When we talk about a possible agreement between Iran and the P5 +1, not only are we talking about a technical military agreement regarding the Iranian nuclear program, but we are also implicitly engaging with Iran’s expansionist ambitions, which are part and parcel of its foreign policy. It is this expansionism, in the context of Iran’s nuclear program, that raises concerns in Israel and the West. But these concerns do not include fears of Israel being wiped off the map or Iran championing Arab interests in Palestine.
Iran is not interested in developing a full nuclear program. Rather, it wants to control certain levers of power that will allow it to realize its expansionist ambitions. Its incomplete nuclear program is one of these levers, as is Hezbollah, which has high levels of influence in Lebanon, on Israel’s northern border.
Iran is aware that expanding its influence in the region requires posing a risk, albeit theoretically, to Israel. This means doing some saber-rattling and calling for the liberalization of Arab land, but in reality its aim is to force the major powers to placate Iran by ceding to its demands on regional issues. This allows Iran to interfere in the Gulf and even infringe upon those countries’ internal affairs.
Coming to an agreement on the nuclear program is not, in and of itself, a goal for Iran. Resolving the matter through a definitive agreement does not advance Iran’s expansionist platform. This is because the nuclear program must remain a tool Iran can use to exert pressure and further its wider interests.
Iraq, for example, occupies a special place in Iranian foreign policy. It will be decades before it has disentangled itself from Iraq’s internal affairs. Iran, which aligned itself militarily with the United States on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, has achieved a remarkable amount of influence in that country. But the situation in Iraq has now changed, to the detriment of Tehran. Iraq has relapsed into chaos and its Sunni minority has reclaimed some clout, and Iran continues to engage with the Iraqi Kurds and their ambitions for statehood.
Then there’s Syria, where Iran has waged war as though its own existence depended on the outcome. It has provided extensive financial support to the Syrian regime and has dispatched advisors with field experience in Iraq. It continues to exploit the presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in its fight against opposition forces. This has all been done in order to preserve Iranian influence, which would suffer a fatal blow if the Syrian regime—its key ally—were to fall. Tehran knows that change in Syria means a change in the landscape in Lebanon. This in turn would affect Hezbollah’s influence and increase the strength of those opposed to Iranian expansionism.
If Iran becomes mired in political and military conflicts on two fronts—Syria and Iraq—its influence will be threatened, just as it lost influence along the Lebanese–Israeli border when Hezbollah committed to Security Council Resolution 1701. Iran’s commitment to the Syrian regime has weakened its relationship with Hamas, which has taken an anti-regime stance after having previously benefited from the regime’s political and security cover.
Iran is aware that the most important aspects of its expansionist toolkit are located close to the Israeli border. It must be close geographically, through Hezbollah and Hamas, and close politically, through the influence of its nuclear program.
This is why I do not foresee any future agreement between the major powers and Iran regarding its nuclear program—not because the agreement would be difficult to reach, but because Tehran wants the project to act as a platform from which it can advance its interests in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, the Gulf, and elsewhere in the region. Iran wants to force the international community to accept that it will always be a presence on the regional stage. This is why Iran will draw out the talks for years and years, until, finally, negotiations reach an impasse. All the while, it will have been pursuing its actual goals.
As long as the region’s issues remain unresolved, the crux of Iran’s foreign policy will be to ensure negotiations on the nuclear issue continue. Iran will be at the table as long as this subject is on the table, and that will allow it to influence other issues in the region. It will never resolve issues it can use as leverage to achieve its goals and further its sectarian agenda.
Last but not least, one of the obstacles to the nuclear deal is that it concerns the Arabs, and especially the Gulf. The weight of the Gulf countries’ concern will always be brought to bear in the negotiations. Gulf states recognize that a real agreement would strengthen Iran’s influence, both because it would hold nuclear technology and because the economic blockade on the country would be reduced, if not completely eliminated. More importantly, this agreement—if it takes the form of a contract—would include understandings between the world powers and Iran on key issues in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, which are also of great interest to the Gulf countries.
Again, the nuclear issue is not independent of the already existing understandings between major powers and the countries of the region, and it cannot be made independent. Thus, the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program cannot succeed without first gaining a comprehensive reading of the region’s political landscape.
The counterpoint to this article can be read here.