A bridge too far between Iran and the GCC?

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A bridge too far between Iran and the GCC?
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Tehran could pour its reinforced wealth into conventional weaponry and aid its proxies.

By Mahir Ali

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Published: Wed 22 Jul 2015, 1:58 PM

Last updated: Wed 22 Jul 2015, 2:54 PM

The contrast last week could hardly have been sharper: indignation, rage and firebombs on the avenues of Athens; barely restrained joy on the streets of Tehran.
The citizens of Greece and Iran were responding to two very different deals struck within a day or so of each other in two European capitals. Given the nature of the agreements reached, in dramatic circumstances, in Brussels and Vienna, the reactions were entirely predictable.
The doom and gloom in the land that pioneered not just democracy but also tragic drama is based on the prospect of indefinite austerity. Citizens of the Islamic Republic, meanwhile, think they find themselves on the threshold of increased prosperity, provided the lifting of sanctions goes according to plan.
In return, Iran is obliged to abandon, at least for the time being, something it claims not to possess: a programme to manufacture nuclear weapons. If that claim is true, it has little to lose - and potentially much to gain from the possibility of increased engagement with the wider world in economic, political and cultural terms.
The ayatollahs may not see it that way, and in what is still very much a theocratic state it is yet to be conclusively demonstrated that enough of the powerful clergy wholeheartedly backs the undertakings given by Iran in its drawn-out negotiations with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1).
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appears to have at least tentatively endorsed the agreement, though, and it's probably safe to assume that overwhelming clerical opposition to dealings with the Great Satan" - for it was ultimately the United States that was calling the shots on the other side of the negotiating table - would have thwarted the initiatives of President Hassan Rohani and his indefatigable Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, long ago.
In an apparent effort to appease the hardliners, Khamenei has declared that that the broader equation with the US, based on decades of animosity, should not be expected to change, and that the regional aspirations of Iran and America remain "180 degrees" apart. He did concede though that, contingent on the Americans keeping their side of the bargain, engagement on other fronts could not be ruled out.
Much could still go wrong, of course, but it is just as likely to do so on the other side of the equation. Zarif's American counterpart, John Kerry, also strove diligently to tackle the various bones of contention, but at the political level there appears to be considerably greater opposition to the agreement in the US than in Iran.
Before much else happens, Barack Obama will have to steer the pact through a hostile Congress by mid-September before the sanctions against Iran can be lifted. Most, if not all, Republican legislators - who effectively constitute an informal Benjamin Netanyahu fan club - and at least a few Democrats are expected to vote against approval.
President Obama has already indicated he will veto any such action. It would take a two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress to override that veto. Such an outcome is unlikely, no matter how hard the Israel lobby strives for it.
What is intriguing is that most congressional opponents of the deal find it hard to coherently argue against it without reciting Netanyahu's arguments more or less verbatim. Which is to say, the agreement effectively opens the way for Iran to proceed with its nuclear weapons plans, if not immediately then in due course; that Tehran cannot be trusted; and that the added wealth from the lifting of sanctions will substantially be devoted to bolstering allies such as Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis and Bashar Al Assad. And then there's the argument-clincher: the existential threat to Israel from a nuclear-armed Iran.
To the extent that some of these concerns may be considered valid, they provide greater cause for concern to Iran's Gulf neighbours - which have tentatively welcomed the deal - than to Israel. After all, given its own nuclear arsenal, the latter has little to fear even from a nuclear-armed Iran, whereas such an outcome would seriously alter the balance of power in the Gulf.
On the other hand there is the risk that even with its nuclear ambitions thwarted for the foreseeable future by international inspections, Iran could pour a significant proportion of its reinforced wealth into conventional weaponry, notably in aid of its proxies, from the Shia militias in Iraq to Hezbollah and the deplorable Assad regime in Syria.
At the same time, however, it's fairly obvious that Tehran has a clear interest in defeating Daesh - and that this aspiration is shared by all reasonable-minded Muslims, not to mention the US. Saudi Arabia has lately struck a blow against Daesh, and Turkey should be inclined to follow suit after Monday's dastardly suicide bombing near the Syrian border.
There is certainly scope for coordination and even cooperation on this front between Iran and its neighbours, as well as the US and other Western powers. In the process, it is not altogether impossible to envisage Tehran ultimately relenting on the Assad front, provided the obvious alternative is not a Syria under the shadow of Daesh and its affiliates. The deepening sectarian animosity poses a dire threat to the region as a whole, and there is a clear case for reasonable powers to strive for accommodation rather than entrench a damaging divide.
Besides, in the event of sanctions against Iran being lifted, the economic dividends will not be restricted to that country. The UAE and Pakistan, for instance, can expect to benefit. It's a bit far-fetched to suggest, as some commentators have done, that Obama's primary aim in securing the deal was to undermine Russia by ensuring the European market's access to Iranian oil and gas. After all, Vladimir Putin is a canny operator, and would have hesitated to facilitate an agreement that militated against Russian interests.
Meanwhile, one aspect of the story that those who roundly criticised Obama for restricting himself to rhetoric when Iran's so-called Green Movement was hobbled in 2009 have chosen to ignore is that many of the people celebrating last week were the same youngsters who took to the streets back then to demonstrate their enthusiasm for change.
It remains to be seen whether this time around their aspirations - which go well beyond the specifics of sanctions - will be rewarded with greater leeway or further repression. But the extent to which the diplomatic success in Vienna increases the possibility of a more open and pluralistic Iran deserves to be welcomed.
More broadly, amid the region's enduring uncertainties, all that can safely be said is that the likely consequences would have been worse without the Vienna accord.
Mahir Ali is a Sydney-based journalist



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