Monday, July 13, was the deadline in the talks between the P5+1 countries and Iran; thankfully a period of deep suspense and uncertainty has now ended with an agreed text. The endgame was always going to be tortuous: Over four decades, just too much mutual suspicion, hostility and even visceral animosity had been solidified. Given this background, what has been achieved in just 18 months of engagement is truly remarkable. Now, this 100-page agreement will go through a severe domestic review in the different national capitals. This agreement is thus only ‘the end of the beginning’.
The central challenge for the western side has been to make it impossible for Iran to develop nuclear weapons within the next 10-15 years, hence, the negotiations have been largely technical, dealing with issues such as enrichment capacity, uranium stocks, verification procedures, the timeline for sanctions relief, and the ‘snapback’ mechanisms, which would reinstate sanctions in the event of Iran’s failure to meet its obligations.
For Iran, which has consistently denied having had a weapons programme, the principal concern has been to convince its interlocutors about its good intentions, put in place mutually acceptable verification systems and obtain the easing of sanctions, including the arms embargo.
The determination on the part of the Iranian and US governments to see that the negotiations succeed has been fully matched by their opponents’ commitment that they fail. A number of Americans in politics, academia and media see Iran as ‘evil’, untrustworthy, a fountainhead of terror, and a ripe candidate for regime change, preferably through military force. The rightwing groups in Israel, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, having a messianic view of Israel’s identity and destiny, adhere to this view, and will work closely with their US allies to undo the achievements of the negotiators at Vienna. There are hardliners in Iran as well: Though relatively muted at present, they could turn vicious if the Iranian team returns with what they see as a flawed agreement, particularly where the easing of sanctions is concerned.
However, the greatest alarm at the agreement will be felt by the Arab monarchies of the Gulf. Already facing challenges to their domestic order from reformist political Islam represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates and the threat from the jihadi forces such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, the US initiative to open dialogue with Iran has been seen by them as a great betrayal. After the easing of sanctions, most Arab commentators foresee Iran emerging as a ‘regional military superpower’ that could even ally with the US to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria with its boots on the ground (which no other regional player is willing to do), and then strut through the region with no curbs on its ambitions.
They are not convinced by suggestions that Iran is already overstretched in terms of its commitments in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, is unlikely to have much interest in seeking a role of a regional gendarmerie, and, after years of crippling sanctions, can be expected to focus on domestic economic development. Arab fears have been fuelled by US commentators speaking of an Iranian ‘military shopping spree’, out-spending both Israel and the Arab monarchies, though the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has said that ‘Arab Gulf states have … an overwhelming advantage over Iran in both military spending and access to modern weapons’. The opponents of President Barack Obama and Iran can now be expected to work tenaciously to reject the agreement, or failing that, to ensure that serious obstacles are placed in the path of normalisation of US-Iran ties.
The engagement with Iran is taking place amid sharp contentions in West Asia. These have resulted from a deep sense of strategic vulnerability felt in Saudi Arabia vis-a-vis Iran on account of its influential presence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. This the Iran-Arab divide over the last four years has led to proxy wars on several fronts, with mobilisations on both sides on sectarian basis, causing widespread collapse of security and state order and the rise of extremist and sectarian militia, most of them backed by regional powers. These conflicts have abolished some State borders, inflicted hundreds of thousands of casualties, destroyed great cities and made millions homeless.
Thus, after the nuclear agreement has been signed, the real challenge facing West Asia will need to be addressed — putting in place a security order that imbues the principal players with the confidence to cope with domestic and regional challenges and ensures regional stability. Western countries will attempt to provide some temporary relief by supplying even more weapons to this divided and insecure region, but they lack the ability to provide long-term solutions to the pervasive lack of trust between the estranged Islamic giants.
This security and policy vacuum in West Asia calls for new initiatives by more credible players. The turmoil in West Asia, besides placing major countries in conflict, has also given rise to forces of extremism and sectarianism, which threaten the wider region and even the international community.
While outside role-players cannot provide lasting solutions to ongoing differences, they can certainly structure platforms for engagement and dialogue for Iran and Saudi Arabia so that confidence-building measures can be realised and implemented. India, with its deep and substantial civilisational, political, energy and economic links with the region, is best-suited to shape and lead such a diplomatic initiative, perhaps in tandem with its BRICS partners, which collectively have the abiding interest, the will and the capacity to fulfil this demanding responsibility. The nuclear agreement would thus yield a peace dividend the region desperately needs.
Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat. The views expressed are personal.