Commentary | 09 April 2015

Barack Obama's framework nuclear deal with Iran will not ease tension in the Middle East

Barack Obama's framework nuclear deal with Iran will not ease tension in the Middle East

Rodger Shanahan

Sydney Morning Herald

9 April 2015

Click here for the online text

  • Rodger Shanahan

Barack Obama's framework nuclear deal with Iran will not ease tension in the Middle East

Rodger Shanahan

Sydney Morning Herald

9 April 2015

Click here for the online text

  • Rodger Shanahan

Executive Summary

The true import of the agreement arrived at between Iran and the P5+1 regarding Iran's nuclear program will only be known in the months and years to come. But in the early afterglow of a long and difficult negotiation, it is right to understand both what the agreement does and does not represent.

First of all, it shows there is a way to bring about behavioural change in the Middle East other than through the barrel of a gun or the threat of force. A stringent regime of economic sanctions, both multilateral and unilateral, over an extended period, hurt Iran's economy sufficiently to force its leaders to the negotiating table.

And the election of a pragmatic, centrist regime insider as Iranian president in the first round of elections a year ago, showed the public appetite in Iran for an end to the bombastic, confrontational policies of the Ahmadinejad era. But perhaps just as importantly, it delivered a person in President Rouhani who had a good understanding of both the nuclear issue and the West, and who put together a negotiating team that could deliver.

Second, while the framework agreement was between the P5+1 and Iran, it was very much seen as an essential element of President Obama's foreign policy legacy. By all reports he took a personal interest in the finer details of the negotiation's sticking points. The relationships built between personalities in Washington and Tehran as a consequence of these negotiations may well be seen in the future as having laid the foundations for a normalisation of relations some time in the future. Obama may well have achieved a significant foreign policy outcome that has eluded his predecessors.

We should, however, understand that rather than representing the endpoint, this framework is still very much the start of the next phase of the process. The devil is always in the detail and this has to be worked out by the end of June. Not only that, but the agreement has to be sold to both Iranian and US political opponents of the deal. While the framework agreement has lifted confidence inside Iran, steps towards realising the practical elements of the agreement, such as the speed with which economic sanctions are lifted, are yet to be clarified. It is well to understand that until everything is agreed, nothing is agreed.

People should also be careful not to equate a nuclear agreement with a peace agreement, or to think that its signing will do anything to ameliorate the multiple crises in the region. This agreement is simply about regional non-proliferation. Iran will continue to exert its influence through the support it gives to the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and to various groups in Iraq. In all these cases such influence is resented by the Sunni Arab states, and most of them run counter to US interests. This agreement is about achieving a non-proliferation outcome, not anything broader than that.

There has been a saying for some time that the only thing that Saudi Arabia feared more than an Iran ostracised by the international community was an Iran accepted as a member of that community. It has a population three times the size of Saudi Arabia's, a more diversified and underdeveloped economy, greater market potentialities and a better education system. And at the moment the greatest security threat to the region (and the West) is the siren call of Sunni radical extremism, something in which Saudi Arabia and wealthy Gulf individuals have been complicit in spreading through either the sin of commission or omission.

Tensions in the region will not subside as a consequence of the agreement, because the multiple conflicts in the Middle East being fought are a result of the region's "multiple identities" – a phrase coined by historian Bernard Lewis. It is not simply a conflict between Shiite and Sunni Islam. It is about interpretations of Sunni Islam, about Arab suspicions of Persian intent, about traditional power politics between states competing for influence and about people who feel disenfranchised from their political leadership because of their religious, tribal, political or ethnic identity.  Very little of this will change because of the agreement.      

 

Dr Rodger Shanahan is a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.