Iran, the United States, and Regional Diplomacy: After Vienna

Iran, the United States, and Regional Diplomacy: After Vienna

Mehran Kamrava

July 15, 2015 

After marathon negotiations in Vienna that several times came to the verge of collapse, Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, the so-called P5+1, reached a landmark agreement on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program that all sides are hailing as “historic”. The agreement offers a roadmap for a series of confidence-building measures through which Iran rolls back aspects of its nuclear program in return for dismantling the punishing sanctions the country has endured for nearly a decade.

Despite the truly historic milestone reached in Vienna, the real consequences of the deal, and whether or not it will stick at all, will become apparent over the next several months. These consequences for Iran, the United States, and for Persian Gulf states are especially critical.

For the Iranians, the Vienna accord represents a comprehensive political, diplomatic, and economic victory. The Iranian government was never really interested in the acquisition of nuclear weapons. But given the strategic threats the country has faced, especially since 2003, it has indeed been interested in the knowledge to construct a nuclear device in relatively short order. The administration of President Hassan Rouhani, in office since 2013, made a calculated decision to approach the issue differently from the way its predecessor, the Ahmadinejad administration, had done. Rouhani and his team decided that if Iran did not have anything to hide, then it should indeed engage in substantive negotiations with the P5+1 over the country’s nuclear program and to try to get the sanctions removed.

So far Rouhani and his team have succeeded in delivering on the president’s campaign promise to break Iran out of its international isolation. But in the process of reaching the historic deal with the P5+1, they spent considerable political capital in putting together a coalition made up of the country’s notoriously divided political factions.

Moving forward, if the accord that was reached in Vienna fails to have real and tangible results for middle class Iranians, and if Rouhani and his team fail to get the sanctions removed in a meaningful way, then they will lose much political capital and the hands of the hardliners will no doubt be strengthened. A lot will now depend on how the next few months will unfold and whether the P5+1, including especially the United States, can deliver on the promises of the agreement.

The post-agreement political calculus in the United States is far more fluid and unpredictable. The Republicans in the US Congress are bound to denounce the agreement. It is, after all, election season in the US and the Republicans cannot afford not to criticize anything and everything that the Obama administration does. But it is unlikely that the Republicans would ultimately derail the agreement; overplaying their hand runs the real potential of blowback, especially since public opinion polls in the US show support for the agreement. Even if they initially reject the agreement, the Republicans do not seem to have the votes to override a threatened presidential veto.

Iran’s neighbors to the south, accustomed to capitalizing on US-Iranian tensions for nearly four decades now, are especially worried about the prospect of a rapprochement between the former arch enemies. Along with Israel, Saudi Arabia has especially been vocal in opposing the nuclear agreement and accusing Iran of destabilizing the region. 

In relation to Saudi Arabia, President Rouhani’s televised speech to the Iranian people following the signing of the agreement was very telling. He ended his speech by addressing the security concerns of Iran’s neighbors, especially the states of the Persian Gulf. It is likely that in the coming months, with the nuclear agreement behind them, Rouhani and his team will concentrate on reducing tensions with Saudi Arabia. For a region in profound and ever-deepening chaos, a reduction of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia can only be a welcome development.

Once the dust of the Vienna accord is settled and the hyperbole surrounding the magnitude of its significance subsides, historians will indeed see it as a landmark development for the Middle East and especially for Iran and its neighbors, as well as for the United States. But much hard work still lies ahead. One only hopes that the leaders and diplomats of Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as those from the United States, show the same level of courage and statesmanship in tackling regional problems in the Middle East that the world witnessed in Vienna.

Mehran Kamrava is Professor and Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar. He is the author, most recently, of Qatar: Small State, Big Politics