There is little ambiguity in Iran’s position regarding the mechanism and timeframe of lifting international, European, and U.S. sanctions on Tehran following a nuclear agreement immediately after a deal is concluded and not later. Rather, the ambiguity comes from the White House regarding what is being negotiated with respect to the sanctions. The ambiguity is coupled with measures Congress has up its sleeve in this regard, serious and actual measures not meant for one-upmanship.
There is little ambiguity in the Iranian policy on Syria, which Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reiterated this week, stressing support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rejecting the principle of a transitional governing body in Syria that is the foundation and reference framework in the internationally agreed Geneva I communique. Rather, the ambiguity comes from the United States and the European Union, which seem to have both signaled to U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura to not fear reactions against inviting Iran to participate in negotiations on Syria’s future despite opposition from the Arab countries, and to not bother to clarify his alternative to the Geneva I communique. European Union foreign policy representative Frederica Mogherini even insisted on Iran playing a key role without explaining why this would be positive, and made sure to send implicit messages to Saudi Arabia and other countries opposed to the Iranian role saying it would be simplistic to believe Iran could disappear from the map.
A de-facto ally
There is no ambiguity at all in Tehran’s satisfaction with being a de-facto ally of the United States in the war on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. This is how the Iranian government hoped the U.S. administration would think since the start of the conflict in Syria, which Iran insisted is a war with terrorism. Thus, ISIS was allowed to emerge and a de-facto alliance was forged between Washington and Tehran to crush it. Rather, the ambiguity comes from the heart of the Obama administration, which is secretly dealing with Iran in the war on ISIS in Syria and Iraq while publicly dealing with the Arab countries in a so-called international anti-ISIS coalition, all while pushing both Iran and the Arabs to be distrustful of one another.
Iran is clear in wanting a quagmire in Yemen for Saudi Arabia unless Riyadh agrees to legitimize the Houthi coup against the legitimate governmentRaghida Dergham
Iran is clear in wanting a quagmire in Yemen for Saudi Arabia unless Riyadh agrees to legitimize the Houthi coup against the legitimate government. The Obama administration is playing both sides. Iran is not ambiguous in holding on to its cards and interests in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. Rather, what is ambiguous is the long-term comprehensive Arab strategy towards Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions, coupled with the ambiguity of the U.S. intentions in the same regard. Indeed, Washington seems willing to give Tehran all it is asking for in return for the nuclear deal - which the U.S. discourse these days suggests is ready for signing - while averting to confront Iran to curb its expansion in the Arab countries. If the Arab leaders heading to Camp David to meet with President Obama have any grievances, these will not be taken seriously unless they are clear and firm about what they accept or insist upon in this fateful period of time. Ambiguity is not in the Arab interest nor in the U.S. interest in the end.
Some like to compare the nuclear agreement to be signed between the United States and Iran to the historical agreements between the United States and China, for which the prominent strategist Henry Kissinger is credited. The detente with China was a delicate balancing act of U.S.-Sino-Russian relations, on the basis that both China and Russia needed the United States. The United States was able to benefit in a great strategic way from that reality.
In the agreement with Iran, the United States does not benefit from closing the book on the animus with the mullah regime in Tehran, which took power 36 years ago and introduced religious domination over the state in the Middle East. Many Americans like to think that the nuclear deal will turn the page on America’s wars, protect the United States from Sunni extremism, and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
There are many holes in these assumptions. First, the nuclear deal postpones but does not abolish Iran’s non-peaceful nuclear capabilities. So practically speaking, the United States is agreeing to abolish the nuclear non-proliferation duty not only because regional countries will seek nuclear weapons if Iran acquires them, but because the entire international non-proliferation regime could collapse as countries like Brazil, for example, will not sit idly by.
Second, allowing Tehran to gather more ways to increase its dominance by lifting the sanctions and letting U.S. and European companies make huge investments in Iran that can never be reversed by being “snapped back,” that is re-imposing sanctions, would exacerbate extremism. The tens of billions of dollars that Tehran will reap upon signing the nuclear deal would more or less mean funding its regional projects including expansion into the Arab countries. This is tantamount to investing in sectarian wars in the Islamic world, and this is not a wise policy and it will not spare the countries that feed hostility and strife.
Third, the arrangements related to ensuring Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons are so complicated that they almost become useless. This will increase the sense of arrogance within the Iranian leadership, which would have disposed of the sanctions while obtaining the tools it requires to implement its nuclear and regional plans - with U.S. and European financing.
The new Kissinger deal?
Many have reservations on whether the nuclear deal being drafted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pursuant to Obama’s vision resembles the breakthrough made by Kissinger in U.S.-Chinese relations. One observer well familiar with the secrets and details of the framework agreement with Iran said: “This is not an agreement similar to what Kissinger secured. It is similar to the agreement concluded by Chamberlain,” in reference to the British prime minister at the time and his famous appeasement of Hitler. The observer believes Tehran will exploit the qualitative shift in U.S.-Iranian relations after the nuclear deal to bolster its projects for regional dominance, on the basis that Iran would become a trusted partner of the United States.
Tehran is seeking to impose its model - of religion imposed on the state - on the countries of the region as a fait accompli. Iran is even encouraging the Muslim Brotherhood to press ahead with their project which imposes religion on the state in the Sunni world. According to Tehran’s calculations, this is what the Obama administration, since supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as representatives of “moderate Islam”, wants. At the same time, Iran is seeking to highlight what it claims to be support by certain Arab regimes against extremism and terror, paving the way to the encirclement of regimes in the Gulf region and Egypt using the Muslim Brotherhood, and ISIS and similar groups on the other hand, to bring down these regimes.
Accusing Saudi Arabia
Jawad Zarif, during his address at New York University last Tuesday, deliberately accused Saudi Arabia of financing and recruiting ISIS. He told his U.S. audience that Saudi Arabia and its allies previously funded, recruited, and supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein. The Iranian foreign minister portrayed Iran as fighting in the frontlines against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and as a reliable ally for Washington in the fight against ISIS. He deliberately ignored to mention Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries participating in this war, despite their actual participation in the international anti-ISIS coalition. In short, Jawad Zarif presented Iran as the true ally of the United States against ISIS, because it is operating on the ground in Syria and Iraq while others are operating in the sky, and as is known, wars are settled on the ground.
Jawad Zarif promoted a regional security regime, indicating that Tehran believes resolution 598 related to the ceasefire with Iraq in 1986 is the basis and the mechanism - he was keen to say security cannot be bought or imported, suggesting the Gulf countries imported their security through the alliance with the United States. The thrust of his message is that that time is over and that Iran is ready to replace the Gulf states because it does not need to import or purchase security, but is ready for a qualitatively different partnership.
The Obama administration must think carefully about all these aspects of the Iranian proposals and decide what it really wants in the relationship with the Arab Gulf countries. If it concludes that it has no need for the Gulf states at this period or in the context of its grand strategy, it must then prepare for the consequences which may not be solely produced by the leaders of these countries. Indeed, the peoples of the Arab region have lost a lot of confidence in the United States and are fed up with the U.S. blessing of Iranian domination.
Regarding investigating the sources of funding for ISIS, according to U.S. officials, Saudi Arabia has made great strides in cooperation with the United States. Qatar is also seriously cooperating. There is no reason why the Obama administration should therefore disrupt these efforts or feed those who oppose this necessary cooperation. If it does that, the Obama administration would be seriously undermining the Arab regimes cooperating with it, and would be a partner of Iran is seeking to encircle them and bring them down.
These are issues that the Arab leaders must discuss frankly in Camp David when meeting with President Obama. However, this is not enough. The Arab leaders must also bring with them a comprehensive strategy that tackles U.S.-Gulf and U.S.-Arab relations in light of the new U.S.-Iranian relationship.
It is too late for the Grand Bargain that would cover the regional aspect and relations with the major powers in arrangements where mutual and varying interests are considered in equal measure. It is time for an alternative to the Grand Bargain, in a way that would ensure the Arab region does not become fair game for the Islamic Republic or Israel.
This is a great responsibility that lies on the shoulders of Arab leaders led by Saudi leaders. Iran is clear, and it is time for the Arabs to be clear as well.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on May 1, 2015 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.SHOW MORE