The Nuclear Deal and Iran's New Strategic Position

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

As Iran's President Hassan Rouhani has stated, the recent nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers has broad implications beyond the mere nuclear issue. Since the November 24th signing of the agreement in Geneva under intense international media limelight, important steps have been taken by Iran to improve the country's relations with its neighbors, in the Persian Gulf region and with the member states of Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (PGCC) first and foremost.

“Be assured that the nuclear deal is in favor of the stability and security of the region,” Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, stated on December 1 while on an official visit to neighboring Kuwait, whose leadership has reciprocated by praising the agreement as a welcome news for the region, similar to Saudi Arabia, in light of a statement by the Saudi government's cabinet praising the agreement as a step in the right direction toward a "comprehensive agreement" -- foreseen in the "interim agreement" that stipulates a six months time frame to resolve the Iran nuclear crisis and end of all nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. 

A clue to the indirect yet significant connection between the Iran nuclear crisis and other vexing regional issues, such as the tragic conflict in Syria, instability in Iraq and rising sectarian tensions in Lebanon, the Geneva talks proved useful on Syria, e.g., at the previous round in early November, the UN's special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi met both the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers on the talks' sideline and within days of the Geneva agreement the deadlock over the "Geneva 2" summit was finally broken and a date in late January, 2014 has now been set. According to reports, the US and Russia, two principal sponsors of the Syria summit are discussing the possibility of inviting Iran to the conference, in light of Zarif's stated readiness of Iran to take part and make meaningful contribution for the cause of ending the bloody conflict in Syria, an important regional strategic ally of Iran. 

From Iran's point of view, the road to peace in Syria may travel through the gates of regional diplomacy, which is why the Rouhani government has attached importance to improving Iran's relations with Iran's Arab neighbors in Persian Gulf, hoping to telescope the nuclear agreement to a new chapter in "good neighborly relations" with Saudi Arabia, whose leaders have expressed concerns about Iran's nuclear program and rising regional power.   But, what Tehran is now trying to do is to convince Riyadth that it is sensitive to the Saudi concerns and is willing to take concrete steps to build confidence with the Saudi and other PGCC states, by pushing the arch of collective regional security for example. That means avoiding the harmful misperception of a 'zero-sum' approach to regional issues and viewing the Persian Gulf as a "regional common," which is why Iran has now made the conciliatory gesture of offering to discuss the issue of Abu Mousa island in Persian Gulf with the UAE, in marked departure from the previous Iranian policy. 

Certainly, Iran has vested a great deal of hope, and energy, in the expectation of tangible economic, political and diplomatic windfall harvested as a result of the breakthrough in the nuclear standoff. Although the negotiations have been issue specific and focused solely on the nuclear issue, there is no doubt that steady progress in those negotiations will generate a new and positive atmosphere between Iran and the West, the US in particular, which will in turn impact the regional calculations. It could, for instance, spur future US-Iran dialogue on such issues as Iraq's instability and the post-US Afghanistan, in light of the planned departure of most US forces after over a decade of warfare. 

Henceforth, if the nuclear negotiations proceed as planned without being derailed for one reason or another -- and there is a good deal of uncertainty due to strong oppositions by Israel and members of US Congress -- then it is not far-fetched to see the ripple effects in the Middle East and the host of other tensions and conflicts plaguing the whole region. However, Iran's bold and rapid march to reset its relations with Persian Gulf neighbors and insert itself in the Syrian peace talks and the like will not be easy. Improving intra-governmental relations is one thing, tackling the problems posed by non-government groups, such as the extremist Salafi groups and terrorists, is quite another. Also, to what extent Iran's old problem in its regional environment can be eradicated is not simply a function of Iran's initiative and, in fact, requires reciprocal action by the other side, in light of the present Saudi hesitation to receive foreign minister Zarif. But, with the mix of opportunities for cooperation and the danger of chaos and conflict as well as violent break-up (of Syria), Iran's realistic hope is that the regional power houses can and should cooperate and focus on their areas of agreement in order to shrink their areas of disagreement. 

On the other hand, integrating nuclear negotiations and regional cooperation is far from "hopeless idealism" and is born by the regional necessities, depending to some extent on the final outcome of the nuclear talks, which have crucial bearing on the prospects for regional cooperation. Perhaps the first thing to appreciate by the Geneva agreement is the depth of Iran's commitment to prove the peaceful nature of its civilian nuclear program and to build "trust" with the international community. While the final outcome is entirely contingent on sustainable negotiation, what is beyond doubt however is that a serious effort by Iran to improve its regional relations is underway -- that is yet to be won. There are still huge reasons to be worried and, certainly, there is a need for some caution here, since many concerns that Iran and its Persian Gulf neighbors have are not resolved yet and gigantic work lies ahead.

*Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) .  Afrasiabi is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction (2007), Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

Key Words:  Nuclear Deal, Iran's New Strategic Position, Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (PGCC), Mohammad Javad Zarif, Syria, UAE, US-Iran Dialogue, Middle East, Afrasiabi

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