13 Jul 2015

Why an Iran nuclear deal could have unintended consequences

Nixon in China, the fall of the Berlin wall, the end of apartheid – today’s expected deal between western powers and Iran may not be quite as sensational as those historic events but it’s not far off.

It would mark not only the culmination of a 12-year process of negotiation over Iran’s nuclear programme, but also the end of the enmity between the US and Iran that started in 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini seized power from the shah, and youthful revolutionaries held US diplomats hostage in their embassy.

The US and Iran are not going to be new best friends, but the nuclear deal would make cooperation possible, not least in the fight against Islamic State militants in the Middle East.

Iranians are desperate for the deal because it would bring an end to the sanctions that have blighted their lives. President Obama needs it for his legacy. And John Kerry (pictured below) ┬ájust wants to go home – no US secretary of state has spent so much time in one place on one issue since the end of WWII.

More than that, during this latest 17-day marathon negotiating session in Vienna, he’s been on crutches following a cycling accident.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leaves his hotel on the way to mass at the St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, Austria

US Secretary of State John Kerry (Reuters)

But the problems for the US administration are by no means over. Congress is hostile – the Obama team have to win over 12 wavering Democrats to get the deal approved. The Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamn Netanyahu, is dead set against any rapprochement with Iran. And the Gulf countries, long-time western allies, are furious at the idea of a shift in the power balance in the Middle East.

“We accept that the nuclear deal is inevitable,” said a Gulf official recently, “But we fear it will embolden Iran’s expansionist foreign policy in the region.”

The Gulf countries, as Sunni Arab states, resent the growing power of Iran which is not only Shia but also Persian.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which arms and funds Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as backing the governments in Syria and Iraq, is likely to get more funds once sanctions are lifted and assets frozen since 1979 released. They may use the money not only to fight Islamic State, but also to shore up President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

“You westerners see Iran as a player, you see facts on the ground, but for us this is emotional,” said the Gulf official. “The Arab world might be going through a weak phase at this stage in history but that doesn’t mean we’re going to legitimise Iran’s role in Arab affairs.”

A deal with the P5+1, as the negotiating alliance is called, was President Hassan Rouhani’s main aim when he came to power. He has the backing of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamanei.

Similarly, bringing Iran in from the cold was one of President Obama’s major foreign policy goals. For him it will be a huge, historic achievement. But it comes at the expense of angering some of the US’s staunchest allies and may trail unintended consequences in its wake.

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