April 14, 2015
As hard as securing the nuclear agreement with the P5+1 was for Iran’s negotiating team, and difficult it indeed was, the hard work for Iranian diplomacy is far from over. With the framework for a deal in hand, Iran’s foreign policy chiefs must now build on the achievements of the last year or so to further regional security and stability and to also enhance Iran’s own diplomatic gains.
The signing of the nuclear agreement has been called “historic” by figures such as Iranian foreign minister Zarif, US Secretary of State Kerry, and by Presidents Rouhani and Obama. Iran now needs to build on this momentum to become a source for regional stability and a serious player in a new, emerging security arrangement in the region.
The first order of business should be improving Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia by engaging in a series of confidence-building measure with the Sunni kingdom.
The Saudis have long accused Iran of having hegemonic ambitions and being a source of regional and international instability. In reality, much of the current chaos in the Middle East—in Iraq and Syria and most recently in Yemen—is the work of Saudi Arabia itself. In its panicked reaction in blocking the reverberations of the Arab Spring from reaching its own shores, and to not be abandoned by a US administration willing to talk to Iran and touting its “Asia pivot,” for the last two years Saudi Arabia has pursued a bellicose and erratic foreign policy that by all accounts has been extraordinary in the kingdom’s history. It has sent troops to quell a popular uprising in Bahrain; it has aided and then declared as “terrorist” anti-Assad militias fighting in Syria; it has broken off and then restored relations with its fellow-GCC member Qatar; and now it is aggressively bombing Yemen and becoming an active partisan in that fractured country’s civil war.
Most if not all of these actions can be traced to Saudi fears of being abandoned by the United States, the primary guarantor of its military security, and a resurgent Iran. Since Iran’s 1978-79 revolution, Saudi Arabia has been viewed by the United States as a pillar of regional stability and a central force in the Persian Gulf’s security arrangement. The possibility of losing such a privileged position, especially to Iran, deeply frightens the Saudi leadership.
Both Secretary Kerry and President Obama have gone out of their way to assure the Saudi leadership that the United States will not abandon its special relationship with the kingdom, now or anytime in the foreseeable future. President Rouhani and foreign minister Zarif should follow suit, impressing on the Saudis Iran’s peaceful intentions and trying to forge with their Saudi counterparts various options for jointly addressing some of the vexing issues in their immediate neighborhood.
From Yemen to Iraq and Syria to the larger fight against the Islamic State, so far the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has only plunged the Middle East deeper into the abyss. As statesmen that have proven their mettle in the P5+1 negotiations, Rouhani and Zarif’s next task should be to forge a meaningful modus vivendi with Saudi Arabia so that the two countries could begin to jointly address the region’s many troubles.
Another step to be initiated by Iran should be to build on the nuclear agreement to normalize ties with the United States. This is, of course, much easier said than done, as there are entrenched forces on both sides that have made careers out of damning the other and ensuring that a rapprochement between Iran and the US never takes place. But, then again, many also doubted that a nuclear agreement would never be reached either.
The animosity between Iran and the United States over the last thirty-four years has brought the Middle East and the Persian Gulf no closer to peace and security. It is high time for a new approach.
Iran and the United States are both aware of their desperate need for one another—the US needing Iran’s on-the-ground resources and influence in places like Iraq and Syria and Iran needing the US for its depressed economy and its crumbling infrastructure. If the Obama administration is too skittish to take the next step, then the Rouhani administration should do so. Inviting Secretary Kerry to visit Iran and reopening embassies in Tehran and Washington, DC, at once audacious and symbolic, would set the perfect tone for a new era of regional and global diplomacy.
Once Iran takes substantive and proactive steps to repair its relations with Saudi Arabia and the US, other improvements—in the form of better relations with the EU and with other regional actors such as Egypt, Jordan, and the other member states of the GCC—are likely to follow.
For the better part of the last thirty-four years, Iranian foreign policy has been reactive at best and filled with empty but unwelcomed rhetoric at worst. The success of the nuclear negotiations offers the Islamic Republic the perfect opportunity to move the country’s foreign policy in a win-win direction both for Iran and for those long viewed as its adversaries.
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.