Michel Moawad -The Daily Star
The tentative nuclear deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany has prompted mixed reactions since the announcement of a framework agreement in Lausanne last month. U.S. President Barack Obama hailed the accord as a “historic agreement” while German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has cautioned that it is “too early to celebrate.”
The agreement was followed by contradictory statements over the inspection mechanisms of Iran’s nuclear facilities and the schedule for sanctions relief. Yet amid all the ambiguity surrounding negotiations one issue is certain: A final agreement – if reached – will limit Iran’s capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons and, consequently, prevent a nuclear arms race in the region.
The framework agreement, reached after 18 months of arduous negotiations, imposes harsh conditions on Iran, conditions that Tehran had previously fought hard to evade. These include strict inspection of Iran’s nuclear facilities by the U.N., confining the enrichment of uranium to the Natanz plant and limiting the number of centrifuges to 6,000. More important, Iran has agreed to send the bulk of its stockpile of enriched uranium abroad, a condition it had considered a red line and described as a violation of its sovereignty.
Does this indicate that the agreement is a historic one as described by Washington? The problem doesn’t lie with the agreement itself but rather with Obama’s definition of the threat that Iran poses. The president has turned a blind eye to Iran’s destructive role in the Middle East, confining the Iranian threat to Tehran’s potential acquisition of nuclear arms. As such, Obama considers that preventing the Islamic Republic from manufacturing an atomic bomb should pave the way for Iran to normalize ties with the international community.
This line of thought, which Obama has defended on several occasions, indicates that the president, despite his reassurances, is ignoring the historic conflicts that have marred the Middle East. The nuclear threat is not the only danger that Iran poses to the region. A closer look shows that Iran has effectively expanded its borders to the shores of the Mediterranean via its proxy Hezbollah. The party continues to obstruct international justice in Lebanon and conduct covert financial and security operations across the globe – all at the expense of the Lebanese state’s sovereignty.
Iran’s destructive role extends to Iraq, where Tehran has fueled sectarian tensions through its direct intervention in Iraqi affairs. Iran has also attempted to stir unrest in Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Its failed attempts in both countries were followed by direct military intervention in Syria to support President Bashar Assad rule. Assad has become a puppet of Iran, effectively conceding power to Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani.
Yemen is also paying a price for Iran’s intervention. Tehran has trained and armed Houthi rebels who have attempted a coup against legitimate Yemeni institutions.
All these developments expose Obama’s flawed logic and provide a clear indication of the threat that Iran poses beyond the attempt to acquire nuclear weapons. Therefore any sanctions relief that follows a final agreement should be coupled with measures to curb Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East. The failure to do so would empower Tehran and provide it with the financial means to further pursue its sectarian-driven agenda in the Arab world. This will transform the region into a time bomb that threatens both Africa and Europe, despite Obama’s reassurances.
That is partly why the Arab states have been more concerned by Iran’s regional agenda than the nuclear threat, which represents a bigger burden for the West and Israel. Arab states believe that the true danger lies in Iran’s determination to export the Islamic revolution beyond its borders through its sponsorship of sectarian militias in the Arab world and its continuous attempts to fuel strife and undermine the security of Arab countries.
Make no mistake, Iran’s attempts to divide the Arab world along sectarian lines pose a global threat. By destabilizing and dividing Arab countries, Iran is creating fertile ground for the growth of extremism and terrorism that may reach the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia. Therefore any deal with Iran should be coupled with measures compelling Tehran to commit to regional stability rather than sponsor terrorism, which puts the whole region at a risk far greater than the threat of a nuclear arms race.
For the same reason, the international community should uphold the carrot and stick approach to ensure that Iran doesn’t see sanctions relief as a green light for further destabilization of the region. In the absence of a well-defined and coordinated strategy by the international community, Arab states should likewise ensure that the nuclear framework agreement doesn’t empower Iran.
That said, an Arab strategy to confront Iran’s hegemonic ambitions is already taking shape. Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen has secured broad support from the international community and was followed by an accord on the formation of a joint Arab military force.
The success of Arab states in confronting Iran’s ambitions, however, hinges mainly upon their ability to form an all-inclusive strategy that guarantees the balance of power in the region. This must ensure that all regional actors, including Iran, have an interest in preserving stability based on mutual respect for sovereignty, unity and peace. It is only through normalizing ties with its Arab neighbors that Iran can expect the same from the international community.
Michel Moawad is the head of the Independence Movement (michelmoawad.com). He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.