WASHINGTON — The regional implications for an Iran nuclear deal would be profound, yet they could possibly lead to something even greater, the likes of which have not been seen since Nixon’s rapprochement with China in the 1970s.
Iran and the P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) are scheduled to finalize negotiations for a comprehensive agreement by Nov. 24 that would stop the further development of Iran’s nuclear program and provide sanctions relief on the country.
A deal would first and foremost stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon, which is the main reason the U.S. is engaged in negotiations with the Islamic Republic in the first place. However, if a deal is reached on or before the upcoming deadline, it could facilitate greater stability in the region as a whole, prevent nuclear proliferation in surrounding states, and expedite America’s pivot toward Asia.
“The bottom line is an agreement between Iran and the P5+1… could and likely would stall, if not preclude, further nuclear proliferation in the region,” including in states like Saudi Arabia, according to Charles Freeman, who served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1989 to 1992.
“From a Saudi view, these negotiations are less about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, if it has one, than they are about the question of foreign [American] willingness to check Iran’s imperial ambitions as they see it,” Freeman told a panel at the National Iranian American Council’s recent leadership conference, held here on Sept. 29.
He said that if the two sides fail to come to an agreement, Saudi Arabia will exhibit one of two reactions: It will attempt some kind of rapprochement with Iran because it realizes nobody can help it; or it will say to itself, as Freeman put it, “Okay, it’s clear we can’t rely on the U.S… Let’s call in the Pakistani nuclear garrison,” and build its own nuclear weapons program.
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates corroborates this idea in his book “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” in which he writes that prominent Saudi officials, including King Abdullah, have said in the past that if Iran pursues a nuclear weapons program, Saudi Arabia will do the same.
Greater stability for Iraq
Kenneth Pollack, an Iran-Iraq military analyst at the CIA from 1988 to 1995, said that other Shiite groups in the region, including Hezbollah, the Assad regime, and Shiites in Bahrain and Iraq, would likely love to see some kind of deal “because they believe this wider Sunni/Shia schism is playing to their disadvantage in a whole variety of different ways.” He added, however, that there is anxiety among those groups as well because they are worried about getting sold out to Iran by the U.S. as part of a deal.
Iraq, in particular, he explained, has a difficult love/hate relationship with Iran. “They don’t like the idea that Tehran is trying to dictate their policy. At the same time, they understand that their fortunes are very much tied to Iran. It is the one ally they believe they will always have.”
Rather than being pushed into the “Iranian camp,” he said, Iraqi Shiites would like to still be understood as Arabs with distinct historical, cultural, social and geopolitical machinations.
A recent publication by The Iran Project, titled “Iran and its Neighbors: Regional Implications for U.S. Policy of a Nuclear Agreement,” notes that a deal could help to preserve Iraq as a unitary state. The alternative, which is more likely without a deal, is to continue the current partitioning process of Iraq into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish areas, which will “almost certainly lead to future conflict and ethnic cleansing, as well as disrupt the stability of other nations, including Lebanon and Jordan,” the report states.
Presuming a deal is hashed out, the report speculates that this would encourage the U.S. to work with Iran to press Baghdad for governmental reforms that lead to power-sharing and equality for all Iraqis. The report also says that cooperation to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria at this stage would be useful.
China and the U.S. pivot toward Asia
In 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in Foreign Policy: “The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.” She was referring to U.S. initiatives to redirect elements of its foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific region. An Iranian nuclear deal would help facilitate that shift, argued John Garver, author of “China and Iran: Ancient Partners in a Post-imperial World,” while speaking at NIAC’s leadership conference.
Garver said, “No deal means that the U.S. will continue to muck around in the Middle East [and] be bogged down in the Middle East,” which is not conducive to the country’s overall strategic ambitions abroad.
He also explained that the continuation of war and confrontation would make it difficult for the U.S. to realign its priorities. “If things settle and there’s a deal with Iran, if there’s time, energy and resources, the U.S. will begin to focus on East Asia,” he said.
Conversely, Garver argued that the absence of a deal would be good for China, which has benefited by keeping its competitors out.
“If you look at a pie chart of Iran’s competitors from the last 30 or so years, before the  revolution, of course, there was basically the U.S. and the U.K., which were number 1,” he said, noting that China’s piece of the pie has grown considerably since then. He explained that this growth was not necessarily a result of Iran’s own prerogatives but because of the lack of choices the country has. He argued that by re-engaging with Iran – first, by working out a nuclear deal – the U.S. could settle other disputes in the region and pay closer attention to re-aligning toward the Asia-Pacific.
Ironies surrounding the talks
There are a number of ironic aspects regarding the current negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and how public perception of that conflict compares to the reality of the situation. First off, “the [nuclear weapons] program itself remains a conjecture and an allegation rather than an established fact,” Freeman, the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, explained at NIAC’s panel discussion.
Indeed, both American and Israeli intelligence have stated that they do not believe Iran has even decided to build a nuclear weapon. This leads into a second irony.
“The supreme leader has declared that nuclear weapons are forbidden by Islam,” Freeman said. He was referring to a fatwa (legal opinion) that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s current supreme leader, issued in 2010, declaring that nuclear weapons are “illegal and haram [forbidden].” Khamenei said, “any use of or even threat to use nuclear weapons is a serious and material violation of indisputable rules of humanitarian law and a cogent example of a war crime.”
Even with academics and others claiming that Khamenei should come forward to provide transparency regarding this fatwa, Freeman noted that “Iran’s history makes this hard to dismiss out of hand.” Despite over 100,000 deaths from Saddam Hussein’s nerve gas during the Iran-Iraq War, the Islamic Republic did not develop a weapons of mass destruction response. Whether or not Khamenei’s fatwa is genuine, Freeman says this is a notable fact to consider.
A third irony Freeman pointed out is that “Israel, Saudi [Arabia] and other Gulf Arabs don’t want a deal that allows Iran to continue to enrich uranium, but in the absence of such a deal, Iran will certainly continue without effective international constraint.”
There is nothing to hold Iran back from enriching uranium beyond 5 percent, which the Israelis also favor, without a deal. The only things that could stop them in the absence of a deal would be further ratcheting up sanctions, or an Israeli or American strike on the country, Freeman said. If the latter seemed imminent, Khamenei might forgo his fatwa and build a nuclear weapon, which is exactly what a deal is attempting to prevent.
Freeman warned about the pitfalls the region is likely to face if there is no deal. He said that “prospects for proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East would be greatly enhanced,” as would the struggle to craft a strategy against Sunni Islamist extremism, such as ISIS.
With ISIS straddling the border of Iraq and Syria, the U.S. and Iran have a shared threat — something that could see the two countries brought closer together. During the question and answer period at the conference, Freeman said, “Iran’s position is strengthening.” He meant that with regards to the nuclear discussions but also in regards to its overall position in the Middle East. He said that the U.S. and Iran could witness a Nixon-China type rapprochement because of the “common threat” posed by ISIS.
Indeed, other notable former U.S. officials and national security experts have endorsed this idea, including Zbigniew Brzezinski (National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter), Joseph Nye (prominent international relations theorist), Thomas Pickering (U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. from 1989 to 1992), Ryan Crocker (former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Kuwait, and Lebanon), Brent Scowcroft (National Security Advisor to President Gerald Ford), Gary Sick (the principal White House aide for Iran during the Islamic Revolution and the hostage crisis), Lawrence Wilkerson (former Chief of Staff to U.S Secretary of State Colin Powell), and William Luers (former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union), among others, according to The Iran Project’s “Iran and its Neighbors” publication.
The document says that an Iranian nuclear deal would be a catalyst for the U.S. to play a role in the region and to set new priorities in the Middle East. It recommends that the U.S. cooperate with Iran “within a larger grouping that should include the Gulf States and Turkey in addition to the Government of Iraq” for the purpose of thwarting terrorist groups, like ISIS.
Prior to a deal being signed, which would make this kind of cooperation more feasible, the report recommends that the U.S. explore indirect cooperation through “intermediaries in the Iraqi government.” A recent report that Iran’s Quds Force has been commanded not to attack American troops in Iraq may mean that some kind of indirect cooperation is already taking place.
Freeman encouraged the panel audience to think about the consequences of no deal. He explained that the P5+1 states are becoming increasingly divided: “Think about Russian relations with the U.S., the U.K., and Germany… think about U.S. relations with China.” He expressed concern that if a deal were not brokered by the Nov. 24 deadline, there would be problems recreating a similar negotiating environment.
Alternatively, he emphasized that if an agreement were reached despite Israeli and Gulf Arab second-guessing, there could be multiple windfalls for the region as a whole because it would act as a catalyst for Iranian rapprochement with the U.S. and other Western countries, and restore stability to the Middle East. He said there “would be a chance for all parties to discover common interests combatting and containing extremism, whether Sunni or Shiite in origin.”
“And there would be an opportunity for creative diplomacy to replace military contention with peaceful coexistence and competition,” he continued.
He concluded by saying, “These opportunities might not be seized of course. But they wouldn’t exist at all in the absence of a successful outcome to the current negotiations.”