A nuclear bargain and a bleaker Middle East

The Iran nuclear deal as a new source of tension between Iran and its Arab neighbors

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

Most people in the Levant, Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula will not read the full text of the Iran nuclear deal, technically known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). And even if it is implemented without major violations it will not alter in any meaningful ways the fact that already millions of them, in the words of Henry David Thoreau ‘lead lives of quiet desperation’. Long before the deal was signed and sealed, some of these brittle societies were being brutalized by their governments and the modern equivalent of marauding barbarians, waving flags claiming divine mandates and calling themselves inter alia ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra, Hezbollah and The Badr Organization. Iran and its proxies are at the heart of these bloody upheavals. And long before the nuclear deal, and long before the ill winds of the Arab uprisings, the Levant Arabs have long chafed under their status of living in the shadows of their more assertive neighbors; the Israelis, the Turks and the Iranians. In recent years however, Iran’s shadow loomed largest.

A bleaker landscape

The nuclear deal coming six and a half years after President Obama extended his hand to the Ayatollah’s clenched fist and loosening it a bit, is seen by many Arabs as signifying the beginning of an American strategic shift towards Iran as the regional influential, at a time when they are locked in what they and the Iranians see as an epochal geo-political struggle with its attendant ugly sectarian overtones. To say that Arab-Iranian relations are complex is to state the obvious. Suffice to say that contradictory political and economic interests, with devastating proxy wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, cultural and historical rivalries masked in sectarian demonization and claims of leadership of the Muslim Ummah, all combine to make some of these tensions immune to solutions in the foreseeable future. The nuclear deal with Iran did not create the nightmarish agonies of Syrians, Iraqis and Yemenis, and even if one agrees with its supporters that it will severely limits Iran’s nuclear ambitions, still the political and symbolic meaning of the deal, as thrusting this theocratic Iran on the road of normalizing relations with the rest of the world, is very likely to make an already bleak region even bleaker.

A resurgent Iran?

In a region where perception usually trumps reality, the nuclear deal comes at a time when many people in the region believe that America’s influence in the Middle East and beyond is declining, and that Iran despite its economic woes and overextended security burdens, is a rising power. The nuclear deal, as touted by Iranian officials and their allies in Syrian, and Iraq and their hired media outlets is seen as a validation of Iran’s narrative of its indispensable regional role, even for the United States as has been demonstrated in bold relief in the tacit alliance between Iran and the U.S. against ISIS in Iraq. Not only did the United States refuse to condition the nuclear talks on Iran stopping its malign activities in the region, The Obama administration refused to alienate its interlocutors by seriously attempting to undermine these activities particularly in Syria, in part because it was concerned that Iran might retaliate against American personnel in Iraq, and because it did not want the negotiations to be derailed. The great power was intimidated by the regional power.

President Obama himself reinforced this Iranian narrative, by his talk of Iran becoming ‘a very successful regional power’ without conditioning his recognition of this status on a shift in Iran’s behavior. Obama spoke implicitly and approvingly of ‘a practical streak to the Iranian regime’, how Iranian leaders are ’responsive, to some degree, to their publics’. The President is betting also on ‘ those forces within Iran that want to break out of the rigid framework that they have been in for a long time to move in a different direction’. By contrast, President Obama spoke about the ‘alienated youth’ in Arab societies in the Gulf, and ‘an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances’. Some of these observations are undeniably correct, but their real impact was to heighten the perception that the United States is paving the way for a new relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Add to that, the impact of the ‘pivot’ to Asia (an inevitable shift that was exaggerated by Arabs) and the fracking revolution that made the United States a colossal energy producer, and one can understand the sense of Arab concern, again exaggerated, that the U.S. is gradually lowering its profile in the Middle East/Gulf region, and pushing it further under Iran’s shadow.

On the road to Tehran

Regardless of whether sanctions relief will give Iran about $60 billion of its frozen assets as the Obama administration stresses, or more than $100 billion as its critics claim, Iran’s depleted coffers will be boosted by new funds. The Obama administration and many outside experts say the new monies will be spent on domestic needs, but the fact remains that some of these funds will be given to the security structures including the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to fund its operations and influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and beyond. Many countries and international corporations will see in these funds and new revenues from oil sales when sanctions on this sector are removed, as a big treasure to be tapped into. Already, we are seeing the beginning of a long caravan of eager diplomats, from Europe, Russia, and China and even from some Arab countries moving on the road to Tehran to do business. (Appropriately, the origin of caravan is the Persian kārwān). During the negotiations, the French staked a hard line position. But after the deal was signed, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius was the second senior European official to visit Tehran (after the German minister of the economy Sigmar Gabriel), to talk business and invite President Hassan Rouhani to visit Paris in November. When the nuclear sanctions are lifted, re-imposing them- the so-called snapback option- if Iran engaged in some cheating, will be very difficult and unrealistic, unless Iran decides to totally scuttle the deal, which is very unlikely.

Circling the wagons

Given that anti-Americanism is a central tenet in the ideology of the Iranian regime, a deal with the U.S. widely seen as a victory for the moderates, requires compensating the hardliners and the Revolutionary Guards with funds and more leeway to re-assert their anti-American credentials. Iran will continue to exert its political and military influence in Iraq, not only to confront ISIS, but also to secure that Iraq will remain in the future in its orbit to prevent forever the emergence of another Saddam Hussein to challenge its regional writ, and to make sure that Iraq’s oil production will not be at its expense.

Iran will continue to deploy Arab Shiite militias and affiliated groups in its proxy wars in the region. Tehran’s ability to fight Arabs with Arabs gives it tremendous power and flexibility, and allows it to deploy its elite forces only sparingly. It is true that the Syrian regime is fraying and it represents a huge financial burden on Iran which, according to some estimates spends $6 billion a year to prop up the Assad regime, but there is no solid evidence that Tehran is likely to drop Assad any time soon, although one could see this happening if it becomes clear that saving Iran’s influence and huge interests in Syria requires ditching Assad for an acceptable alternative to Tehran that is less ideal than Assad, who gave Iran all the levers of power in Syria. Iran could live with a disintegrating Syria in the sparsely inhabited center and the East, and will help Assad, directly and through the Lebanese Hezbollah maintain tenuous control over Damascus and a strip of land adjacent to the Lebanese border all the way to coastal Syria, where most Alawites, Assad’s co-religionists live. Defending a rump Syrian state will surely be hard but having more funds will help Iran maintain its supply lines to its most important regional and original proxy, the Lebanese franchise of Hezbollah.

Like Syria, Yemen is suffering from a ‘perfect storm’; political and social fragmentations; regional and international states and groups are engaged in multiple fights, a secessionist movement in the South, the powerful Houthis of the north striking an alliance with Iran, the most active and dangerous Al-Qaeda branch and a diminishing water table. One cannot see Saudi Arabia co-existing with a regime in Sana’a that is not friendly to Riyadh. For all of these reasons Iran and the Arab states of the Gulf will do their version of circling the wagons for a protracted ugly shoot out.

The escalating human toll

Finally, the Iran nuclear deal as a new source of tension between Iran and its Arab neighbors, will inevitably contribute to tightening the repression in Arab societies in the name of galvanizing and uniting the people to fight Iran and its Arab proxies From Yemen on the Indian Ocean to Lebanon and Syria on the Mediterranean. Many Arab societies have been hollowed out and militarized long before the Iran nuclear deal and the Arab uprisings. But the historic collapse of the very foundations of the political order that prevailed for a century in the Levant and Mesopotamia in the last five years is irrevocably transforming and fragmenting the region’s social, cultural and political fabric, leaving behind tattered identities. The dangers of the unprecedented Sunni-Shiite bloodletting, and the rise of the fanaticism of the non-state actors, will be magnified in the wake of the nuclear deal. The immediate future of the region will be millions of children deprived of structured schooling, to be added to the 21 million children already out of schools. In a region that has less than 5% of the world’s population, the number of peoples who were forced to become refugees is almost half of the refugee population of the world. Syria’s refugees, close to five millions, constitute the worst humanitarian crisis in the new century. In Yemen, people are dying of hunger; with one third of the population suffer from malnutrition. If one engages in the grizzly ritual of counting the daily harvest of blood in the majority Arab states in the region, one would be horrified, at the ability of the reaper to cut lives. Is anyone keeping up with the number of people who have disappeared in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya or even in Egypt? The misery index for the Arabs has given us new categories of Arab victims such as, migrant Arabs, and children warriors. The nuclear deal with Iran, may have capped temporarily the nuclear storm inside Iran’s reactors, but the political fallouts of the deal will likely leave a long trail of human wreckage in its wake.


Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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