Iran deal: Regional View – Munir Akram

THE `interim` agreement on Iran`s nuclear programme reached in Geneva two weeks ago was a seminal event in Iran`s relationship with the West and the world.

Formidable obstacles remain in the way of a final agreement: Israel`s vociferous objections; their echo in the US Congress; the concerns of America`s Gulf allies; resistance from `hardliners` in Iran; and the complexity of the issues involved (level of allowed enrichment, if any; the Arak reactor`s future; access to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to sensitive Iranian sites; difficulties in progressive dismantling of Security Council and unilateral sanctions imposed against Iran).

On balance, however, there are good prospects that a final agreement will bereached. Both the major contending parties Iran and the US clearly want a deal.

The Rouhani government`s posture reflects the desire of most Iranians to end the onerous economic sanctions and Iran`s politicalestrangement from the West and the international community. Iran agreed to freeze its nuclear programme while the final agreement is being negotiated. The major reciprocal concession it received was not the access to $8-9 billion of its own frozen assets, but the acknowledgement that the final accord would include agreed provisions on the future nature and level of its enrichment programme.

US President Obama too is keen to secure an agreement. He ignored the vocal opposition from the Israeli prime minister; placated concerned Arab allies, especially Saudi Arabia, and persuaded belligerent US legislators, like Senators McCain, Graham and Schumer, to postpone their plan for additional sanctions against Iran. An agreement with Iran could become Obama`s signature legacy.

Within the parameters sketched in the interim agreement, Iran will not be able to develop nuclear weapons quickly.

Even if Iran is allowed to enrich uranium to 5pc, it would be unable to produce sufficient highly enriched uranium for one to two weapons for at least a year. A year`s notice would be sufficient for the international community to pursue coercive options to stop or slow down a possible Iranian breakout bid.The nuclear agreement with Iran will not fundamentally alter America`s strategic relationships with either Israel or Saudi Arabia. The US-Israeli alliance is founded on the overwhelming influence of the American Jewish community on the US political and policy establishment. Every US leader even Obama, who reportedly loathes Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is obliged to demonstrate commitment to Israel`s security and survival. However, the US has much wider interests than Israel`s security in the Middle East.

Although America is now virtually energy self-sufficient, its strategic reliance on Saudi Arabia has not diminished significantly. Riyadh`s role as the `swing` oil producer which can determine the level and thus the price of oil remains vital. Saudi Arabia remains the lynchpin of US foreign and security poli-cy throughout the Arab and Islamic world and will continue to enjoy America`s security umbrella in any contest with Iran. Even after a nuclear agreement, the strategic rivalry between Iran and the US may ease but it will not disappear overnight.

What the nuclear agreement with Iran will do is open the door to securing its cooperation to address the three-dimensional threat that has emerged in the region: civil wars and internal turmoil within countries (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Bahrain, Afghanistan); the ShiaSunni violence (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, Pakistan) and the spread of Al Qaeda affiliates and subsidiaries from Yemen to Libya to Mali.

The veteran US ambassador, Ryan Crocker, was quoted recently as saying: `Bad as (Syrian President) Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.` The Geneva II talks, scheduled for early 2014, can be expected to try and make peace between Assad and the `moderate` opposition and sideline the extremist groups fighting against Assad.

Given its tangible military and material support to Damascus, Iran has huge influence, even greater than Russia`s, with the Assad regime. One shouldexpect that, despite the known resistance from some quarters, Iran will be invited to Geneva II and could make an important contribution to its success.

Beyond Syria, Iranian cooperation could be also forthcoming to deal with the Al Qaeda threat. As a US expert said last week, `… the worm has turned in the Middle East in the minds of American policymakers`. Gone are the dreams of the `Arab Spring` and the triumph of democracy; counterterrorism is back on the top of the American agenda.

Most importantly, working with other global and regional powers, especially Saudi Arabia, Iran can help to control the rampant Shia-Sunni violence not only in Syria but also in Iraq and to build political solutions for the divisions afflicting Lebanon and Bahrain.

The prospect of a growing Iranian role in the region has caused trepidation insome Gulf Cooperation Council capitals. To allay this, Iran has extended its `charm offensive` to its Arab neighbours.

Through the media and visits, Iran`s foreign minister has sought to reassure GCC countries that Iran seeks good relationswith them.

Obviously, the process of building mutual confidence between Iran and its Arab neighbours, particularly Saudi Arabia, will be painfully slow. Yet, the three dimensional threat is creating common ground between Iran and its Arab neighbours which can provide the foundationsfor afuture entente.

The impact of the Iran agreement will also extend to South Asia. Iran`s cooperation, if aligned with efforts of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, could enhance the prospects of security and reconciliation in Afghanistan; ease Sunni-Shia tensions in Pakistan, and advance the prospects of regional trade, gas pipelines and transit arrangements.

Thus, the stakes are high, for the major powers and regional states, in the forthcoming negotiations on Iran`s nuclear programme. While anticipation about the prospects of a deal should not divert focus from securing a credible foreclosure of Iranian nuclear weapons, nor should scepticism be allowed to scuttle an agreement whose promise is so extensive for the region.