A nervous region wary of the nuclear deal
On Wednesday, the Conflict Management Program at SAIS and MEI hosted a talk entitled After the Deal: A Veteran Journalist’s View from Tehran. Speakers included Roy Gutman, McClatchy Middle East bureau chief, and Joyce Karam, Washington bureau chief for Al-Hayat. Daniel Serwer of both SAIS and MEI moderated. Both speakers emphasized the dynamics that caused regional players to be wary of Iran.
Early last Spring, Gutman traveled to Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.
In Israel, he observed that the major national security concern wasn’t the Iranian nuclear program, but rather Iran’s conventional threat through the buildup of Hezbollah forces. Israelis were disappointed that the US was leaving a security vacuum in Syria for Iran to fill. The Israeli position on the Iran deal is difficult to understand; Israeli politicians oppose it, but Israel’s foreign policy elite considers Iranian conventional forces a larger threat.
Jordanian officials also worried about regional chaos and Iranian influence. They were baffled by the half-hearted US response to Assad, as well as its airstrike-only response to ISIS.
Egypt is preoccupied by terrorism and the upheaval in Libya, but Egyptian officials are also concerned about Iran’s growing influence and US inaction.
Officials in every government (aside from Turkey’s) spoke of collusion between Turkey and extremists. The Turks think the Iranians know that the US is not a determined counterpart. They believe the US is appeasing Iran.
Gutman then traveled to Tehran to gauge the mood there. Iran has come in from the cold after 36 years, but Tehran resents the last 36 years of US policy. Change in Iran won’t happen fast. Khamenei has said that Iran’s policy towards the “arrogant” US government won’t change and that Iran will keep supporting its regional allies.
Israel views Hezbollah’s buildup as a direct threat, but Iranian officials told Gutman that the Tehran holds the trigger on Hezbollah’s weapons and won’t pull it unless Israel threatens Lebanon or Iran. However, a former Iranian diplomat admitted that Iran has no vital interest in Lebanon or the Palestinians. Iran also appears to have no vital interest in Yemen, but likes seeing Saudi Arabia embroiled in an unwinnable war. Iran is unalterably opposed to the breakup of Iraq into three states.
Iranian officials don’t think the deal is perfect, but still see it as a win-win for both sides. They view themselves as MENA’s most powerful and stable state. They are glad that US has accepted them as a regional player and negotiating partner.
After the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, Iran filled the vacuum. The Iraqi Army collapsed on Iran’s watch. Iran does not acknowledge its responsibility for this and ascribes the rise of ISIS to others. They also believe that foreign forces fought in Deraa and refused to acknowledge Assad’s role in fomenting terrorism by releasing terrorists from prison. Iranian officials also stated that all sectors of Lebanese society back Hezbollah’s deployment in Syria. Iran needs a reality check.
Iran opposes the creation of a safe zone/no-fly zone in Iraq and has threatened to send basijis into Syria if this happens. Iranians don’t understand the scope of Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe or Iran’s role in it. There are too many disagreements between the US and Iran to form a regional security agreement now. The US needs a policy for Syria; if we don’t have a policy, others will fill the vacuum. The US also needs an official version of what happened in Syria to counter the Iranian invented view of history.
Karam noted that the Arab response to the deal is less monolithic than Israel’s, but the GCC and Israel view Iran’s regional behavior similarly. The UAE, Oman, and Turkey quickly welcomed the deal because they have good trade relations with Iran. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar were more cautious. The Saudis don’t view the deal as US abandonment, but they fear increased Iranian regional meddling. Arab public opinion has shifted drastically since 2008, when 80% of Arabs viewed Iran positively. Now only 12% do. The Arab street is suspicious of the deal. The US explained the deal to Arab governments, but not to their people. The Arab street wonders whether the money Iran will gain from sanctions relief will go to funding Iranian students, or to Qassem Suleimani and more chlorine gas, barrel bombs, and Hezbollah fighters for Assad. Assad is a costly budget item for Iran. When will Iran realize that Assad can’t win? Nevertheless, Hezbollah keeps getting more involved in Syria.
Karam stated that the Gulf countries obtain commitments from the US at talks like Camp David, but then nothing gets done. The US is four years behind on Syria and needs an official policy.
Serwer noted in conclusion that the regional issues would be far worse if Iran had, or were about to get, nuclear weapons.