The Iran deal’s regional impact

Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 3.19.56 PMOn Monday, an all-MEI panel discussed After the Iran Deal: Regional Repercussions and Dynamics. Panelists included Robert S. Ford, senior fellow and former US Ambassador to Syria, Thomas W. Lippman, scholar, Gönül Tol,  director of the Center for Turkish Studies, and Alex Vatanka, senior fellow.  Paul Salem, vice president for policy and research moderated.

Vatanka stated that reformists, moderates, the Iranian public and most of the Iranian media are in favor of the deal.  Some hardliners criticize the deal, but they’ve opened a previously taboo debate about the pros and cons of Iran’s nuclear program.

Khamenei has been vague, but this shouldn’t be taken as opposition; Khamenei rarely unequivocally supports anything. Those close to Khamenei are defending the deal.  The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) hasn’t come out against it but they and their subsidiaries worry that the deal will hurt them financially.  Rouhani needs to reassure them that they won’t lose out as foreign firms enter the market.

An illustration from Iran's national epic, the Shahnameh, on display at MEI. PC: Eddie Grove
An illustration from Iran’s national epic, the Shahnameh, on display at MEI. PC: Eddie Grove

The Rouhani Administration is a Western-educated team with cohesive thinking on the country’s direction.  Like China, they may try to open up economically and deal with political reform later.  Zarif believes that Western companies must invest in Iran to render the deal more stable.  Khamenei appears to accept economic reform but has made the resistance economy part of his legacy. It is unclear what he wants from the deal.  Is he looking to prevent the possibility of war, eliminate sanctions, or make new friends?  If many reformists lose their seats in the next Majlis elections, it means that Khamenei is unwilling to let a reform agenda go  farther.  If the Majlis accepts the deal and Congress rejects it, Iran can  portray themselves as the good guys.

There are contradictions regarding Iran’s regional relations.  The deputy foreign minister recently stated that Iran wanted to talk with the Saudis about Yemen and Bahrain, but then an ayatollah at a Friday sermon put Saudi Arabia, Israel and ISIS in the same category.  If the reformists reconcile too much with the Saudis, the hardliners will brand them as pro-Saudi agents.

Lippman said that despite US declarations of an unshakeable commitment to the Gulf, Gulf Arabs were publicly skeptical until recently.  Now the GCC countries publicly (if not privately) believe the US commitment.  Beginning at Camp David, they decided that the Iran deal was done and that they weren’t going to do “a full Bibi.” They will work with the US and each other to confront regional problems.

Perhaps this is what Lippman meant by doing “a full Bibi.”

The Saudis won’t race to a bomb; they care about self-preservation, which includes full integration into the world economy.  The Saudis can’t afford to become nuclear outlaws.

Tol stated that understanding Turkish fear of the Kurds is key to grasping Turkish politics. It also plays a role in Turkey’s stance vis-a-vis Iran.  Turkey shares the West’s objectives regarding Iran’s nuclear program but has promoted engagement rather than isolation, voting against UN sanctions in 2010.  Iran is a large market for Turkish goods and the two countries have close energy ties. However, Turkey worries that a nuclear Iran could change the regional balance of power.  All political parties in Turkey welcomed the deal and the sanctions relief.

Turkey has three main concerns about Iran:

  1. Iran is a destabilizing force in Iraq and opposes Turkey in Syria.
  2. Closer ties between Washington and Tehran could come at Turkey’s expense, focusing too much attention on the fight against ISIS and undermining Turkey’s anti-Assad efforts;
  3. Iran’s support for the PKK and PYD.
The Fountain of the Four Lions: a 17th Century fountain from Damascus in MEI's Islamic Garden.  PC: Eddie Grove
The Fountain of the Four Lions: a 17th Century fountain from Damascus in MEI’s Islamic Garden. PC: Eddie Grove

Ford asserted that the problems in Iraq and Syria don’t revolve around the US and Iran but around local grievances.  The pressures against the Iraqi state are increasing.  Low oil prices are contributing to the Kurdish drive for independence.  Progress on Sunni-Shia reconciliation is lacking.  Iran is partially responsible because of its ties to militias that are considered terrorist organizations by the US.  Iran is unlikely to give up these allies, whose political leaders are ruthless and capable. It is unclear if the US and Iran can work together in Iraq.  ISIS can recruit as long as the conflict between the Sunnis and the militias continues.  If Iran cedes control of the militias to President Abadi, that could help.

Assad is losing and the opposition is advancing on the Alawite homeland.  There are diplomatic visits between Syria, Russia, and Iran; Syria’s foreign minister recently visited Tehran and likely

A mosque in Oman. Omanis are Ibadi Muslims. As Ibadi Islam is neither Sunni nor Shia, Oman often serves as a mediator between Iran and the Sunni Arab states. PC: Eddie Grove

also Oman, which serves as an intermediary with the Saudis.  There are also reports that Iran is about to put forward a peace plan with a unity government, constitutional amendments to protect minorities, and future internationally supervised elections. Ford thinks this won’t succeed because the Turks haven’t signed on and their closeness with the armed opposition gives them a veto.

The Russians and Iranians are urging the US to stop pushing against Assad and start working with him, but Assad is about to lose his supply lines.  There were recent anti-Assad protests in Alawite-majority Latakia province. Assad doesn’t have the capacity to take on ISIS if it can’t hold the Damascus suburbs.  The Iranians have to recognize that Assad is losing but they will almost certainly use at least a small portion of the money from sanctions relief to shore-up Hezbollah and Assad.  This will cause a short-term increase in violence.

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