Iran's nuclear deal 3: How will Arab states react?

Iran's nuclear deal 3: How will Arab states react?
Analysis: With the nuclear deal perhaps signalling a new era in relations between Iran and the West, Arab states threatened by Iran may take steps to guarantee their own security.
8 min read
18 April, 2015
Iranian conventional forces are still seen as a threat by many Arab states [Fatemeh Bahrami]

This article is the third of a three-part series based on a lecture presented at the opening of a roundtable conference entitled "The Iranian Nuclear Agreement and Regional and International Implications" organised by the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies.

On the response to Iranian expansion since 2011

With the Arab peoples rising up in 2011, the region saw different kinds of reactions to Iranian expansion. One of the important factors that exposed the Arab popular protest movement to setbacks is the same factor that helped Iran get rid of the predicament brought about by the Arab uprisings, and helped Iran appear to be on the same side as the international consensus: religious extremism, represented by Salafist-Jihadism.

The Salafist-Jihadists reacted to the Iranian expansion that has a sectarian character with a clear sectarian and Takfiri discourse, and violence against civilians. Salafist-Jihadists declared other Islamists as well as secularists, Shiites, and Sunnis as apostates, opposed democracy and dictatorship equally, and labelled both the regimes and peoples that rose up against them as infidels. Consequently, just as Iran found itself in an alliance with the US against the Taliban, it has found itself now in a similar but more pronounced alliance against the Islamic State group (IS).

The US will not intervene militarily on the ground in Iraq, so Iran and the militias it supports have in effect become America's boots on the ground.

Until the rise of the IS and other radical groups, Iranian expansion in the region since 2011 was on the defensive, especially by choosing to side with the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad as it engages in genocide against the Syrian people, and with the sectarian administration of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq.

Interestingly, at a time when the US no longer accepts to intervene militarily and directly with ground forces, Iran and the militias it supports have become America's boots on the ground, without whom no aerial bombardment campaign can ever be successful.

In addition to the armies allied to Tehran, and in order to ensure direct loyalty, Iran created organised sectarian militias in both Syria and Iraq, and added to that list its proxies in Yemen. These militias report directly to Iran, and not the governments of those countries, even when those governments are themselves subservient.

In an April 5 interview with The New York Times following the Lausanne agreement, Barack Obama asked why the Arab countries have not created ground forces to intervene against radical Islamic groups, and why they have not taken action in Syria against the regime there. Obama had addressed similar questions to Turkey, asking why the nation with the second strongest army in NATO is waiting for the US to impose a no-fly zone and why it is not imposing it itself.

In the same interview, Obama recognised Iran had an important regional role and offered praise for its role in Asian countries beyond the Middle East. The American doctrine that is now averse to intervention in the world and that desires stability, is searching for regional powers that can impose stability and with whom understandings can be reached.

US national interest trumps principle

This is what makes Obama willing to trample all liberal values when it comes to US national security, for example by supporting Abdel Fatah el-Sisi militarily and recognising a fascist military regime in Egypt that emerged following a bloody coup against democratic transition.

This calls to mind the traditional US stance prior to the era of the neoconservatives. That position saw US national security interests as superior to democratic and liberal values, which, while being valid principles for the US constitution, were not seen as good guidelines for US foreign policy in the world, where the friend-or-foe equation overrode them.

In Obama's discourse after the deal, we notice there is respect and appreciation for Iran as a regional power with which accords are possible, and even shared interests in the future, though differences exist over Iran's policies in the Arab countries. But for the US, in Obama's view, these differences are disputes and not existential conflicts, and an accord is possible in spite of them.

Obama allocated the bulk or nearly half of the interview, to giving reassurances to Israel, a country he considers a real ally and an established democracy. Obama understands Israel's concerns regarding the deal, even though Israel is the only state that has nuclear weapons in the region, and refuses to submit its nuclear programme to international oversight. Obama has promised to do everything so that the deal does not create any threats to Israel.

Concerning the Arabs, Obama allocated the equivalent of two paragraphs of the interview, stressing he would invite Arab leaders to Camp David to explain the deal and also to preach to them about issues related to armament and their internal policies. The main challenge to the Arab countries, Obama opined, was not Iran, but development and the lack of outlets for Arab youths who could become radicalised as a result.

The problem of Obama's statements is that they do not compel him to do anything with regard to supporting democracy. His current support for Sisi is the biggest proof of this. What is also interesting is that Obama did not talk about Iran's internal problems, its repression of minorities, and the suffering of certain religious communities and the Arabs in Iran.

Clearly, the difference here is that there is a US interest in treating Iran as an equal, but there is no corresponding US interest in doing the same with the Arabs, especially given the absence of objective reasons to do so. The US will not pretend the Arab countries are equals when such a reality does not exist.

This is exactly why many Arabs showed support for Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen, including some who consider themselves victims of Saudi policy and Saudi support for the counter-revolution in the region, or in the context of previous Saudi policies in Yemen. They are captivated by any expression of Arab dignity in the face of Iranian expansion and Western disdain for the Arabs.

We say this before the results of the military operation become clear, and how much or not the Arab countries will be able to turn this coalition in the Arabian Peninsula into a precedent to be followed by other Arab assertive endeavours, in Syria or elsewhere. Especially so given that there are forces that are opposed to democratic transformation in the region, and that want Decisive Storm to be a prelude to institutionalising Arab intervention against reform and the inevitable democratic transition.

The Iranian revolution was a major turning point in the history of the region. In the beginning, it carried a popular democratic promise and even promises for a Third World [renaissance]. Soon, however, the revolution was taken over by the conservative clerical establishment and the faction supporting the ideas of velayat-e faqih - rule by the guardian cleric - specifically.

The Iranian revolution served as a catalyst for Islamist movements to proliferator in the 1980s and 1990s and for the revival of political Islam. Gradually, the sectarian character overtook the pan-Islamist character of the revolution, however, with Iran perceiving Shiite Arabs as its reservist army.

The problem with Obama's statements is that they do not compel him to do anything to support democracy, his support for Sisi is proof of this.

The revival of political Islam that the Iranian revolution contributed to thus turned into a Sunni revival against the Iranian push, as it was sought to mould Shiites in general into a transnational monolithic sect, marking a new reality. More recently, a similar attempt was made to mould the Sunnis at large into a monolithic sect. It is no coincidence that imaginary major sectarian blocs of this kind are corrosive to the nation-state, as they propose themselves as an alternative to the pan-Arab identity at the same time.

I have no doubt that the Arab Gulf and the Arab Orient, in general, are still living the consequences of the Iranian revolution on the one hand, and the US-led war on Iraq in 2003 and Iran's exploitation of the invasion, on the other hand.

A turning point?

The Lausanne agreement could become a new historical turning point that would rearrange alliances and priorities in the region. The Arabs would be greatly mistaken if they consider this agreement an issue of details that are yet to be agreed upon, or if they consider themselves to be a mere item on the list of the collateral damage of US-Iranian relations.

Iran has always been an important regional power that the Arabs must coexist with as their neighbour, with or without a nuclear deal with the West. Iran, too, must coexist with the Arabs as its neighbours. The model of possible future relations should be one of cooperation, mutual respect, and non-interference in internal affairs.

The major challenge facing the Arabs in order to leave their position of asking for Western protection against Iranian ambitions, and of feeling permanently threatened, is to become the main actor in shaping their own destiny. This is not possible to achieve without strong Arab regional states or a union of Arab states, which in turn is impossible to achieve without reforming the political structures of Arab regimes first.

In the meantime, people are resisting Iranian expansion with whatever means available to them. Under the current contradictions, some are confronting Iran, but others find it odd that they are willing to ally even with Saudi Arabia for this purpose. Some who are confronting Arab dictatorships and simultaneously find themselves at odds with Iran, find it odd how support for dictatorship led some Arab nationalists to support Iranian expansion, and consequently undermine pan-Arabism, and to remain silent to the extent of being complicit regarding the process of sectarian fragmentation of the Arabs.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

The first part of this series can be read here.

The second part of this series can be read here.