The interim nuclear deal that Iran and the US and its partners in the P5+1 group (consisting of the five UN Security Council permanent members and Germany) reached in Geneva on November 24, was the momentous event of 2013. Were it to lead to a negotiated resolution of Iran’s nuclear issue, as its architects hope, it could impart a revolutionary turn to Gulf geopolitical dynamics. Contrary to what critics of the Geneva deal fear, this change could be beneficial for the whole region.
The arrangement did not come from nowhere. Iran and the P5+1 had been trying to find some common ground for years. While unsuccessful, these attempts gave the parties the time to familiarise with the main issues on the table and think about technical solutions to their political differences. The turning point was the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president on a platform centred on ending Iran’s isolation, largely a consequence of suspicions that Iran’s nuclear programme served military ends. US President Barack Obama, determined to seize the opportunity, let senior US diplomats secretly meet Iranian officials in Oman. This bilateral back-channel paved the way for the Iran-P5+1 deal.
In Geneva, Iran agreed for the first time in a decade to impose temporary limits on its nuclear work. If thoroughly implemented, such restrictions ensure that when the deal expires next spring, Iran will be farther from acquiring a nuclear weapon capability than it is now. Moreover, the international community will have a deeper knowledge of its nuclear activities thanks to the greater verification powers accorded to UN inspectors. In return, Iran will be spared the imposition of new sanctions and regain access to around $7bn currently frozen by US and EU authorities. These results will be secured even if the deal signatories prove unable to resolve the dispute once and for all.
Geneva deal: a net gain
Thus, provided all parties abide by it, the Geneva deal will indisputably produce a net gain. Yet Israel and several Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia, have questioned the deal’s value, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling it a “historic mistake”. They have two sets of reasons to do so, one that they express publicly and another that they keep to themselves.
Publicly, opponents to the deal complain that Iran has managed to buy time and international goodwill while in fact it has not abandoned the ambition to develop a nuclear weapon capability. Given Iran’s record of nuclear opaqueness, these countries can be excused for being suspicious. Yet, their legitimate concern is not a good basis to criticise the Geneva deal. In fact, they should welcome it, for at least four reasons.
First, the P5+1 and the US have made it clear that the deal is a temporary instrument meant to test Iran’s readiness to negotiate over far stricter limits on its nuclear programme, not a final agreement.
Second, Iran has only gained a modest sanctions relief, which is moreover reversible, while the entire structure of international sanctions remains intact and will only be lifted in the face of a significant rollback of Iran’s nuclear programme.
If Iran were to cheat, the US and its partners will be more inclined to follow the tough line today advocated only by Israel and a handful of Arab countries.
Third, not only will Iran be under more intrusive scrutiny by UN inspectors, but it will also be under immense international pressure to come clean.
If Iran were to cheat, and this is the fourth point, the US and its partners will be more inclined to follow the tough line today advocated only by Israel and a handful of Arab countries. If it is true that there has hardly been a time in the last 20-odd years during which Iran has not had undeclared nuclear facilities, it is also true that Western intelligence has proved effective in discovering hidden sites, such as the Fordow enrichment centre. Iran would risk enormously if it were to pursue a clandestine path, not least because, again thanks to the Geneva deal, it is now bound to full disclosure by an agreement it has signed itself (it wasn’t so before, when Iran fiercely contested its legal obligation to declare all of its nuclear-related activities).
If Israel and Saudi Arabia publicly warn that the Geneva deal is an Iranian hoax, in private they are no less concerned that it might actually succeed, i.e. lead to a final arrangement and, eventually, to a US-Iran rapprochement. Israel and several Arab states essentially perceive regional geopolitics as a zero-sum game, where the gain of their rival Iran is equal to a net loss for them. This is an oversimplification, of course, but ultimately it is the perception of Iran as a foe that can only be isolated and contained that feeds Israeli and Saudi anxieties. Yet, even assuming that Gulf geopolitics cannot but be conflictual, the calculus of the countries opposing the deal is wrong.
A friendlier Iran?
An Iran that cooperates with the US – as a consequence of the nuclear deal – is a stronger guarantee against the possibility that it aggressively pursues policies contrary to Saudi and other Arab Gulf states’ interests than a besieged regime surrounded by hostile countries. To clarify the point, Iran’s leadership will be more inclined to exercise restraint if it thinks that this serves the strategic objective of preserving a newly found dialogue-based relationship with the US. Certainly the Iranian-Saudi rivalry will not disappear overnight, but it would become less prone to sliding into confrontation if they are both committed, though in varying degrees, to Washington.
Israel might be right in fearing that a more “respectable” Iranian regime could challenge its interests more effectively. However, it is necessary to draw a distinction between Israel’s interest in national security and in regional supremacy. The former will undoubtedly be bolstered by a US-Iran rapprochement, because the prospect of a potential (though frankly implausible) Iranian nuclear strike against Israel will vanish and because the regime will be wary of spoiling the detente course set with the US by taking extreme measures against a key US ally. But Israel’s regional supremacy – that is, the ability to act at will on the sole basis of its military and technological superiority over all rivals – could in fact eventually suffer from better US-Iran relations, albeit in the long rather than short term.
Would this be such a bad result? The Israeli leadership might be ensnared by the idea that their country can go on indefinitely as the region’s mightiest and most loathed country. Yet, the truth is that a regional state system based on mutual recognition and restraint would better serve its interests. Multipolarity might one day severely limit the US’ ability to stand by Israel as effectively as today. But for the time being, the US is still the indispensable nation: neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia nor any other Arab state can do much without it. They should seize the opportunity the persistent US pre-eminence offers and use the potential for regional stability enshrined in a US-Iran rapprochement to their advantage.
Riccardo Alcaro is Senior Fellow at IAI, where he coordinates the EU-funded Transworld project on the future of the transatlantic relationship; he is responsible for the organisation of the annual Transatlantic Security Symposium. He is a fellow of the European Foreign and Security Policy Studies.