Iran is a force to be reckoned with. As the largest country in the Middle East, it has a young and well-educated population, as well as the capacity to pursue a serious international agenda.
With only a few days remaining to negotiate an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, focus is shifting to the potential impact of the deal on regional security. A nuclear deal could open the doors to sustained, tactical cooperation between the West and Iran — a real necessity in an otherwise crumbling region.
So is Iran the West’s next partner in the region?
Doubtful. No one is ready to call Iran a friend. And despite Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s apparent change of tone, no hardliner in Iran is ready for a serious rapprochement with the Great Satan, either.
Nevertheless, a deal opens the door to a number of things. For better or worse, meaningful dialogue with Iran is predicated on resolving the nuclear issue. All other problems have taken a back seat over the past two decades. A deal makes sustained engagement of Iran a possibility. It presents an opportunity to moderate Iran’s three decades of hostility towards the West. And it makes it possible to draw Iran into an effort to stabilize the Middle East. In a region characterized by chaos, strong states that aren’t systematically opposed to Western policies are welcome.
What’s more, a deal will empower President Hassan Rouhani’s administration. Today, the foreign ministry makes few foreign policy decisions; the most important ones, including those about Syria and Iraq, are largely within the remit of Iran’s revolutionary guards. A nuclear agreement would give Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif the political capital to gradually takeover these files, and lend credence to the team that actively seek engagement with the rest of the region. After all, Foreign Minister Zarif continues his overtures to Saudi Arabia, despite domestic hardliner opposition.
There is no doubt that a strong, liberal and independent Iran will naturally pursue its own interests, and these may not always align with the West’s. But Tehran is more likely to be sympathetic to Western goals if it develops ties with the European Union and the United States. There is no shortage of common goals: From combating extremism to stopping the drug trade by ensuring a stable government in Afghanistan, Iran and the West have their work cut out for them.
At present, nothing is more pressing to both sides than defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Iran is more committed to Iraq than any other regional player, and ISIL can’t be defeated with U.S.-led airstrikes alone. The coalition needs local and regional support, and with a deal, greater coordination between all sides becomes diplomatically acceptable.
While it will remain politically untenable for either side to openly cooperate with one another — no major player in international politics envisions joint combat roles — separate and complementary tactical approaches and coordination between the coalition and Iran will make the fight more effective.
Syria poses a greater problem, because Iran’s goals there do not align with the West’s. Tehran spent the last four years propping up Bashar al-Assad, whom the US and its allies want to remove. Nevertheless, a resolution of the Syria crisis is impossible without Iranian involvement. Tehran is too big of a player in the conflict to ignore. While not guaranteed, a nuclear agreement could help convince Khamenei that Rouhani’s more moderate approach on Syria is the right one.
Many observers fear that a deal will intensify a new cold — and some would argue, already hot — war between Saudi Arabia and its allies on the one hand and Iran on the other. The reality is that no acceptable nuclear deal with Iran can truly satisfy the Gulf Arab states. That said, Iran’s nuclear program is a secondary concern to leaders in the region. Their primary concern is Iran’s expansionist foreign policy, and this won’t go away with a deal, they say. Gulf Arab states see the Iranians’ influence everywhere, and to be fair, Iranian officials do little to dispel these theories when they boast about controlling multiple Arab capitals.
To the Gulf Arabs, a deal will free Iran’s hand at their expense. But these states each fear Iran’s regional hegemony with varying intensity. While all will be forced to acquiesce to the agreement, some will react more strongly than others, especially Saudi Arabia.
Regardless of the outcome of a nuclear deal, Riyadh will continue on its current, more assertive foreign policy trajectory, involving itself either overtly or through its checkbook diplomacy in regional conflicts where Iranian influence and involvement is perceived. Syria will remain the primary battlefield of the Saudi-Iranian tension. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates, will likely follow Riyadh’s lead. But tensions between Dubai and Abu Dhabi are likely to resurface as Iran opens up to business and Dubai re-emerges as a business hub for trade with Iran.
Oman, for its part, will welcome the agreement, and Qatar, while fearful of a rising Iran, must cooperate with Tehran on their shared gas fields, for instance.
With some relationship management and a combination of strategic dialogue and reassurances, including an explanation that increasing Iran’s sense of security is also good for Gulf allies, Europe and the U.S. can — and indeed, must — keep these fears in check.
A nuclear agreement will ensure that a barrier to engagement of Iran is removed. Dialogue with a more responsible Tehran will become the norm rather than the exception. This can only be positive for the Middle East.