In addition to bringing a tense chapter of international relations to a close, the framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, signed on April 3, 2015 (more formally, “the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran's Nuclear Program”), has raised a number of pressing questions for Iran’s Arab neighbors. Being cognizant of its significance, the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) convened an academic workshop, titled “The Iranian Nuclear Agreement: Regional and Global Repercussions”, on April 11, 2015. The deal, which acknowledges Iran’s possession of nuclear technology and its right to enrich Uranium—to a limited extent—within its borders, came at a time when the Islamic Republic is locked in direct or proxy conflicts in several Arab countries: Syria, Iraq and, recently, Yemen. More generally, it comes within the context of an over-arching perceived schism between Shia and Sunni Muslims across the Arab world, and amid fears that the US might not be as committed to the security of the Gulf states as it used to be. The ACRPS one-day event provided the ideal opportunity to examine the repercussions of Iran’s nuclear deal, and discuss the country’s regional and global policies.
In his opening remarks, ACRPS Director Azmi Bishara contextualized Iran’s expansionist policies by focusing on its reaction to the Arab Spring: “During the Arab awakening of 2011, Iran did not align itself with the people’s aspirations, but chose instead to exploit the frailty of Arab nation-states to expand its influence.” This, said Bishara, was the bone of contention for any Arab patriot, regardless of ideology: that Iran makes use of the weakness of Arab regimes to build sectarian patronage networks across the Arab world. In contrast, Bishara pointed to the era of anti-colonial movements in the Arab world, when religious-sectarian identity—at the time that of Christian Arab communities—did not provide a backdoor for foreign interference in Arab affairs. Bishara also discredited the reductionist division of Iran into “reformist” and “conservative” camps noting that it was the former adviser to reformist president Hassan Rouhani who only recently spoke of the “rebirth of a Persian Empire” which had “Baghdad as its capital”. Arab observers who followed that statement could easily be forgiven for worrying. They would also be mistaken, continued Bishara, to think that the agreement was going to prevent Iran from maturing into a fully-fledged regional power which could flex its sectarian muscles in the Arab world.
Arab fears of a sectarian-tinged Iranian expansion were “understandable” said Prof. Hamid Dabashi, an Iranian-American scholar who addressed the first panel of the meeting. Dabashi observed that the Iranians seldom, if ever, created the tensions and difficulties running through its geopolitical backyard, rather they tend to simply take advantage of circumstances. For instance, Dabashi noted how the fact that Nouri Al Maliki [the sectarian former Prime Minister of Iraq] was Iraqi not Iranian, did not stop Iran from making use of a loyal power base amongst sectarian Iraqi politicians to project its power across the Shatt Al Arab. Similarly, Iran’s ability to exert its power through marginalized Shia Muslim communities such as those in Lebanon and in other regions could be viewed in the context of a self-serving strategy on the part of the Iranian regime.
Other speakers during the first panel focused instead on technical and economic factors surrounding the Iranian nuclear deal. Imad Khadduri, an Iraqi nuclear scientist tasked with assessing the Iranian nuclear program during the 1970s and 1980s, explained the technological limitations of Tehran’s uranium enrichment program and what would change after the latest agreement. Khadduri, citing theological arguments from the regime as well as strategic reasons, concluded that Iran would not seek a nuclear bomb.
Another technical expert speaking on the first panel, oil economist Mamdouh Salameh, provided another explanation for why Iran was adamant about acquiring nuclear technology: its own falling oil reserves. Without access to renewable energy to generate electricity, stressed Salameh, Iran was at risk of becoming a net oil importer within the space of two decades or less. In this regard, the Gulf states shared a vantage point with Iran. Unless these traditional oil exporters begin to use alternative energy production methods, such as nuclear and solar energy, their levels of domestic oil extraction would be insufficient to cover their own electricity production and water desalination needs – this latter being point one of particular significance for the audience in Doha. Iran’s ability to transform itself from a near-Third World country into a technological power able to negotiate as an equal with the permanent members of the UN Security Council invited comparisons with the Arab states, which have remained passive subjects of Iranian policy.
ACRPS Researcher Marwan Kabalan spoke on one sphere where the projection of Iranian power has been particularly contentious: Syria. When asked to explain why the Iranian government was so dogged in its defense of the Assad regime in Damascus, “most of the answers” explained Kabalan “stated that it had to do with giving Iran a foothold in the Mediterranean” or “the need to maintain a land connection between Iran and Lebanon”. While both of these explanations were valid, added Kabalan, Iran’s key strategic objective has always been to neutralize Iraq. Following eight years of a bloody conflict with its Arab neighbor, Iran now had suzerainty over Baghdad, and will likely hold on to Syria to ensure that this state of affairs is not threatened.
In sum, the Lausanne agreement on Iran’s nuclear program confirmed Iran’s gains after long-running, expansionist policies. According to Iraqi scholar Haidar Saeed, speaking at the third panel of the meeting, the seeds of this agreement were planted by Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the second post-revolutionary president of the Islamic Republic. Following the era of the Ayatollah Khomeini who demonized the United States, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Hashemi-Rafsanjani restored contacts with all three. The rapprochement with the West under Hasan Rouhani was only the latest link in the chain of post-revolutionary Iran reclaiming its place as a regional player, one able to negotiate as an equal partner with the West.