The historic nuclear deal reached with Iran earlier this month is unquestionably a significant step forward in resolving an issue that has demanded tireless U.S. diplomatic effort. What remains to be seen, however, is how it will shape the future of bilateral ties between Washington and Tehran. While the true value of the deal may not be entirely clear for decades – we are still grappling with Chinese assertiveness four decades after Nixon went to China – a major part of any assessment will be how it impacts the regional order in the Middle East.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the Middle East is at a critical historical juncture. Challenges to authoritarian regimes in the region have produced political and socio-economic vacuums which have then been exploited by Sunni extremist groups in pursuit of their jihadist ideology. Iran’s expanding regional influence penetrates almost every corner of the region, from Sanaa to Damascus, taking advantage of emerging ungoverned spaces – as the ubiquitous presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC’s) elite unit Quds Force Commander Suleimani exemplifies.
Yet as is often the case, while we are clear about Iran’s capabilities in the region, Tehran’s intentions still remain quite contested. The way the Pahlavi Shah reacted to the British withdrawal from the Persian Gulf in 1971 offers some interesting insights in this regard.
In the early 1970s, Iran – then a monarchy – was a status-quo power in the Middle East, a stark contrast with the revolutionary nature of the current theocratic regime. Furthermore, it existed amidst a period when leftist Arab nationalists backed by the Soviets were a major regional security concern. At the time, status-quo powers like Iran considered emerging political vacuums in the Persian Gulf littoral left following Britain’s departure as a threat to the Middle East order. They were also contending with a retrenchment of U.S. global commitment due to the Vietnam quagmire, as evidenced by the Nixon Doctrine, where Washington essentially encouraged its allies to act as regional policemen based on a notion of ‘self-help.’ Thus, instead of the U.S. filling the vacuum, Iran – with the attendant capabilities and willingness – positioned itself as one of the “two pillars” for security in the Middle East along with Saudi Arabia.
The current security environment in the Middle East after the “Arab Spring” has several parallels with the situation in the early 1970s. First, there are numerous emerging vacuums throughout the region that are exploited by extremists groups. As a Persian and Shiite country in an Arab and Sunni-majority region, Tehran has acted to prevent the emerging power vacuum in the region from being exploited by forces hostile to it: from the Nasserists in the early 1970s to Sunni extremists such as ISIL in the present day.
Back in the early 1970s, the Dhofar insurgency in western Oman, supported by the Marxist regime in South Yemen inspired by secular Arab nationalism, gained the spotlight as a potential threat to Gulf security after the British departure. The Iranian armed forces – or the Artesh in Persian – played a major role in this counterinsurgency operation, proving their prowess. While Iran was then under a different regime, its situation was strikingly similar to the current situation in the Middle East as Iran is involved in supporting insurgencies in Yemen and conducting operations in Iraq and Syria.
Furthermore, the imbalance between Iran and the Sunni Arab nations is a major parallel between the two distinct periods. Back then, the Gulf littoral was becoming an area of “growing power imbalances” with Iran being able to “dominate events in the Gulf in line with Iran’s security interests as perceived by the Shah. With Arabism losing its unity, Iran had a clear advantage and could deal with the region’s security concerns solely based on its own security interests. The United States, therefore, suggested that the Shah seek closer cooperation, particularly with Saudi Arabia, to reassure Riyadh of Iran’s intentions.
In the present day, with the rest of the region struggling with the turmoil produced by the Arab Spring, a similar imbalance of power is clear. Looking at the regional order in the Middle East, it is difficult to envisage one based on a “balance of power.” As many Sunni Arab states remain either in flames or preoccupied by their internal security challenges, it is unrealistic to expect a stable regional order to emerge in such manner. Like it or not, Iran has the ability to act as a prime mover in reshaping the Middle East order, especially in the absence of any significant competitor.
On the other hand, fundamental differences from the 1970s make today’s strategic landscape extremely complicated. Most obviously, Iran is no longer a status-quo power friendly to the United States, but rather a revolutionary power that is suspicious of American intentions and often undermines U.S. interests in the region. While the U.S. and Shiite militias supported by Iran fight against ISIL as co-belligerents, there is no guarantee that American and Iranian interests will converge in the longer term.
In addition, Iran’s role in the regional order has also changed. Yes, the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia also existed back then. However, there was also an informal understanding of sorts between Tehran and Riyadh back in the 1970s that both countries would not interfere in each other’s internal affairs, given that both were conservative monarchies. In contrast, after the Iranian revolution in 1979, Iran’s explicit objective to export revolutionary ideals emerged as a serious threat to the internal security of the Gulf monarchies. The Revolution effectively dismantled a tacit agreement that had preserved a modicum of stability, thereby dramatically transforming the shape of the regional security environment and Iran’s role in it.
Of course, no parallel is exact, and one should be wary of extrapolating too much from historical analogies. But the comparison between the early 1970s and the current state of the Middle East reveals that one should not underestimate Iran’s abilities to function either as a stabilizing or disruptive force in the region. This is particularly so in the complex, risk-ridden, and unbalanced security environment that exists today.
Given all this, now that a deal has been reached, the question is not whether it is good or bad but rather how to effectively handle pressing regional security issues with limited policy options. One of the most urgent challenges – the possibility of a nuclear Iran – is under control for now. But other arduous tasks remain, including filling emerging vacuums, beefing up Sunni Arab nations, and assuring countries of their security amidst rivalry and turmoil. Under Washington’s facilitation, the deal could be a foundation for trust-building among regional players. The focus should not be on eliminating distrust or achieving total peace and stability – which would be pipe dreams given the current environment. The goal is rather to mitigate and manage rivalry and turmoil to get back to a situation that looks more like the early 1970s rather than the present day.
U.S. President Barack Obama has said that the deal demonstrates that American diplomacy can bring about real and meaningful change. Such diplomacy and change will be even more crucial after the deal now that the hard work has truly begun.
Takuya Matsuda is a recent recipient of a Masters degree from Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where he studied the Farsi/Persian language. The article is based on his research during his visit to Iran as well as U.S. diplomatic archives in Washington D.C.