Iran’s nuclear deal has the potential of changing US-Iranian relations as well as regional power dynamics – finally, after decades of disruptive clashes.
While the Shah’s Iran was one of the closest Western allies in the region, the new Islamic Republic quickly became one of the main threats to US interests in the region. The Iran-Iraq war, the hostage crisis, and Iran’s support for Hamas/Hezbollah/Houthi groups, as well as US support for Mujaheddin, Gulf states and Israel have caused endless conflicts between the two nations. While the Clinton administration, facing a liberal Iranian government, saw slight improvements, relations soured quickly after 9/11, with Iran being declared part of the “axis of evil” and hardliners winning in Teheran.
However, a lot of things have changed in the Middle East since the 80s. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a regional powerhouse, is no more. Bagdad is controlled by pro-American, pro-Iranian politicians. The Kurdish regional government in North Iraq plays a significant role and is very careful with its foreign relations. Hezbollah and Hamas have become somewhat civilian actors – while still militarily active, they are involved in civilian governments and are at least partially recognized. Meanwhile, the Taliban and radical Sunni groups in Afghanistan have been marginalized, and both Iran and America have an interest to keep the Kabuli government in power. In short: Iran and the US share interests in Afghanistan and Iraq, and at least do not clash too directly in Palestine and Lebanon. And other conflicts – such as Syria and Yemen – see the involvement of other regional powers (Turkey/Gulf states) rather than the US, who seem mainly interested in stability, no matter what.
In this new situation, there are two major challenges to US-Iranian relations: Israel’s scepticism towards Teheran and Iran’s nuclear programme. In fact, Israel’s prime minister Netanyahu has been eager to denounce any kind of deal with Iran – for years now. Even within Israel, disagreementss on security issues are not unknown, especially about the extent of the Iranian nuclear programme. Yet, Netanyahu seemed eager to do everything he could to stop peace talks – from his famous speech with the bomb cartoon to his visit to the US congress, where he alienated Obama even more. And since the deal with Iran has been negotiated, he has been changing his stance almost daily, ranging from strict criticism (“will threaten survival of Israel“) to offering slight changes that would make the deal “better, but not good“.
With that line – demanding the strictest possible result from negotiations – it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the US do not seem much inclined to pay any attention to him. The criticism of the deal is probably directed domestically rather than internationally; Netanyahu should know that there is nothing to win now. The deal will offer too many opportunities for the US and its allies, and even promote US interests which, although very similar, go beyond those of Israel.
With a nuclear deal, and sanctions out of the way, US-Iranian cooperation in the fight against Isis could become more public. Israel, America and all adjacent countries have an interest in fighting the group, yet cooperation with Iran has been tedious at best – no one wants the public backlash of cooperating with the “enemy”. Solving the biggest issue separating Iran and the US could be a first step to cooperation in supporting the Iraqi government, which all sides agree on. Maintaining control over said government, then, is the critical issue where US/Iranian interests might clash – alas, that seems like a problem for the future. Keeping Bagdad in power is a more urgent matter right now.
Oh, the opportunities!
More importantly, Iran is a major player in any possible peace process in Syria. Even though it might not look like it right now – eventually, a peace process will be the only way of ending the war and maintaining some form of security. As long as Iran is threatened by US dominance, it is unlikely to let go of its only ally in the region. With the nuclear deal, there is now more room for cooperation – Iran might be willing to bring Asad to the table if the US is willing to bring the rebels to the table. Establishing trust and cooperation through the nuclear deal could be the first step in establishing a relationship that allows Iran to concede total cooperation with Syria in exchange for security and a slightly less controllable government. After all, a less threatening US might be a US that maintains Iran’s interests in Syria.
Essentially, the deal provides the US with more options in regional politics, for example by cooperating with Iran on certain issues in Syria, Iraq or even Yemen (something which Israel does not approve of). For Iran, it provides security – instead of open conflict with the US (let alone the threat of regime change), it has opportunities to cooperate on issues like Isis. The end of economic sanctions, apart from being highly beneficial to the Iranian economy, decrease dependency on Russia and China – something Obama surely appreciates.
US-Iranian relations will not immediately turn around due to the nuclear deal. Lebanon, Hamas and Israel-Iranian relations are obstacles that seem impossible to overcome in the near future. Other obstacles, such as the Yemeni and Syrian conflict, might be more realistic, but will require a lot of good will on both sides and continued dominance of “doves” over foreign policies, both in Iran and the US. However, the nuclear deal provides an important opportunity fight problems such as Isis and create more stability for the region.