The 3 myths: how the Iran deal impacts the Middle East
Baseless concerns on the nuclear deal boost an exaggerated fear of Iran.
The nuclear agreement signed in Vienna is a major breakthrough for the United States-Iran relations, and despite warnings, it will not result in further instability in the Middle East.
However, if you listen to political elites and media commentators, both in the US and the Middle East, you would believe the world is about to enter into an age of utter catastrophe – a catastrophe centred around Middle Eastern instability – prompted by Iran and its array of influential powers.
These myths are not grounded in any actual understanding of regional history or political dynamics, but rather are the products of fear tactics with the underlying intent of appealing to domestic constituencies – particularly those of the US and Israel.
Myth 1: the US has abandoned its regional allies for Iran
In response to the deal, US Senator Lindsey Graham warned, “It’s incredibly dangerous for our national security, and it’s akin to declaring war on Sunni Arabs and Israel by the P5+1 [five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany] because it ensures their primary antagonist Iran will become a nuclear power and allows them to rearm conventionally.”
The US and Iran have decreased decades-long bilateral tensions, but this deal is not in any way “akin to declaring war on Sunni Arabs and Israel”.
Both Washington and Tehran have demonstrated that constructive and positive dialogue is possible.
The US and Iran, prior to this deal, proved that they could work as de-facto partners with mutual interests in combating the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL).
That being said, the US and Iran are still at odds over Syria, and Washington has provided Riyadh with intelligence, weapons, and ships to partake in a naval blockade in the campaign against the Houthis in Yemen.
Likewise, the US has in no way abandoned other Gulf states, and will continue to depend on them for stability in the energy market. Bahrain will remain America’s base for its 5th Fleet, and pre-existing regional relationships will remain a high priority.
Myth 2: lifting sanctions on Iran will threaten Israel
Echoing Graham’s statement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that “Iran will get hundreds of billions of dollars with which it will be able to fuel its terror machine”.
By “terror machine”, Netanyahu is referring to the Hezbollah and Hamas groups.
The lifting of sanctions on Iran will unlikely amplify any threat these two groups present to Israel. Hezbollah’s threat to Israel is posed not by its rocket arsenal, but by an experienced group of fighters who can hold Lebanese territory if Israel attacks, as it did in 2006.
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However, Hezbollah’s manpower has been diminished as its military forces are now committed to the fighting in Syria and Iraq; conflicts unlikely to conclude in the near future. Hezbollah is unlikely to provoke a war with Israel with its forces overextended.
Lifting the sanctions can provide Hezbollah with more Iranian financial and military support, but it does not create a surge in Hezbollah’s manpower or fighting effectiveness, which requires years of training and combat experience.
The Iran-Hamas relationship suffered greatly when Hamas leadership was expelled from Syria for its failure to support Damascus and Tehran’s joint efforts in suppressing the Syrian rebels after 2011.
Sanctions were in place on Iran during Israel’s first Gaza War in 2008, yet those sanctions did not damage the ability of Iran to support Hamas.
With or without a deal, many within the region and abroad would have still been wary of Iran.
Even though Iran-Hamas relations were frayed over Syria, Israel still perceived Hamas as a threat, demonstrated by the third Israel-Gaza war in the summer of 2014, which ironically led to a rapprochement between Iran and Hamas a few months later.
Netanyahu’s speech merely seeks to encourage the atmosphere of fear in his country which has garnered widespread political support for himself and his governing tactics.
It is estimated that Israel has a nuclear offensive capability amounting 100-200 nuclear warheads – an arsenal which would clearly deter any hypothetical scenario were Iran ever seek to pursue the use of a nuclear weapon against them. Simply put, Iran is overwhelmingly outgunned.
Israel’s unstated objection to the deal is that it leaves an Iranian nuclear infrastructure intact, giving Iran the potential to challenge Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the region in the future, a monopoly which Israel has officially refused to declare.
Myth 3: Iran’s nuclear programme will set off a nuclear arms race and further destabilise the region
Prior to the deal, the US Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner said: “It would be naive to suggest the Iranian regime will not continue to use its nuclear programme, and any economic relief, to further destabilise the region.”
Destabilisation in countries like Yemen and Syria has resulted from the choices made by their political elites – not by Iran’s intervention.
An influx of Iranian financial support to the government in Damascus or the Houthis in Yemen is unlikely to change the reality of the conflicts there.
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Houthi rebels have been quite effective and have done remarkably well on their own without foreign aid. That being said, their lack of numbers drastically limit their ability to expand their circle of influence, regardless of outside help from a power such as Iran.
Furthermore, while Iran and Turkey support opposing proxies in the Syrian civil war, they both have to gain from the lifting of sanctions due to the politics of energy security. Lifting of sanctions would allow Turkey to resume trade with its neighbour Iran, and facilitate Ankara’s dependence on Iranian natural gas.
The reality of the region is clear: instability is rife, and this instability is likely to continue regardless of Iranian intervention.
Steve Forbes, Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of Forbes Media, wrote: “From all that we now know the agreement will set off a chain reaction of nuclear proliferation in the most unstable region of the world.”
The notion of an Iranian nuclear programme creating a domino effect in the region has been echoed by policy makers and media commentators who are unfamiliar with the dynamics of proliferation in the Middle East.
The nuclear arms race in the region began in the 1970s. Both Iraq and Syria sought their nuclear programmes in direct reaction to Israel’s development of nuclear capabilities.
It has been said that the Saudi Arabia and Turkey will be the next to hop on the nuclear bandwagon; however, neither country has the human capacity or scientific infrastructure to do so without extensive foreign support.
This support is extremely unlikely to be offered by an international system which is entirely committed to preventing further nuclear proliferation – particularly in the Middle East.
With or without a deal, many in the region and abroad would have still been wary of Iran.
Any failure to sign the deal would have only prolonged a decades-long policy of confronting and isolating the Islamic Republic of Iran – a policy which has failed to curb instability in the region or the actions of the state, and has only created stronger animosity towards the West and established powers within the Middle East.
The bottom line here is simple, this deal offers the first real chance to see whether the US-Iranian engagement will in fact produce cooperative opportunities for stability throughout the Middle East.
Ultimately, progress has being made through this deal, and choosing hope over fear can only help.
Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of “Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.