Iranian nuclear negotiations may soon provide a solution to a long-term security problem, but the second-order effects could actually be more challenging than the issue they addressed in the first place, writes Rodger Shanahan.
Despite what appears to be a raft of nearly intractable problems in the Middle East, the Iranian nuclear negotiations is the one issue that holds out the promise of a successful negotiated solution to a long-term security problem.
For US president Barack Obama it presents itself as a foreign policy legacy in the final quarter of his presidency and proof that non-military coercive means can produce results so long as the political will exists to implement them.
Iran sees the negotiations as the only realistic way of releasing the shackles of sanctions, and in president Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif it has the people in place who have a deep understanding of the issue and of the West, even if it is the Supreme Leader who ultimately approves any proposal.
However, a resolution to the nuclear issue may simply create a different set of security problems.
If an agreement is reached, it will usher in an extended period of nervousness on the part of many Arab states, and it is unlikely that Israel will trust any Iranian agreement concerning its nuclear program. Some of the smaller Gulf states have already begun to hedge their bets and have of late been adopting a series of cautious and pragmatic measures to signal that they are ready for a cooperative if not close relationship in the future.
Iran is the regional economic sleeping giant given that sanctions have inflicted enormous damage on its economy. It does, however, possess enormous natural resources, an internal market of 75 million people with a large and well-educated middle class and a significant diasporic population. Foreign companies see huge undeveloped potential in the Iranian market.
The Iranian leadership obviously needs the economy to improve to maintain domestic stability, but they also see their economy as one of the key components of their national power.
Herein lies the somewhat contradictory outcome of a successful nuclear deal; a strong Iranian economy freed of the debilitating sanctions regime will allow Tehran to increase its regional influence in a way that possessing a nuclear capability never could. This won't happen immediately of course; the sanctions regime is multi-layered and any outcome will have a graduated loosening in order to ensure Iran meets its compliance requirements. Once the process is commenced though, it is difficult to reverse.
Despite the presence of the sanctions regime, Iran has managed to support the Assad regime in Syria during its nearly four year civil war, as well as assisting the beleaguered Shia-majority government in Iraq. There are also allegations that it has been providing financial and logistical support to the Houthi movement in Yemen. This indicates a degree of regional activism commensurate with a country that sees itself as the dominant regional state.
After the loss of Iraq as a Sunni-dominated bulwark against Iranian regional leadership aspirations, Saudi Arabia has tried to provide the Sunni balance to Iran's Shia worldview. And while Riyadh has enormous financial clout, its conservative Islamic foundations has made it appear as both part of the problem as well as part of the solution for the radical Islamist threat that is central to many state's security concerns currently.
If there is a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, some deft diplomacy will be needed to ensure that Iran's desire for greater influence in the region, coupled with its increased economic power does not come into direct conflict with regional states who resist such a move either for ideological or simple geopolitical reasons.
US security guarantees and ongoing basing agreements will be sufficient to calm any nerves regarding states' physical security; however, the jockeying for influence between Iran and the Saudi-led Sunni states will likely grow in intensity, even if it occurs at the same time as Iran and the Sunni states seek to publicly pursue diplomatic confidence building measures.
A negotiated solution may free the Middle East of concerns about a nuclear-capable Iran, of a consequential regional arms race or of Israeli threats to conduct unilateral military action against Iranian sites proliferation. But it will not free the region of a battle for influence that in many ways may become more intense once Iran is freed of its nuclear "brake" and is granted sanctions relief.
As with all things to do with the Middle East, the second-order effects of policy decisions are often more challenging than the issue they addressed in the first place.
Associate Professor Rodger Shanahan is a Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and author of "Iranian Foreign Policy under Rouhani".