The greatest criticism of this week’s nuclear deal with Iran was always going to come from America’s closest allies in the Middle East. They complain openly that the Obama administration has been recklessly naive, hoodwinked by the wily mullahs of Tehran.
But their critique of President Barack Obama also reflects a deeper fear of abandonment. They worry that the US is walking away from the Middle East. They sense there is in Washington a more pragmatic attitude to regional alliances. In the denser conspiracy theories of some, they see the nuclear deal as the preamble to a broader US alliance with Iran.
The truth is the current regime in Tehran isn’t going to become an ally of Washington anytime soon, even if it implements the nuclear deal to perfection. But that’s not the same as saying that Iran, a country rich in natural and human resources and boasting enormous economic opportunities, might not become a more natural partner of the US over time.
Ironically, in a region where you can still be stoned for adultery, strategic promiscuity has long been the norm. Iran itself went from being a pillar of US policy in the Middle East before the Islamic revolution in 1979 to the US’s most virulent protagonist soon after.
The US’s traditional allies should be sweating for other reasons, too. If the US is backing away from the Middle East it is because it has racked its wits, spent much of its treasure and way too much of its blood in the region to little effect. It has tried to make peace and it has fought wars, and often its regional partners have neither been the easiest friends nor the most reliable allies.
Israel has been the most vocal opponent of the nuclear accord and undoubtedly has the most to fear from it. If Obama has got it wrong and Iran gets the bomb, then Israel faces an existential threat. But even if Obama has got it right and Iran eschews nuclear weaponry, Israel will still have to deal with an adversary made stronger by the lifting of sanctions.
These fears have driven the efforts of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to block the deal. His unwise partisanship in pursuit of that goal has, however, left him at odds with both the White House and, more damagingly, with Democrats who otherwise might have provided Israel with a veto-proof obstacle to the agreement in congress.
But precisely because the animus between Netanyahu and Obama is so personal, it is unlikely to have a lasting effect on the US-Israel relationship. At the level of officials, the relationship is tight.
The countries share values and admiration. In 18 months a new US president, either a Democrat or one of the two dozen Republican candidates, will help to restore the relationship’s normal warmth.
The same cannot be said, however, for the US’s relationship with it other long-time regional ally, Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have been less vocal than Israel in their condemnation of the nuclear deal. Nevertheless, Riyadh fears the deal as much as Jerusalem does, and for the same reasons. But where the US-Israel relationship has been strained by the lack of simpatico between Netanyahu and Obama, the US-Saudi relationship is being gradually riven by a more substantive divergence of interests.
There are a number of factors at play here, not least the fact the US has once again become its own biggest oil supplier.
The role that some Saudi citizens have played in support of Sunni extremism, and the suspicion that support for the most extreme forms of Sunni Islam runs deeper in Saudi society than the Saudi leadership lets on, has done even greater damage.
In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks the relationship was red-raw. Some Americans blamed Saudi Arabia for the attacks, often unjustifiably. Many Saudis blamed the US for unfairly blaming (and punishing) Saudi Arabia, as if all Saudi citizens were at fault for the actions of a few.
By the end of the 2000s many of these wounds had healed, but they are gradually being opened again by the rise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, albeit in different ways.
Official Saudi money probably isn’t finding its way to Islamic State (although it is probably going to other Sunni jihadist groups in Syria), which has also targeted the Saudi state. But unofficial money probably is going to the outfit, and young Saudis have joined its ranks.
The Saudis can say, with some justice, they are trying to stop these flows. How hard they are trying is an open question, however. Moreover, the Saudi state rarely confronts the contradiction inherent in, on the one hand, discouraging citizens from fighting for Islamic State while, on the other hand, funding a religious establishment that describes Shia Muslims, who are Islamic State targets, as apostates.
These contradictions have also found their way into Saudi regional policy, where differences with the US have become more evident. Washington’s greatest fear is Islamic State and the many foreign fighters training in Syria and Iraq who may one day fan out across the globe. Saudi Arabia’s greatest fear, like Israel’s, is Iran.
The Saudis continue to complain about the lack of US effort to depose Iran’s Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, Washington gets limited Saudi support in the fight against Islamic State, while Riyadh shifts its focus to an ill-considered war in Yemen, where Ansar Allah’s sketchy links with Iran have further stimulated Saudi paranoia.
The greater the divergence in interests between the US and Saudi Arabia, the harder it is to paper over other differences. While many Saudis have studied in the US and have real affection and admiration for the country, the two nations share few deep values, unless one counts a love of fast food and SUVs.
Iran is certainly not the font of Enlightenment thinking in the Middle East, but the contrast with Saudi Arabia is noteworthy. The official brand of Islam in Saudi Arabia is more intolerant and more medieval than that presided over by the mullahs in Iran. Women drive in Iran, do a broader range of jobs and get a more complete education than they do in Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, having witnessed the first modern attempt to build a state on Islamist principles, Iranian society is more conscious than others in the Muslim world of the gap between the ideal and the reality. It would be wrong to describe Iranians as more secular than their neighbours in the Arab world, but today they probably understand better than others that you need more than what is in the Koran to build a successful modern state.
One test of whether the US is inclined to make a further pragmatic shift towards Iran will be Syria. If Washington and Tehran use the nuclear accord as a springboard for efforts to bring that conflict, and its disastrous humanitarian and security consequences, to an end, then the US’s traditional allies may have real cause for worry.
At this stage, however, such a move does not seem likely. The nuclear deal still needs to be implemented and that will be tricky. Even if the Iranians don’t cheat, there are forces in Iran, unhappy with many aspects of the deal, ready to throw spanners into its complex works. Things could easily come unstuck, for example, the first time the International Atomic Energy Agency tries to enter an Iranian military site.
It is also clear the blessing of the deal by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was highly conditional. Opposition to the US is stitched into the sinews of the regime, and certainly into the reflexes of hardliners such as Khamenei.
In fact, in the short term there will be an impetus towards non-co-operation, even on issues where Iran and the US have common interests, to prove that the regime’s revolutionary principles have not been compromised. Under Khamenei, Iran will continue to be an aggressive sponsor of terrorists and proxies throughout the region. But if the end to sanctions will deliver an economic windfall to the regime, it will also pose challenges. Iran has been isolated from the rest of the world, to differing degrees, since the 1979 revolution. The deal promises to end that isolation to a far greater degree than has happened before.
In the past, even at times of relative openness, the regime has been able to control and blunt external influences. That’s a lot harder in a digital world and certainly harder if the money provided by sanctions relief starts to flow.
It could empower new players in Iran willing to challenge the authority of the mullahs; it might even corrupt the regime’s more hardline principles, particularly as older generations of the ruling clique die. None of this is certain, however.
The real question, therefore, is not whether the nuclear deal will change the Iranian regime’s relations with the US in the short term. The real question is whether the deal will, over time, change Iran itself.
Anthony Bubalo is research director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.