If there is a deal between the US and Iran, it will be a new deal. Circumstances in the Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean have moved on since the agreement five years ago between the US and other world powers and Iran on how to deal with the latter’s nuclear programme.
Today, the two countries are assessing the potential of a new and larger agreement primarily about security arrangements in the Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean. But as much as there are factors opposing such a grand deal, there are also ones favouring it.
FACTORS IN FAVOUR
There are five main factors in favour of a new deal between the US and Iran.
One: The US Biden administration recognises that the US has entered a grand strategic struggle with China. Because of this, it needs to put in place arrangements favourable to the US in the regions it considers to be its spheres of interest. It also wants to deny China the ability to entrench a serious presence in regions it is not already in. And the Gulf fits these two criteria.
The Gulf has been an American sphere of influence for over seven decades, and it is the only region from the East China Sea to East Africa where China has not yet managed to establish a strong industrial or maritime presence that could be transformed into a military one. In addition, the Gulf has become one of China’s main sources of energy. Continued American supremacy there – cemented through an agreement with Iran – would add to US leverage over China.
Two: The Biden administration recognises that Iran has been the most strategically successful country in this part of the world over the past 15 years. It has established strong, and in some cases decisive, influence in a number of Arab countries. It has managed through allies and proxies to arrive at a balance of deterrence with Israel. And it has established a political and military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, an age-old Iranian objective. These successes not only give Iran weight, but they have also empowered it to challenge US interests in the Gulf and the Levant.
Three: For over a decade there has been the view inside the American Democratic Party that the US needs to change its alliances in the Gulf. According to this view, whereas Iran has repeatedly proven its success, traditional allies of the US have not. Some voices in the Democratic Party go as far as to cast doubts on the future prospects of several Gulf states. And so, in this view, there is a need to rebalance US positioning in the region.
Four: Iran wants a grand deal with the US for tactical as well as strategic reasons. The tactical reason is that the sanctions the former US Trump administration imposed on Iran have exacted serious pain on the Iranian economy and society, as well as on the capabilities of Iran’s allies and proxies in the region. Whereas this pain is far from being fatal, Iran needs this difficult situation to end.
The Iranian strategic reasons are even more compelling. Iran wants to entrench the expansion it has successfully pursued over the past 15 years, and it knows that only the US can strip it of those gains. Iran has been fighting to expand and to secure its gains, but a deal with the US could save it enormous resources and energy.
Iran also sees troubles brewing at home. Over the past decade, Iran has witnessed two large waves of demonstrations against the regime. Repression has worked, but as the regime’s economic resources dwindle – as oil becomes less valuable in global markets – Iran needs to lessen the costs of sustaining its foreign presence.
In addition, there are also Iranian assessments that its presence in a number of countries in the region does not necessarily fly in the face of US interests. This view is clear in important Iranian circles, and not only in the traditionally West-looking Iranian diplomatic service.
Five: Chemistry – there are personal connections and prior acquaintances between members of the Biden administration and Iranian policy-makers that have left good impressions. And despite all the talk about strategic considerations, in politics, as in everything else in life, personal chemistry is important.
It is interesting to note that a number of current senior US policy-makers have long-held views about civilisational characteristics and their geographical footprints and lasting social impacts. There is a not-so-hidden admiration for the indeed marvelous Iranian civilisation as a result. This point might appear superfluous, but it is not, as Iran has always craved respect from others and not so much from its neighbours, most of which it has condescending views towards, but from the West.
Such soft factors might pave the way towards a grand deal.
However, there are also factors opposing a new deal between the US and Iran.
One: There are clashing mindsets between the US empire and Iran as a regional expansionist power. Irrespective of the conciliatory rhetoric that often characterises Democratic administrations, the US continues to see the Middle East through imperialist eyes. Iran, on the other hand, thinks that its successes over the past decade have given it the right to some sort of reciprocity. This clash of mindsets transcends other attitudes and goes to the heart of each side’s view of Iran’s position in the region.
Two: There is a clash concerning limits. Irrespective of Iran’s view that its presence in different countries in the region is not necessarily against US strategic objectives, the US will not accept that Iran, directly or through its allies and proxies, continues to pose a serious threat to Israel. This will present Iran with a difficult dilemma, because the ability to threaten Israel has been one of Iran’s prized achievements in the past 15 years.
Three: Another factor makes Iran’s calculations even more complicated. While Iran wants a deal with the US, it also wants continued cooperation with Russia and flexible and friendly relationships with China. However, it understands that the US incentive for having a deal stems from a desire to sort out security arrangements in the region that are favourable to the US in its strategic confrontation with China. A deal with the US would make it difficult for Iran to navigate this foggy landscape of dealings with the major powers.
Four: Negotiations concerning Iran’s nuclear programme are now more complicated than they were five years ago. This is because Iran, after its experience with the Trump administration, will not accept short-term sacrifices and long delays to its capabilities without significant short-term benefits and strict guarantees. Even if some in the Biden administration are inclined to offer such benefits and guarantees, the administration as a whole will find it difficult to sell those internally in Congress and to the US media.
Five: There are powerful lobbies in Washington working against any grand US-Iran deal. Although the Biden administration is still in its early months, any US administration and the party behind it are always cognisant of electoral costs.
The dynamics between the factors favouring and those opposing a deal between the US and Iran are complicated. But observers of the region must think carefully about them, for these dynamics will determine the most important development in the region’s politics in the medium term.
*The writer is the author of Islamisim: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly