Report: Written By Adam Church.
Last July, Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the UK, Germany and the US) defied history by reaching an agreement which promised to settle tensions and halt Iran’s longstanding nuclear ambitions. The success of the deal however is a long term project, which requires sustained engagement and a sympathetic appreciation of regional unease within a volatile international arena.
In 1995, the political scientist James Fearon likened international politics to a pair of gunslinging cowboys. Living in the anarchic Wild West, with no effective sheriff to enforce the law and protect the townsfolk, all that remains is a preoccupation with security and survival.
The atmosphere is thick with a collective anxiety. Nobody can relax. Inter-cowboy relations are suspicious yet cordial. Friendships are formed, but always strategically, and none are cemented.
Iran can be thought of as an immensely powerful cowboy. In terms of both geography and resources it is the most well-endowed among its neighbours. Iran controls the entire eastern coastline of the Persian Gulf, has a territory only slightly smaller in area than every other Gulf state combined, and possesses the largest natural gas reserves in the world. Militarily, rather than investing in conventional strength, Iran pursues strategic hegemony by wielding influence in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, Iraq and Central Asia.
The prospect of adding a nuclear weapon to this arsenal frightens the entire region. Israel, for example, currently enjoys a nuclear monopoly which ensures it need not compromise with threats to its territory. Even the question of an Iranian nuclear umbrella protecting anti-Zionist proxies would force Israel to practice restraint and diplomacy in what they feel is a zero-sum conflict.
Iran’s closest rival however, is Saudi Arabia. Though Saudi Arabia had an economy 40 per cent larger in 2014, the signing of the JCPOA promises to spell change over the coming years, with unfrozen funds amounting to 20-25 per cent of Iran’s GDP, plus the lifting of international sanctions. In the Wild West, any cowboy with too much clout is threatening. Predictably then, we can see the other states cautiously banding together to balance the Islamic Republic’s lopsided and growing share of regional power.
This year, Pakistan, a predominantly Sunni nuclear power, conducted a joint military exercise with Saudi Arabia and reaffirmed a commitment to the kingdom’s territorial integrity. Likewise, Turkey has moved concertedly towards reconciliation and improved relations with both Israel and Russia as well as solidifying strategic relationships with both Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
As the richest state in the region, Saudi Arabia has shouldered the burden of what theorists call ‘internal balancing’. This takes the form of $56 billion allocated to the armed forces, becoming the third biggest military spender in the world by overtaking Russia. The 2003 toppling of Saddam, for Saudi Arabia represented the removal of a strong Sunni buffer to Iran’s sphere of influence. Since then, Iran has been able to form a ‘Shiite Crescent’ stretching through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, instilling a feeling of semi-encirclement in the Gulf. To prevent becoming further surrounded, the kingdom has intervened directly against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen and backed Sunni rebels in Syria fighting to remove Assad, previously backed by Iran.
For the US, the biggest and baddest cowboy in town, the challenge is to keep its buddies feeling safe and on-side. This was the essence of the Iran deal. At the same time, it must be kept in mind that Iran is also simply looking to feel safe as it grows. The success of the deal therefore hinges on how well, and for how long, it keeps these two plates spinning.
Recent history provides a perfect example of what not to do. Through the 1994 Agreed Framework, the US persuaded North Korea to freeze their nascent nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, energy assistance and improved relations. According to Robert Gallucci and Joel Wit, both of whom worked on the deal, the US subsequently failed to properly deliver the two primary incentives, instead adopting a “problem solved attitude” and assigning their execution to “lower-level bureaucrats”. Unfortunately, the rest is history.
To avoid such a failure with Iran, the US must concentrate on maintaining the incentives which brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. The problem is, the US still upholds sanctions related to human rights abuses, unrelated to the JCPOA but hindering Iran in benefiting from the economic relief they were guaranteed.
The US must also persuade Iran it can be relied upon. This is not helped by the Republican Party, who in July published a platform stating “we consider the Administration’s deal with Iran a personal agreement between the President and his negotiating partners and non-binding on the next president”. Neither candidate for the upcoming election have signalled a commitment to continuing Obama’s approach and as a result many of the banks are speculatively avoiding investment in Iran’s economy, fearing the deal’s collapse.
Uncertainty on the Iranian side is already visible. There have been reports of President Rouhani ordering an intensification of a ballistic missile program as well as attempts to purchase prohibited nuclear materials from within Germany. A year on, the headlines may have faded but trigger fingers are still itchy.