[These are my notes from a forum of the Middle East Institute held on August 10, 2015 in Washington, DC. It is not a transcript of the event and only represents my impressions of the contributions put forward there.]
After the Iran Deal: Regional Repercussions and Dynamics
Alex Vatanka (MEI). Moderates, intellectuals, and most of the Iranian media favor the deal. Before the deal was signed one could not even talk about the issue and now there is something that looks like a serious debate. The position of Ayatollah Khamenei had been vague and Westerners have interpreted as tacit opposition, but Khamenei is always vague. His closest associates are defending the deal, in some cases vigorously. Calls for some strategic retreats should not be mistaken for opposition. There is a team in the Rouhani administration mainly trained in the West who have an economic master plan similar to China’s in opening to the West as a step in becoming an economic power. The Iranian foreign minister was very open about bringing in investors from the West who would then return to Western capitals and speak well of Iran. Khamenei has not opposed any of these ideas so far. The key question is how to reconcile these plans with Rouhanis notion of a “resistance economy.” Rouhani, unlike Ahmadinejad, had been careful to make sure Khamenei remains, at least in his own mind, in the drivers seat.
The Iranians can have the Majlis approve the deal and then if congress rejects it they come off as the good guys, but the Majlis doesn’t really control things. They are a tool for the Supreme Leader to demonstrate popular support. The Supreme National Security Council is the real power and the majlis is just political theater.
Thomas W Lippman (MEI). Islamic law allows for a tax called jizyah [which non-Muslims pay in lieu of military service). One of Saud’s first acts was to level the jizyah on Shias. The U.S. had made clear its commitment to our allies in the Gulf using language that could make one think we are talking about Israel. The Arabs have not believed it. Beginning with the camp David meeting in May, they have decided they have to believe it because of new realities in the oil markets. I think they have decided that the Iranian negotiation issue is behind them and they will work with us as best they can. I think they are feeling better about the situation in Yemen and there is a least a possibility of a return to the negotiating table. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the FM of Syria showed up in Oman. I don’t know if they can get their act together but I do think they will have the military equipment they need to get the job done. It’s true they have plans for nuclear power, and they need it for they are burning too much of their own oil. The Saudi state’s first priority is preservation of the Saudi state and full integration with the global economy is part of their strategy. They can’t afford to be, and don’t want to be, the North Korea of the gulf. They will not become nuclear outlaws.
Gonul Tol (Center for Turkish Studies). Turkey is happy about the deal for two reasons. Iran is a huge market for Turkey with close energy ties. Also Turkey has traditionally objected to a nuclear Iran as it would turn the balance of power. But turkey has three strategic concerns. First the rising influence of Iran in Syria and Iraq. Second, closer ties between Iran and Washington may come at the expense of Turkey’s Syria policy, especially as Washington sees the [so-called] Islamic State as a greater threat than the Assad regime. Third is Iran’s support for the PKK and the PKYD. Turkish media reported an Iranian offer of support to the Kurds in their fight against the IS. Turkey and Iran have had peaceful relations since 1639 and could have a working relationship.
Robert S Ford (MEI). The pressures on the Iraqi state are growing exponentially. They cannot make payments due to the Kurds. The Iranians are close to potent militias, some of which are on the U.S. Terrorist list. Iranian backed Shia militia leaders are calling for people to join in political demonstrations. Iraq is caught between Shia militias in one side and the IS on the other because were the U.S. to get closer to Iranian backed militias it would only help IS recruitment. In Syria the war is no longer a stalemate, but the Assad regime is clearly losing, but there is no sign the Iranians are backing off of their support for Assad. There are reports the Iranians are about to put forward a peace proposal for Syria that would include a national unity government, protection for minorities, and eventual internationally supervised elections. I don’t think this will go far, primarily because of the Turkish veto, the rebel distrust of Iran, and the rebels red line against including Assad in any unity government. Last week there were anti-Assad demonstrations in his home province. Iranians would have to accept that Assad has to be transitioned out.
Lippman. I see the GCC as cohesive in rhetoric but not on policy. The words “defense” and “military” do not occur in GCC charter. Only last year there was an announcement that they would form a unified military command, but I have seen no sign of it coming about. They are not united on Iran and were only barely united on the Muslim Brotherhood. They hold their noses to deal with one another, but that is not the same as being kindred spirits.
Tol. Syria has a unique place in Turkish domestic policy because of the PKK. I think Erdogan is playing a risky game. He is finally on board with fighting the IS, but he still considers the PKK a greater threat.
Ford. Geneva ended abruptly because the Syrians were not willing to make any concessions. Since then the Syrian opposition was unwilling to negotiate without a precondition of Assad stepping down. The only negotiations possible now are those that sidestep the political issues. There’s no harm in talking to the Russians, and they have now agreed to letting the U.N. investigate who has been using chemical weapons.
Ford. It is difficult for me to imagine that the Iranians will not use some portion of he resources they shall get to supply Hezbollah and other Shia fighters they may recruit to fight in Syria. I think sanctions relief will likely increase the fighting in Syria.
Tol. Bombing was a face-saving way to join the anti-IS fight. I think Turkey understands IS is a greater threat to them than to the U.S., yet they still fear the PKK more than the IS. They decided that if they could convince the Americans to establish a safe zone between two Kurdish enclaves they could prevent the linking of those enclaves. This cat had a long tail. The Saudis supported Alawi against Maliki. The Saudis for the first time in years appointed an ambassador to Baghdad: a long-time intelligence officer. The Saudis had an ambassador in Tehran before they had one in Iraq. On the border with Iraq they are building a fence that Donald Trump would be proud of.
Vatanka. If Congress defeats the lifting of American sanctions that not so bad for Khamenei as international sanctions will fall. It will be much harder on the Rouhani camp.
Lippman. The real question is what will Israel do.
Tol. I think the hand of the IS in Turkey is stronger. Last week they said they could easy destabilize turkey by one bomb in a Turkish resort.
Ford. I see no way to manage the ISIS challenge without unity governments in both Syria and Iraq.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute