What next after Vienna?

Abdallah El-Sennawi
Sunday 26 Jul 2015

Following the historic nuclear deal between the US and Iran, the Arabs must get ready for changes in the geopolitical landscape of the region — principally by formulating and adopting their own strategic vision

In diplomacy, there is a core difference between evaluation and spin.

The first looks into the strengths, weaknesses and possible next steps, while the latter promotes the strengths, hides weaknesses and does not seriously address possible future scenarios.

Political spin consumed the scene once the Vienna Accords between the six major powers and Iran regarding Tehran’s nuclear programme were announced. Each side tried its best to portray the agreement as a “historical victory” that blocked the goals of the other side during long negotiations.

According to the US, the deal is “the best way to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” as stated by President Barack Obama. Such statements are characterised by excessive realism, while the rest is excessive spin to reduce criticism of his administration by Republican opponents in Congress.

In Obama’s political spin, he states: “Iran is a threat to US interests and values in the Middle East and the world without nuclear weapons.” But this is not built on solid ground nor supported by real prospects. The deal is the biggest achievement for Obama in foreign policy, even more than normalising relations with his irksome neighbour Cuba.

At the core, Iran is no longer a “terrorist state” or member of “the axis of evil.” By the same token, the US is no longer “Greater Satan” or a “symbol of global arrogance.” What symbolically creates new relations between Iran and the West could impact the nature of the regime itself. It is likely now that reformers will win the next parliamentary elections.

For the Iranians, they realise the agreement is “not ideal,” as noted by Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif. Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s spin was that it is a “political victory” because his country is no longer considered a “global threat.”

Tehran believes it has a great opportunity for reintegrating into the global community, which appears ready to take radical steps on this issue, and re-establish itself in the region by relying on the expected boost of its resources after financial and economic sanctions are lifted.

There are several main scenarios for the financial boom. First, it would pour into basic services and projects, improving living conditions and reviving the economy, which would address the demands of citizens who took to the streets to celebrate Vienna. This makes good sense and its significance cannot be denied.

Second, the financial abundance would be spent supporting Iran’s allies and boosting its status in the region. This is a regional scheme that Tehran is unlikely to abandon.

Third, investing its financial strength in a new arms race that drains the entire region. This is a power struggle that cannot be avoided in the absence of political understandings that defuse regional crises.

One way or another, the three scenarios will intersect, and none of them can be excluded.

So, where are we now?

There is no trusted information that definitively tells us what took place behind closed doors in Vienna in terms of strategic understandings on regional issues and crises. It is unlikely that talks were limited to complicated technical issues without any discussions of strategic understandings.

The most pressing question now is: What next after Vienna? Or how does the deal affect regional interactions, wars and tragedies?
Iran talks about possible understandings on terrorism, more specifically the war on the Islamic State (IS) as a political base shared by all who signed the Vienna Accords.

However, any discussion of such understandings without political context is delusional. Those who cooperate on battlefields must share political goals for the phase after the end of military operations. What will the region look like and how will states be divided? Without a clear answer it is difficult to be reassured about what will happen after the war ends.

The US strategy places one foot in the Middle East and its troubles, and another in Asia and the economic promises there. It has not exited the first or settled into the second. Perhaps by signing Vienna one of its goals is to take a deep breath before it exits according to new arrangements that are yet unknown.

As for Iran, its regional priorities are as follows: Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

Syria is a matter of life or death and, from the perspective of national security, the issue goes beyond the future of the incumbent regime in Syria. Iraq is also part of Iran’s direct national security, while Lebanon is a sphere of power and influence in the heart of the Arab Mashreq, and Yemen is a strategic troublemaker near the Gulf.

We must remember that Iran started its nuclear programme at the same time it expanded its regional roles, and gradually created new realities in the raging region like a tapestry that slowly takes shape. We should also remember that despite all the terrible mistakes committed by Iran, it came to the region in 1979 with a new vision, unlike the one of Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. This is also the same year that Egypt stepped back from the problems of the region after signing a peace treaty with Israel.

History does not know strategic vacuum and when you abandon your role someone else will step in and take your place. In anticipation of expected key changes in the region, we in the Arab world must address two main issues or else the situation will become much worse than now. First, key Arab states, Egypt and the Gulf especially, should decide on their joint options in the war on terrorism and a semi-articulate strategic vision for regional crises and how to end them.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri used the expression that “There are no solid positions in diplomatic dialogue between Egypt and the Gulf.” The expression and its implications are positive at a critical time that requires serious discussion and a different approach to erupting crises.

Second, we should collectively initiate dialogue with Iran and put all issues on the table, both areas of agreement and disagreement. In the end, Iran is a main component of the region both historically and as a civilisation, and not an enemy who is unapproachable.

If Tehran is talking about “new prospects of cooperation with the global community” it will not be able to cement its regional presence without strategic understandings that “turn a new leaf,” as Arab countries have proposed.

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