of their own national security. Iran has long opposed Israel as a creation of the West   and an oppressor of the Palestinian people and other Arabs. Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated his concern repeatedly over the warming relations between the West and Iran. In his speech to Congress, Netanyahu appeared to be more concerned about Iran’s rising power and allies in the Middle East, rather than Iran’s existential threat to Israel. The reason the nuclear threat posed by Iran is less concerning than Iran’s sponsorship of anti-Israeli militant groups are two-fold; mutual destruction and religious importance. Iran will not attack Israel with nuclear weapons due to Israel’s religious significance for Muslims and the threat of over 200 Israeli nuclear warheads that give Israel a second-strike capability. The issue is thus a concern over Iran’s ability to target Israel indirectly through Hezbollah and Hamas. The nuclear deal, which will unfreeze over one billion dollars and open the doors for foreign investment and business, is thus feared to fund future operations against Israel. As an enduring U.S. ally in the region, Israel seems to have fallen into the mantra; in the Middle East there are no permanent allies, only permanent interests.

Are relations between the U.S. and Iran normalizing? No, but there is a mutual advancement of interests. The underlying issues posed by Iran are too numerous and overarching for one deal to address. In order amend over three decades of estrangement and hostility, Iran would have to prove to the international community that it can be trusted, which is a tall order. Regionally, United States-Iranian cooperation on a nuclear deal threatens to change the balance of power in the Middle East amidst an escalating power struggle between the two regional heavyweights and Israel is caught in the middle. The key to understanding the nuclear deal is that it is very difficult to stop a large nation that possesses both natural resources and human talent, and a deep desire for power, from getting the bomb. However, the U.S. could lose much more than it is gaining. The Iranians get a green light to pursue their nuclear program while at the same time enjoying U.S. approval for their rising preeminence inside Iraq and the region. The relationship between the U.S. and Iran is changing, and time will tell what this means for U.S-Iranian relations and the region. For Iran, the deal promises a new opportunity and way forward, but the peril lies in what Iran chooses to do.

(Marcus Boykin is a Security Studies guaduate student at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina)


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