In the Middle East, eight years is an eternity
After days of exhausting negotiations, Iran and six world powers finally reached a deal that will impose limits on Tehrans nuclear program in return for relief from heavy economic sanctions. Leaving technical details of the nuclear deal aside, reintegration of Iran into the world economy on the one hand offers many opportunities while on the other hand prompts regional actors to revise their political positions vis-à-vis the threat of rising Iran. This week Şalom hosts Karim Sadjadpour, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, one of the leading researchers on Iran to discuss the nature of the deal and projections pertaining to the future of the Middle East.
There are basically two interpretations of the Iran deal; the first category depicts the accord as a historical mistake whereas the other sees it as a window of opportunity for liberal cooperation. Do you think this deal will make the world and the U.S. in particular more secure as President Obama said in his speech right after signing of the deal?
We know from history that the major events of the Middle East are always unpredictable, how they will be interpreted five or ten years after, how they will impact the Middle East…The reverberations of the Iranian revolution are still being felt for decades later. So I think it will take many years to assess whether a nuclear deal with Iran will be deemed a success or a failure. But in the context of nuclear non-proliferation this deal contains Iran’s program and it forces them to be more transparent. So in that context, I think it is certainly positive. The big question is whether Iran will remain faithful to the deal especially once the sanctions are removed. We will see in the coming years. The other question is not whether it makes the US safer but whether it makes the U.S. allies in the region safer, namely countries like Israel and the Arab-Gulf states like Saudi Arabia. I think certainly those governments interpret the nuclear deal with Iran as a threat to their own security.
One of the most contentious issues is how the Iran deal will shape Iran’s regional influence. In that context, what are possible repercussions of this deal on Iran’s foreign policy towards Syria?
Iran’s regional policy has been pretty consistent for the last four decades, I would say, there are three pillars of Iran’s regional policies; resistance against the U.S. regional influence, the rejection of Israel’s existence, and rivalry with Saudi Arabia. I think there is a possibility that you could see more at least practical cooperation between the U.S. and Iran in the Middle East. But more likely, the deal will exacerbate the tensions between Iran and Israel, and Iran and Saudi Arabia, at least in the near term. Because Iran’s support for Shite militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Assad in Syria isn’t likely to change, now with far more resources to support these policies. So in the near term, I think there is a valid concern that this deal provides Iran more resources to pursue nefarious policies. But in the medium and long term there is a valid hope that it could strengthen actors in Tehran who want to put country’s national and economic interests before revolution and ideology.
How is the U.S. getting prepared in order to contain Iran’s ambitions then?
I think you’ll see a push in the coming months to reassure Israel and to pursue security cooperation with Israel. We’ve already seen that…
At Camp David, with the Gulf countries?
Yes, we have already seen efforts to reassure the Gulf countries at Camp David, but the reality is that it all comes down to the point where the Obama administration doesn’t have a zero-sum mentality for the security in the Middle East. They believe that they can try to improve relations with Iran while at the same time maintain close relations with Israel and Gulf countries. The challenge is that regional countries do see themselves embattled in zero-sum conflicts. And so from the standpoint of Israel and Saudi Arabia if America’s cooperation with Iran is increasing, they perceive America’s cooperation with them to be decreasing.
Do you foresee a foreign policy perspective similar to the famous Nixon Doctrine of the 70’s emerging in the future which rests the security of the Gulf mainly on Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel?
Not in the near term because there is still a leadership in Iran, which maintains the slogan of “death to America.” So things will need to change more in Iran before the return to Nixon Doctrine.
Could you also reflect upon Iranian domestic politics? For instance, how do Iranian people approach this deal? What are their expectations?
I think that the celebrations in the streets in Iran show that the society in Iran aspires to be like South Korea, and not North Korea. They aspired to be economically prosperous and politically integrated; not isolated and weaponized. But I think that inevitably over time people will feel disillusionment when they see that this nuclear deal hasn’t improved the quality of life in Iran as much as they anticipated.
President Rouhani mentioned about phases to go through for the implementation of the deal. Do you expect any obstacles, any road accidents ahead, resulting either from the U.S. or Iran or perhaps from Israel?
No, I see the deal passing. The question is whether the deal will be sustained over the next ten to fifteen years. I think there are going to be huge challenges in the years ahead.
The gradual lifting of the UN arms embargo is regarded as a compromise on behalf of the West. How realistic is that portrayal really, given the Iranian support up until today for the Hezbollah and Hamas despite arms embargo?
Well the arms embargo hasn’t been lifted yet. The arms embargo will remain in place …
But the deal says the arms embargo will be lifted in five years and the embargo related to ballistic missiles will be lifted in eight years...
Yes, it expires in eight years. It is totally unpredictable where the Middle East will be in eight years. Ayatollah Khamanei is seventy-six years old. Will he be still alive in eight years? Will the Syrian civil wars still be looking like this? Will Hezbollah get the same status as it has now? I think eight years is an eternity in the Middle East.
The number of articles which promote Hillary Clinton as a more hawkish candidate when it comes to the U.S-Iran relations soared following the deal, in a way to appeal to the pro-Israeli lobbies. Do you think this deal will have an impact on the upcoming elections in the U.S.? If yes, how?
It will impact. All of the republican candidates for the presidential elections will oppose this deal. They will be very critical of it. And I think Hillary Clinton will reluctantly defend the deal but she is much more cynical about the nature of the Iranian regime than President Obama. So she is not going to be triumphalist in her support… But I think she will paint this as the least bad alternative to another conflict in the Middle East.
How do you see the future of the U.S.-Israel relations?
I think the U.S.-Israel relations are undergoing one of the worst periods in history because of the personal animosity between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. But that’s likely to improve once you have different leaders in both countries.
Do you think this deal provides Turkey an opportunity to boost or regain its regional influence in terms of balancing Iran?
Iran deal will likely to force Sunni countries of the region to work closely to one another, meaning Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt to balance a perception of a rising Iran. There is an opportunity for Turkey to play a leadership role in the Sunni world. But as you know very well, there are major differences between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar…The danger for the Sunni countries is if they support or indulge the radical Sunni jihadist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, that will eventually come to haunt them one day like a boomerang. That could stir radicalism within their own countries. Isis is not an existential threat to Iran. Iran is 90 % Shiite. Isis will never be able to take over Iran. But the spread of Isis ideology does pose an existential threat to a country like Saudi Arabia and other smaller Gulf countries.
At the end of the day who do you think is the real winner of this deal? Obama administration? Iranian people? Agents of international diplomacy?
If you look at the major events of the Middle East for the last four decades, Iranian revolution, the Oslo accords, 2003 the Iraq War, or the Arab Spring, every prediction that was made at the time was proven incorrect several years later. So I think we need to be very humble about forecasting winners and losers but if this opens up Iran’s economy, at least in the near term lives of Iranians will improve. So the Iranian people are potential winners. And one country, which I think is a potential loser is Russia. Because Russia will be hurt economically if Iranian oil reenters the market, and if Iran over time manages to exploit its gas reserves and challenge Russia’s hold over European gas market. Prime Minister Netanyahu has also been a loser, but I think our assessment of who are the winners and losers will probably look much different in ten years from now.