Iran Goes From Pariah State to Player in Global Corridors of Power

The nuclear deal's implementation day marks the dawn of a new strategy in the Middle East.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the United Nations headquarters, New York, U.S., September 26, 2015.
Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the United Nations headquarters, New York, U.S., September 26, 2015.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had no doubts when he arrived in Vienna on Saturday. The International Atomic Energy Agency report made clear that Iran had met all its obligations set out in the agreement signed in July. As far as Iran and the international community are concerned, “implementation day” has begun. The Iranian business community is officially open to international corporations, and the world’s markets are open to Iran. But Zarif has aspirations beyond the economic. “What is more important is that it’s an extremely important day for diplomacy. Today is the day where we prove to the world that threats, sanctions, intimidation and pressure don’t work. Respect works. Through respect, through dialogue, we can reach mutually accepted agreements,” he told reporters.

No less important are the implications for the elections to the Iranian parliament and the Assembly of Experts, scheduled for late February; for the relationship between President Hassan Rohani’s administration and the Revolutionary Guards and for regional diplomacy: that is, the uphill battle to end the wars in Syria and in Yemen, which is weighed down by the toxic conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

No one doubts the economic benefits Iran will reap from the lifting of sanctions. The immediate release of some $100 billion that are frozen in bank accounts worldwide is a huge and much-needed injection of cash at a time when the price of oil has plummeted to around $30 a barrel, one-third less than the price on which Iran’s budget for next year was calculated. Future contracts that have already been signed with foreign companies can begin to be implemented in the coming months. Iran can increase its oil production by 500,000 barrels a day in short order, and by the end of the year it should be able to add an additional million barrels a day. The return of Iranian banks to world markets could restore a good deal of the value that the Iranian rial lost during the period of sanctions, and instill hope in the unemployment-plagued job market.

But as Zarif predicts, the lifting of sanctions will have powerful political implications. Iran can now demand a place of respect in managing regional crises. “#ImplementationDay, it’s now time for all — especially Muslim nations — to join hands and rid the world of violent extremism. Iran is ready,” Zarif wrote on his Twitter account.

To Iran, violent extremism is not to be found only in Al-Qaida and the Islamic State, organizations that have declared Shi’ite Muslims as their enemies, but also in the religious militias fighting in Syria, some of which are cooperating with Saudi Arabia and the United States. Indeed, ties between Iran and the United States, and Iran and Saudi Arabia, will be a focus of interest. The chance to resolve these crises depends a great deal on that triangle.

Along with Iran’s historic and strategic interests in Syria, it is also worried about the military monopoly Russia has imposed in Syria and about the possibility that a diplomatic solution will restrict its influence in Syria. Thus, it cannot be ruled out that Iran will seek to prove to the West as well that it is in no one’s back pocket, and that it can be an effective partner to the United States as long as its interests are protected. The gestures Iran has made over the past few days — the release of 10 American sailors after only two days and the release of four detainees, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian — indicate more than a “gift” to the American administration.

Iran also wants to push out its bitter rival Saudi Arabia. In the rift between them Muslim and Western countries are trying to mediate to restore the relationship to at least what it was before the crisis that broke out after Saudi Arabia executed Shi’ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Resolution of the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is essential to continue the diplomatic process in Syria and Yemen. But if this strife was in the past fed by a rivalry of blocs consisting of the United States and Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Russia and Iran on the other, Iran’s new status could present it as a “tiebreaker.” For example, Iran could initiate a restoration of its ties with Turkey, which has in recent months become an ally of Saudi Arabia in the “Sunni Muslim coalition,” and the United States would not be able to pressure Turkey against such a move. Moreover, Iran’s newly accessed funds could allow it to bring onto its side Arab countries previously supported by Saudi Arabian money.

Thus implementation day becomes the day for initiation of new strategy in the Middle East. Iran will continue to be monitored by the IAEA; however its true power will be monitored not at its nuclear facilities but rather as it flourishes in international decision-making forums.

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