This article was written by Tariq Osman, writer and political commentator, and the opinions below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect CNN’s.
The most important question these days in politics throughout the Middle East and the Gulf revolves around the possibility of a new agreement between the United States of America and Iran.
Why a new deal?
Because any agreement now between America and Iran will relate to more than the latter’s nuclear program, which was the focus of the agreement that the Obama administration reached with Iran five years ago. This time the agreement will concern political and security arrangements in the Gulf, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.
Why the United States and Iran in particular?
The potential agreement is portrayed as a framework that brings together the United States, Iran, Europe and a number of Arab countries. This is true in the figure. But the essence of the potential agreement will be between America and Iran.
This is due to the fact that any serious decision related to security arrangements in the Gulf must have an American guarantee. As for the eastern Mediterranean, despite the importance of the positions of countries such as Turkey, Russia and Israel, any arrangements for the future there also require American acceptance.
On the other hand, Iran is the most successful player of the past 15 years from a geopolitical standpoint in the entire Middle East and Gulf region. Iran has concentrated great, and at times decisive, influence in a number of Arab capitals. Iran was able to achieve, through a number of its allies and tools, a balance of deterrence vis-à-vis Israel, and that was an old goal of the Islamic Republic regime there. Moreover, Iran was able to establish a political and military center for it on the coast of the Mediterranean, and this is an old goal for the Iranian state itself, regardless of the ruling regime in it.
Why the possibility of agreement now?
1- A number of the most important foreign policy pillars in the Biden administration see reaching an agreement with Iran as a necessity to arrange a measure of stability in the Middle East and the Gulf, and the results of this agreement are also reaching North Africa. And the entire region is the most turbulent in the world.
2- Arranging the security of this region is important for the major confrontation that the United States is now entering into with China. This is because the Gulf is the most important source of energy for China, and it is the only region from the China Sea to East Africa that still does not have a large Chinese commercial or industrial presence that can quickly turn into a military presence.
3- Iran is an important player on the side against the United States. Of course it is not in the ranks of China or Russia. However, it has military and political capabilities that have proven their value in the most important conflicts that took place in the Middle East in the past 15 years. Therefore, reaching an agreement with it weakens that side facing the United States.
4- There is an American opinion that believes that Iran is now ready for a broad agreement, especially that the methods of severe economic pressure that the Trump administration exercised on Iran have had an effect.
There are 3 points that push towards an agreement:
1- The two sides want a broad-dimensional agreement
This is because the important think tanks in the Democratic Party have been convinced for at least a decade that it is in the interest of the United States to change its main alliances in the Gulf, especially since these alliances continue to affect the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. In that vision, Iran is a strong, intelligent player, with effective arms in a number of countries, and as I mentioned, it has proven its ability to succeed in a number of conflicts. In contrast, in this vision, many of the traditional allies in the Gulf have not proven their capabilities in the same way .. On the other hand, Iran today (and in fact more than a decade ago) is far from the purely ideological thinking of Imam Khomeini and his school. On the contrary, Iran is moving through pragmatic calculations that want two things: stabilizing the control of the Islamic Republic regime in particular, and it is now facing a new phase after Khamenei, and confirming the Iranian presence in the countries in which it has expanded in the past 15 years. Iran knows that the United States (and Israel behind it) is the only player capable of threatening these two goals. Likewise, Iran, regardless of the narratives of its media, has been trying for some time to send messages to the United States that these two goals may not conflict with the interests of the United States in the Gulf and in the eastern Mediterranean.
2- The two sides have something to offer the other
The United States can lift the economic sanctions that have afflicted Iran. Also, the United States can install some Iranian expansions and make them a reality not only on the ground but also in the circles of international politics, and that capability is the preserve of the United States.
On the other hand, Iran is the most important player in the anti-American camp in the Gulf and the Middle East. And Iran knows that the goal of the United States is to arrange the region before entering its biggest and most important conflict with China. Therefore, Iran, with its location in the Gulf and its influence in the eastern Mediterranean, has something to offer America in that next major conflict.
3- Iran realizes that neither China nor Russia is placing the relationship with it at a strategic level that prompts them to provide substantial economic aid to compensate for what is lost in the impact of the US sanctions. Therefore, there is an Iranian need now for an agreement. On the other hand, there is an American need, also at this moment. This is because the Biden administration made the Iranian file and its repercussions on the Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean a priority, and this is evident in diplomatic circles now. The bottom line is that the new US administration does not want to begin its work by failing the most important file in its foreign policy.
However … there are 5 points against the agreement:
1- There is a conflict between the empire and the expanding state
The United States still views the whole region and all its relations with it through an imperial view. Iran, on the other hand, sees its successes in the past 15 years as what qualifies it for an agreement that has a degree of parity. This difference in thought has repercussions at the expense of the gain and the loss in any agreement between the two countries. The most important calculation here relates to the limits of Iranian expansion. It is true that there are important voices within the Biden administration that see and appreciate Iran’s successes – and some of them have a strong admiration for Iranian civilization – but nevertheless, the United States sees a certain scope for Iranian expansion. In other words, it is not possible in the American vision, under any factor, that Iranian expansionism will continue to threaten Israel permanently in the eastern Mediterranean. This means that America will ask to reduce the presence and capabilities of Iran, which Iran considers among its most important successes in the past period.
2- There is a complex Iranian strategic calculation
Iran wants an agreement with the United States that will lift the sanctions, give it room for movement in the nuclear program, and prove its expansion in the countries in which it has established influence. But Iran also wants distinguished relations with Russia (which is an ally in Syria) and with China (which is a rising power in the whole world). However, as mentioned above, the essence of the US-Iranian agreement has continued with security arrangements in the region, and no doubt it will be based on what America deems required for this region in its strategy to deal with China. This situation will impose on Iran a calculation that is not easy.
3- There is another strategic point complicating the chances of agreement, related to the Iranian nuclear program
For a long time, there was a consistent US policy of preventing non-allies from obtaining a nuclear weapon capable of threatening Western targets. Perhaps the failure in the case of North Korea strengthened that base more in the minds of many. Here it is worth noting that the case of Pakistan is distinctive, as its nuclear weapon cannot threaten Western countries, and it was allowed when India was in a position opposite to US interests in Asia while Pakistan was at that time one of the most important allies of the United States in the heart of Asia and on the borders with the Soviet Union. The important thing here is that any US-Iranian agreement regarding influence and interests in the region will require consideration of how to disrupt the Iranian nuclear project for many years. But Iran, after its experience with the Trump administration, has grave caveats about a restrictive system that does not parallel to gains in the present. Certainly, the details here (which will be followed by many, including Israel) will complicate the discussions.
4- There are lobbies (circles of influence) working in Washington in order to strike the chances of any agreement. True, the Biden administration, in its first months, is less vulnerable to lobbying pressure. But the calculation of elections is always in the mind of any administration and the party behind it, even if the president is often in the White House for one term.
5- There is an important psychological aspect to the Iranian vision of the United States
That is because America was the main supporter of the Shah’s regime, which was toppled by the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s. The problem here is that the Shah’s regime was not just a political structure, but in the minds of the leaders of the Islamic Republic, a way of thinking and a vision of Iranian society, history and culture, and in the vision of these leaders, it worked to limit Shiite political thought. All of this is the opposite of what the Islamic Republic represents. And since the United States has continued to be hostile to the Iranian regime over the past four decades, which are the lifespan of that Islamic Republic, the image of America in the minds of decision-makers in Tehran is associated with something greater than a mere conflict of interests. The subject has deep emotions and a very negative vision of America, at least in the eyes of the first generation of the leaders of this republic.
The dynamics of the enablers and opposition to the agreement are complex. But those dynamics are worth contemplating, as they will determine the most important variable now in politics in the Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean.