A regional game changer

We may soon see foreign investors, traders, technology suppliers for exploring, developing Iran’s natural resources

Rasul Bakhsh Rais July 14, 2015
The writer is a professor of political science at LUMS

The nuclear agreement between the great powers of today and Iran is a historic event, and depending on the goodwill and understanding achieved on one single issue, may positively influence the complex issues of regional peace and stability. After years of behind-the-scenes and public negotiations on how to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, a landmark agreement has been achieved, which demonstrates wisdom, pragmatism and skillful diplomacy from both sides. In my view, there are no losers, if one is looking for any; it is a win-win deal.

What does Iran get out of the deal and what are the gains for the US and its regional and European allies? Before I answer these two questions, let me briefly refer to some of the changes happening inside Iran and within the region that have made this historic event possible. First, of course, is the election of President Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatic politician wanting to change the direction of domestic and international policies of Iran. He received a big mandate for making a departure from the rigid and dogmatic policies of his predecessor. In Iran’s case, the domestic agenda is stuck in the mud of its international isolation. Sanctions and containment policies led by the US for over 35 years have hurt the country very badly. It had only limited success in finding some space for its survival in a US-dominated world order. Its natural growth as a society, state and regional power has been constrained.

Iran is a divided society and polity stuck between the powerful clerical establishment, and a largely moderate population and reformist, pragmatic leaders. Sanctions and isolation only strengthened the power base of the conservative religious establishment. International connectivity and better opportunity for improving economic growth may provide the necessary resources for development, and eventually lessen the power of the establishment. But that is in the long run. In the immediate future, we may see a flow of foreign investors, traders and suppliers of technology in the exploration and development of Iran’s huge natural resources. By signing this agreement, Iran’s leadership has unshackled itself.

The messy geopolitical landscape of the Middle East, the collapse of several states, and raging multiple conflicts — sectarian, radical, ethnic and tribal — have forced the US to seek a better understanding with Iran, whose nuclear ambitions have been the greatest obstacle for the US in reviewing its Middle East policy. Undoubtedly, Washington’s regional allies — Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Israel — have serious reservations about the US reaching a deal with Iran. Obviously, the momentum the nuclear deal creates, may bring Iran into the centre stage of Middle Eastern politics. It is something that Washington’s regional allies will resist. The Arab states don’t want to see Iran playing any role in what happens in their region. But for practical reasons, Iran is very much involved, for better or for worse, in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

The US and other world powers at the negotiating table got what they wanted —a screeching stop to Iran’s nuclear programme. Under the terms of agreement, the country will not be allowed to develop any weapons capacity. The only concession is that it will retain its scientific and technological infrastructure, but significantly reduce uranium enrichment or anything leading to the development of a weapons capacity. It will be under strict international inspections and will have to open up all its nuclear facilities.

For President Barack Obama, the nuclear deal with Iran will be as big a legacy issue as was the restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba. Bold initiatives as these are, he may counter opposition from Republicans, but that is part of the political game. Every big change has its opponents.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 15th,  2015.

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