The Iran nuclear deal has the potential to transform the relationship with the US and inject some much needed stability into the Middle East, writes Amin Saikal.
The interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the US Security Council, plus Germany, over Iran's nuclear program has the potential to redefine the strategic landscape of the Middle East.
It provides not only a solid base for a comprehensive solution of the Iranian nuclear dispute, but can also equally mark an important first step towards a US-Iranian rapprochement as a stabilising factor in the region, provided that Israel and other recalcitrant states in the region are not allowed to derail the process.
Reportedly, under the agreement, while retaining its right to uranium enrichment, as permitted under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and to continue its activities in its nuclear sites in the cities of Arak, Fordo and Natanz, Iran has undertaken to freeze its uranium enrichment at 5 per cent. It has also agreed "to neutralise its existing stockpile of near-20 per cent uranium" by diluting it to below 5 per cent within the next six months. Further, it has undertaken to allow more international inspections of its nuclear facilities. In return, some of the Western sanctions will be suspended, enabling Iran to have access to $US7 billion in foreign exchange, and no additional sanctions will be imposed.
Beyond this, the negotiation of the nuclear deal has brought Iranian and US officials at the level of foreign minister, Javad Zarif, and secretary of state, John Kerry, face-to-face for the first time since the Iranian revolution of 1978/79, which resulted in the replacement of the Shah's pro-Western regime by Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic government, with an anti-US and Israeli posture. This has followed a telephone conversation in September between the newly elected moderate Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and US president Barack Obama. Rouhani had made it a firm election promise to settle the nuclear dispute as soon as possible, for which he has had the support of Iran's powerful supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
With the deal, Iran has sought to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, and that it has no desire to produce nuclear weapons, as its leaders have repeatedly emphasised in the past. The United States, together with its European allies, must have also now been persuaded to take Iranian assurances seriously.
While both sides have a long way to go before the current thaw can lead to a restoration of full relations between them, they have good reasons to work towards such a goal. They need one another and are vulnerable to each other.
Iran needs the US help in order to improve its dire economic situation, which has been seriously undermined by mismanagement and international sanctions under the previous hardline Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It badly requires a healthy dose of foreign investment and high technology.
The US can do with Iranian assistance to extract itself with some degree of success from what is shaping up as its Afghanistan fiasco, and to play a more effective role in cleaning up the mess that it has left behind in Iraq as well as in a resolution of the Syrian crisis and in preventing the crisis from destabilising neighbouring states, especially Lebanon. Iran has built a strong leverage in all of these states and indeed on the Palestinian front, which, in the event of a US-Iranian rapprochement, could be very beneficial to Washington. As a most resourceful country in the region - in terms of human and material richness and strategic location - Iran is of a very high geostrategic value, on which the US has missed out over the past 34 years.
There are many spoilers at work from the Iranian and US sides as well as the region. Yet the two parties have been able to take a significant step towards sidelining them to the extent possible so far. However, the threat from them to derail the Iranian-US thaw remains real.
No country in the region has felt more threatened by an improvement in US-Iranian relations than Israel. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has done everything possible to undermine President Obama's efforts to secure a viable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and to prevent a negotiated settlement of Iran's nuclear dispute, fears that a US-Iranian rapprochement could only reduce Israel's importance in America's strategic calculations in the medium to long run. He has found it expedient to treat Iran as the main enemy that needs to be punished no matter what. In this, he has trod a well-worn policy course: Israel has to have a very potent regional adversary to ensure Washington's unqualified support for its survival, as absurd as this policy has proved to be. Yet, he is not the only regional leader to insist on such a posture. Ironically, some of the Gulf Arab leaderships, led by Saudi Arabia, have voiced similar concerns.
Whatever their attitudes from this point, the Iran nuclear deal can be a game changer in the region. If it takes a positive trajectory towards a US-Iranian rapprochement, it could easily change the Middle Eastern geostrategic landscape from its current volatility to something that could help the cause of stability. But this can only materialise if the opponents, Israel and its supporters in particular, are prompted to drop their self-centred negativity and see the benefits that Iran's re-integration into the international system can bring to generate a more stable Middle East.
Amin Saikal is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University, and author of the forthcoming book A Zone of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq. View his full profile here.