With Parliament heading into recess and Northern Ireland descending into marching season, some of us could be forgiven for missing something of an international waltz in Vienna recently. After many months of fraught negotiations, a landmark agreement was struck between the P5 members of the UN security council, Germany and Iran, all but guaranteeing the Islamic Republic’s re-entry into global trade markets and the political mainstream. Despite the deal prompting outrage in the Middle East, the US President hailed the deal claiming that ‘99% of the world agrees with it.’ While the jury remains out on whether such an overwhelming majority backs the deal, it’s clear that Obama’s most strategic foray into foreign relations yet may well be his most significant.
And perhaps the most significant thing about this Iranian deal is Obama’s pivot away from Israel. While the move has all the hallmarks of a president with no elections left to fight, it goes further than the personal antipathy which characterises Obama’s relations with Israel’s premier. It confirms his mounting frustration with Israel’s refusal to withdraw from illegal settlements and the Israeli government’s repeated use of incendiary rhetoric during the negotiating phase of this deal. In addition, the ‘excessive approach’ taken by Netanyahu in response to Hamas’ provocations has infuriated a president who wants to change the American image overseas. As Obama sees it, consistent American support of everything Israeli only lends credence to those who suggest the US enthusiastically backs a neo-colonial aggressor.
Although Obama’s attracting the headlines for his disavowal of the special relationship with Israel, it’s John Kerry who’s been recorded as being ‘particularly disappointed.’ It’s understood that he envisaged his tenure going some way to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. With the Iranian deal signalling the death knell to any imminent resolution of the impasse, Secretary Kerry joins a long list of predecessors who have failed to broker a successful agreement between Israel and Palestine. And maybe this has contributed to the rationale of the outgoing US President; to give up on an Israel which has offered Americans little respite, both politically and economically, since the Jewish state’s inception.
However an Israel, decoupled from the American chain is a dangerous beast. The Likud-led government is unlikely to relinquish its rhetorical attacks on Iran until it’s convinced the state’s nuclear capability has been eliminated and if the IDF believe air strikes are required, there’s no reason to suggest they will not be carried out. While the deal brokered in Vienna is set to derail Iran’s nuclear aspirations by at least 10-15 years, it will not extinguish Israeli concerns and this could make the region even more volatile than it already is, precipitating an inter-religious war between a Jewish state and an Islamic Republic.
Yet this may not be the only war. The Gulf states have condemned the deal’s prospects for regional stability, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar particularly incensed at the manner in which the Americans have neglected their long term economic interests. As Iran regains entry into global trade markets, the Shia nation’s oil and gas reserves will likely make the market more competitive and break the current monopoly that the Gulf states enjoy in the Middle East. This could ultimately prove fatal for the respective ruling families, as the financial incentives and public services they currently offer their subjects may diminish, amidst dwindling oil receipts. This could precipitate calls for political reform or even revolution, which could fundamentally undermine monarchical authority. With this in mind, the powers that be in the Gulf will likely take all the precautions necessary to quash the prospect of an Iran equipped with greater economic prowess and further nuclear capabilities. If the result has to be a comprehensive intra-religious contest, in desperation, they may be willing to resort to it.
However Obama is clearly not for resorting to war. The nuclear deal has restored an element of geniality to US-Russian relations with Obama even calling Putin to congratulate him on their collaborative efforts. In response, Putin has insisted that a new era of détente is now possible, yet the evidence for this is palpably thin, owing to the grievances that both states still maintain over Ukraine and Syria.
And in some ways, this is precisely it. For all the diplomatic wrangling over this agreement and the allegedly successful outcome, question marks remain over whether it has delivered any more security to the Middle East. While it reins in the prospect of MAD, it goes no way to solving the present crises involving refugees, suicide bombings and ungoverned territory. Though the US President may consider a less subversive Iran, a more responsible partner in the resolution of hostilities across the region, it’s unclear whether Iran is willing to commit substantial resources to a conflict, which shows no sign of abating. Moreover, regarding Israel, Iran is never going to curb Hezbollah from being a nuisance around the Jewish state’s borders or conducting valuable reconnaissance work. And even in the unlikely instance Iran did want to contribute to Western efforts in the region, it doesn’t have anywhere near the financial firepower necessary to coordinate such a strategically challenging operation.
While Obama may consider this agreement to be the cornerstone of his legacy going forward, it could end up be the millstone around his posterior neck. An insult to Israel and the Gulf, a victory for Iran and a concession to Russian interests, on the face of it, things seem woeful. But the US president believes this is a deal for looking forward and if he can get a grip on the crisis in Syria and Iraq, and all the issues which proceed from that, then maybe we are looking at a landmark agreement. But with only 18 months to achieve all this, I’m not so convinced his vision for regional transformation will ever come to fruition.
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