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The Iranian nuclear deal: A paradigm shift, not yet détente

Diplomacy has finally triumphed after 20 months of negotiations on all aspects of the Iranian nuclear programme, including how many years a conventional arms embargo against Iran will remain in place, how much Highly Enriched Uranium can be kept in the country and what changes will be made to research and development and the physical sites of a nuclear reactor and enrichment site.

It marks a rare high point in relations between Iran and the West and will contribute to an immediate enhancement of non-proliferation norms specifically, and international security generally, but there is more work to be done. The agreement focuses uniquely on the nuclear dimension of Iran’s defence and security posture which has been shaped by decades of poor relations with the West, particularly following the 1953 Mossadegh coup and the 1979 Islamic revolution.

{mosads}The Qods Force (the foreign branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps) remains central in Iran’s foreign policy and power projection. It is active in a dozen countries, ranging from alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington D.C. in 2011 to the Syrian conflict where it is supporting President Assad with logistics, training and intelligence, to supporting the Houthis in Yemen. Iran is also widely feared as a state with an interest in undermining Sunni monarchical rule across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, especially in Shia majority states such as Bahrain where social tensions still exist. However, the Qods Force are also emerging as an unlikely but indispensable partner that is both able and willing to take the fight to ISIS on the ground in Iraqi cities such as Tikrit.

This has created a dilemma for western policymakers since on the one hand, IRGC influence is growing across the Middle East in the wake of a growing security vacuum created by terror groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. On the other hand, the IRGC is still an adversary and its calculations will remain relatively unaffected by the positive outcome of the nuclear negotiations. So how do we start to address this dichotomy? Specifically, it will require further diplomacy across the following areas:

  • Iranian covert actions and terrorism
  • The sectarian Cold War with Saudi Arabia
  • Attempts to develop capabilities to control the Strait of Hormuz
  • Building and deploying hardware such as advanced naval mines, small but capable submarines and ballistic missiles

In short, diplomats should now turn from the urgency of tackling Iran’s nuclear programme to starting longer term strategic planning for regional stabilisation. This would logically include normalising Iran’s role in regional system, not as a twin pillar of the Middle East as advanced historically by the Carter Doctrine but at least by developing a working relationship with one of a few states still capable of participating in frontline defence of the region. The process should inevitably lead to the negotiation and implementation of a pan-regional framework such as a permanent standing security committee which would help develop norms and regulate military engagements. This idea has been promoted by experts on the Middle East, including in my own volume, but has often been ignored due to narrow political interests, concerns over state participation and pressures to tackle immediate crises. However, it is important to note that the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen all fall within the sectarian struggles between the main Saudi and Iranian protagonists. Beginning to address systemic problems such as sectarianism, resistance ideology and a lack of trust with the West which continue to feed into a range of foreign policy calculations can only enhance the prospects that other intractable regional challenges can be resolved, future crises avoided and détente finally achieved between Iran and the West.

Mason is lecturer of Political Science in Egypt and author of ‘Foreign Policy in Iran and Saudi Arabia: Economics and Diplomacy in the Middle East’. He tweets @Dr_Robert_Mason


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