31 Mar 2015

Iran nuclear deal could have unintended consequences for US

Diplomats like to talk about “silos” – separate containers for different issues. Iran’s nuclear programme is supposedly in a separate silo from Iran’s growing influence across the Middle East.

Reality, however, doesn’t stay into silos. It’s messy and leaky.

The Middle East is on fire. Iran is deeply implicated in the civil wars in Syria and Iraq and, to some extent, Yemen. Each conflict has its own internal dynamic, but is also a proxy war between Sunni Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, and Shia Persian Iran.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the US has been on the side of the Saudis in this long-standing rivalry between Persia and the Arab world. The Americans hope that a nuclear deal may help extinguish the inferno engulfing the region, but the Saudis say it will fan the flames.

A senior official from a Gulf country told me a few weeks back that he was not concerned about a nuclear deal, which he saw as an agreement between world powers and the moderate element of the Iranian government, led by President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif (pictured below left, with Ali Akbar Salehi of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation).

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif greets Head of Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi as he arrives for a meeting with officials from P5+1, the European Union and Iran at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne

“What I’m really worried about is Iran’s foreign policy, what they’re doing in the region,” he said. “I don’t think the moderates have any control over that.”

But others see the two issues as interlinked. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Qods Force are fighting alongside government forces in Iraq and Iran, trying to consolidate the power of Shia governments against Sunni uprisings and the jihadis of the Islamic State. Such is the opacity of the Iranian political system, it’s hard to know if those at the forefront of nuclear negotiations approve this policy, or see it as beyond their purview.

As nuclear talks began, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries launched air strikes against the Houthis, Iran’s allies in Yemen. A coalition of Gulf-backed rebel groups seized the key Syrian town of Idlib, their first major victory in a year or more. These are moves designed to show the US that pursuing detente with Iran will not be cost-free.

The US, backed by China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany, hopes that a nuclear deal with Iran might not just prevent the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear weapon but also pave the way for broader talks. America’s Middle East policy is a mess: they’re with Iran in Iraq, against it in Syria and Yemen. The US and Iran see the jihadis of the Islamic State as the greatest danger in the region – they need to talk about how to counter their common enemy.

The Saudis don’t look at it like that. They oppose IS but see Iran as the historic enemy. The US has long been their main ally. Faced with the possibility of detente between their best friend and their worst enemy, they’re determined to show that a nuclear deal will have unpleasant consequences for those hoping to shake hands and smile in Switzerland later today.

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