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How Arabs will face a rising Iran

The Islamic Republic of Iran will emerge from isolation and get a windfall

Raghida Dergham

Published: Updated:

What style of Iranian rule will be born in the wake of the prospective nuclear deal that might be concluded soon, unless it fails at the 11th hour? Will it unleash a golden age for the Islamic Republic of Iran with hundreds of billions of dollars in cash flows and install Iran as a very successful regional power, as President Obama said? Will the moderate camp in Iran be able to deliver radical changes in the policies of the Islamic Republic in the region, for Iran to act as a rational, wise, and constructive regional power? Or will the hardliner camp fill its pockets with billions of dollars and proceed to implement their project for regional domination, control Iraq and prop-up Bashar al-Assad in Syria, not to mention sabotage Yemen and control Lebanon though Hezbollah? The decision will be Iranian primarily, whether the moderate camp wins or the extremist camp wins, or in the event the two factions play a good cop/bad cop routine. However, the six countries pushing for a historical deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran are responsible too for what the Iranian role in the Middle East will be like – constructive or destabilizing. These countries caved in when Tehran insisted on removing any discussion of its regional roles from the nuclear talks.

It is time for a Gulf strategy based on regional restraint, with new plans and a new roadmap for Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and even Lebanon

Raghida Dergham

The six powers thus agreed to forfeit their pressure cards to counter Iranian regional meddling, while being fully aware that lifting the sanctions on Iran would bring between 100 and 150 billion dollars that would enable Tehran to upgrade its military capabilities and allow the camp in favor of Iranian regional domination to impose their plans on Arab countries. No one is oblivious of what is going to happen in the Middle East if the U.S. president does not make quick decisions concerning the region. However, the U.S. president is not the only actor shaping the history of the Middle East. Russia and China are strategic partners for the Islamic Republic of Iran, and this partnership will grow dramatically through the Shanghai club. Also recall that the BRICS club provided major support for Iran and its ally in Damascus, including at the Security Council. Europe is eager to benefit economically from the lifting of the sanctions on Tehran. Its corporations are keen to compete with U.S. companies to benefit from the coming golden age in Iran. Meanwhile, there is nothing to suggest there is a new Arab or Gulf strategy that is taking into consideration these radical changes in the position of the Islamic Republic for the region, for the United States, and for the world. Perhaps the Gulf countries have American promises that reassure them or nuclear plans as part of establishing a balance of terror. But what this crucial stage requires is new ideas from outside the box. Yet purchasing nuclear capabilities for deterrence will not cure the Arab region from the disasters in Syria, Yemen, Libya, South Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, or the Gulf region.

Before the expected date for concluding the nuclear deal between the P5+1 countries with Tehran, Iranian President Hassan Rowhani visited Russia to take part in an important political event. Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted him at the summits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – which includes Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan – and the BRICS group, which includes Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa, of half of the planet’s population.

India and Pakistan will become full members in the SCO in the city of Ufa, which is hosting both summits. All preparations have been made for Iran to join the SCO as soon as the sanctions are lifted, after the signing of the nuclear deal, bearing in mind that Tehran along is an observer at the SCO. Putting sees both summits as a political demonstration aimed at improving his regional alliances against the West and deepening the Asian depth of Russia.

Taking the lead

From the outset, China allowed Russia to take the lead on Iran’s nuclear deal and its regional ally in Syria, as part of the strategic Russian-Chinese alliance. China benefited secretly from that, and it will benefit publicly from Iranian oil when the sanctions are lifted. For its part, Russia will have a prime market to export weapons, and it will be the biggest winner thanks to its political investment in Iran, now a major strategic partner.

Barack Obama is also overseeing a pivot to Asia, away from the traditional reliance on the Gulf countries and the Middle East. The United States can practically be considered an absent guest at the Ufa summit, 1100 km east of Moscow.

The Islamic Republic of Iran will thus become the primary Middle East partner for the United States, Russia, and Iran after the nuclear deal, through the quantum leap expected in the bilateral U.S.-Iranian relationship does not mean an animus with any of the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which are divided over the position on Iran. Indeed, Oman had brokered secret U.S.-Iranian talks, and it is of the view that a wise policy would factor in reconciliation, coexistence, and cooperation with Iran.

The U.S. scramble towards appeasing Iran has shaken confidence in the United States in the Gulf, and it may no longer be possible for the people and leaders of the Gulf to deal with President Obama. However, this does not represent a good strategy vis-à-vis the historical turning point in U.S.-Iranian relations, with the U.S. recognizing the theocratic regime there. Second, normalization in the U.S.-Iranian relations is something that the U.S. administration, Congress, and majority of public opinion approve of. The United States has chosen appeasement and rejected confrontation, and has chosen Tehran as a regional partner based on a deliberate decision related to its post-9/11 response. Thirdly, the nuclear deal recognizes Iran’s rights to a peaceful nuclear program, and practically accepts Iran as a member of the nuclear club a screw’s turn away from nuclear weapons capabilities, with Iran’s nuclear know-how and funds surviving the deal. Fourthly, the international reticence vis-à-vis Iran’s regional expansionist ambitions means blessing them, bearing in mind that the West’s wager is that a deal would empower moderates and curb regional expansion led by the Revolutionary Guards.

Radical shifts

These are radical shifts that need both urgent and long-term strategies to address. Perhaps participating in the new international relations with Tehran, in support of the moderates in Iran, serves the Arab and Iranian interest equally, and helps reduce the sectarian tension that is devastating both Sunnis and Shiites. This way, the Gulf countries can contribute to supporting the moderate camp in Iran, as part of an international partnership that would be clear in insisting on curbing the hardliner camp seeking to dominate the Arab countries.

Some in the West see benefit in the war between ISIS and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and its proxies, for mutual annihilation. The tragedy is that the arena for this destructive war is not Iran, the United States, Europe, or Russia, but Arab countries and peoples. This tragedy will not end as long as the Arab decisions remain incomplete and restricted, and mostly reactive rather than strategic and proactive.

It is time for a Gulf strategy based on regional restraint, with new plans and a new roadmap for Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and even Lebanon. Even if core principles provide the preliminaries for the desired solutions, there is a need for new proposals in light of the historical transformations that will be brought about by the nuclear deal with Iran, if one is concluded.

Restraining the triumphalism of the Revolutionary Guard and its partners in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen should be a priority for the United States, Russia, Europe, and Iranian actors too. The goal: to avoid this being translated on the ground in a way that Washington would regret and the moderates in Iran would pay the price for – and not just the Arab countries where the Revolutionary Guards are active.

Israel has obtained guarantees from the United States for keeping Iranian military nuclear capabilities frozen for ten years, with the nuclear reactors placed under monitoring, and military preparations in the event Iran circumvents the agreement and makes nuclear weapons. In fact, the Iranian-Israeli relationship is one of “truce,” and the new U.S.-Iranian relationship would reinforce this.

If Israel were truly opposed to the nuclear deal with Tehran, it would have enlisted the pro-Israel lobby in Washington to build serious opposition in Congress to such a deal. But all indications suggest Israel’s objections are casual and not serious or radical.

The Islamic Republic of Iran will emerge from isolation and get a windfall. It will enter the peaceful nuclear club and begin a historical period of normalization with the United States.

How will Iran translate its “rebirth”? The answer probably lies with the supreme leader. He is the one who enabled the hardliners from encroaching into Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. He is the one who proved Iran’s ability to maneuver, negotiate shrewdly, and seize opportunities. So the hope is that he would support the moderates to take Iran towards normalization and constructive policies in the region.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on July 11, 2015.

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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.

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