The nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 is a historical event that is likely to have long-term ramifications for West Asia. Whether or not the deal will prevent Iran from acquiring full military nuclear capability remains to be seen, and will be hotly debated among technical experts and politicians. Suffice it to say that although the deal imposes restrictions on Iran, it also contains many loopholes, which may enable Iran to secretly advance towards military nuclear capability. The record of the international community vis-à-vis North Korea’s conduct in this regard leaves much room for worry in the Iranian case.
Alongside the nuclear issue, the deal has elevated Iran’s regional and international position in several ways, and has become a source of anxiety for most countries in the region. The Islamic republic regards itself as a revisionist power in West Asia, which rejects the political, military and cultural status quo and seeks to shape a new Islamist region inspired by its revolution and under its leadership.
In West Asian parlance, Iran has been the leader of the ‘resistance bloc’, which also includes the Shia-dominated government of Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian Hamas. Several months ago, hardline Iranian spokesmen boasted that Iran practically controlled four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana’a.
Proponents of the deal hope that it would integrate Iran into the international community and moderate its policies. Some western countries even see Iran as a major ally against the radical Islamic terrorist organisations in West Asia, mainly the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and, therefore, as a stabilising force in the region.
The perceptions in West Asia by Iran’s allies and adversaries are different and point out to a more likely deeper polarisation and instability. The deal recognises Iran as a legitimate nuclear threshold-state, and a member of a prestigious select ‘club’ of states, which enjoy practical immunity from foreign attacks. Moreover, Iran no longer faces five UN Security Council resolutions against it, but instead has received the respectability it has aspired for since its 1979 Revolution.
In addition, the billions of dollars that are expected to flow into Iran soon, following the unfreezing of Iran’s financial assets, rising oil exports and foreign investments, promise to boost the moribund Iranian economy. A politically and economically invigorated Iran may very likely feel sufficiently confident to advance its ideological aspirations, and substantially increase its support for radical organisations throughout West Asia.
For those who hope that Iran would henceforth soften its ideological stance vis-à-vis the ‘West’, or adopt a more conciliatory regional policy, the speech made by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei on July 17 should have a sobering effect. Khamenei pledged that regardless of the deal’s approval, Iran’s “policy towards the arrogant US will not change”, and that Iran would “never stop supporting” its allies and “the people of Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon.”
Apologists for Iran may dismiss these declarations as mere rhetoric designed to soften domestic criticism by Iranian hardliners against the deal. However, statements by Iran’s allies indicate that they too see the deal as reinforcing the ‘resistance’ bloc. Hezbollah officials, for instance, boasted that with the agreement Iran ‘vanquished and humiliated’ the world powers.
Fear among Arab countries of a nuclear Iran, reinforced by bellicose Iranian statements and actions may provoke a nuclear arms race in West Asia. In other words, the complete opposite of what the agreement had aspired to. Officially, Arab nations in the Gulf welcomed the deal in the hope that it would curtail Iran’s ability to obtain nuclear weapons.
The state-sponsored Gulf media, however, was more forthright. As the memri.org website reported, Gulf newspapers were filled with editorials and op-eds expressing apprehension about the agreement, and terming it ‘a disaster’, and warning saying that it would ‘open the gates of evil’, in the region. Quite a few voices in the Saudi press called upon their government to use the coming decade — the time frame of the agreement — to develop a military nuclear programme, against the nuclear threat that they believe Iran would constitute after the agreement expires.
One should bear in mind that at least two senior Saudis, Emirs Turki bin Faysal and Muhammad bin Nawwaf had spoken recently of such an option quite openly. In addition, Saudi Arabia has taken practical steps to develop a civilian nuclear programme, possibly as a first step towards the military aspect should it feel threatened.
Significantly, there is a conflation of concerns between Israel and various Arab countries over Iran’s regional ambitions and policies. Israelis are disturbed by continuous Iranian calls, headed by Khamenei himself, for the elimination of their state. They fear that Iran, free of any challenge to its goals would push Hezbollah or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to renew their missile attacks on Israel. Shared apprehensions with the Arabs over Iran may pave the way for tacit cooperation on a variety of regional issues.
If the international community seeks stabilisation in the West Asia it must make sure that the nuclear agreement will not serve as a cover for Iran to acquire military nuclear capability or advance its hegemonic regional aspirations.
(Meir Litvak is director, Alliance Center for Iranian Studies, Tel Aviv University. The views expressed are personal.)