Posted on July 13, 2015 in Washington Watch
By James Zogby
Here in Washington and across the Middle East, many are holding their breath awaiting news of the outcome of the P5+1 negotiations with Iran: some, in hopeful anticipation; others with a sense of dread. The reality, however, is that whether or not an agreement is reached on Iran's nuclear program the US and the Arab World will continue to face major challenges that will require urgent attention.
Deal or no deal: ISIS will continue to menace Iraq and Syria and beyond; Iraq's sectarian governance issues will continue to fuel Sunni Arab and Kurdish unrest; Syria's long civil/proxy war will continue to rage out of control destroying innocent lives and feeding a growing refugee tragedy and political crisis, both of which threaten the stability of neighboring countries; the tragic humanitarian disaster and failed state that is Yemen will continue to rage unabated; the ever simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stoked by Israeli intransigence, threatens to boil over into renewed hostilities; and Arab leaders and public opinion will continue to lack confidence in United States as a supportive ally that has their interests at heart.
This is the setting in which the negotiations are taking place and it is the lens through which Arabs are viewing the entire process. And it is defines a reality that US policy makers need to consider - deal or no deal.
Since Arabs see Iran's hand involved in many of the region's crises, they are less concerned with the number of centrifuges at the disposal of the Islamic Republic after a deal is reached than they are with what they see as the destablizing expansion Iran's influence in Iraq, Syria, and now Yemen. For Arabs, there can be no good outcome to the negotiations if the US fails to address the impact of any deal on these conflicts and Iran's role in them.
If there is a deal, Iran's nuclear program might be reined in, but the very real Arab concern is that with the loosening of sanctions and unfreezing of assets Iran will experience an immediate boost in revenues (estimated at $150+ billion). This, they fear, will not only be used to improve Iran's economy and expand services for the Iranian people. The concern is that in the post-deal period Iran will use its new riches to invest more heavily in its regional adventures. This will only create greater Arab anxiety causing them to take steps that will result in even greater conflict.
In all of my polling of Arab public opinion, I have never found Iran's nuclear program to be a major concern. The Arab preference has always been to see their region become a nuclear free zone, a goal they feel has repeatedly been frustrated by the US refusal to challenge Israel's well-established nuclear capability. In recent years, as Arabs have grown wary of Iran's involvement in Iraq and Syria, Arabs have told us that they do not want to see Iran as a nuclear power, but that concern has been muted by their fear of Israel and their anger at the US double standard.
Nevertheless, I hope my President succeeds in these negotiations for two important reasons.
First, he will have demonstrated that difficult issues can be solved through thoughtful and forceful diplomacy. While his domestic opponents will continue to rage, they have demonstrated that they have nothing better to propose than more sanctions or the use of force, neither of which will yield any positive outcome and may, in the case of military action, only serve to make worse an already explosive and dangerous Middle East.
The second reason I hope the President succeeds is that it will give him a strengthened hand at home and in the region enabling him to take the next steps needed to address the Middle East's broader conflicts.
Here is what I would urge him to do.
First, he should take a strong and decisive stand at this year's United Nations General Assembly on the Israeli-Palestinian issue by supporting a Security Council Resolution that backs recognition of a Palestinian State and the Arab Peace Initiative and imposes a deadline of two years to complete the negotiations needed to resolve the issues that will end the conflict.
Riding on the crest of regional support that such an initiative will bring to the United States, the President can then take the necessary steps to achieve broader regional peace by using forceful US diplomacy, backed by our allies, to negotiate an Iranian-Arab regional security framework - like the OSCE. This will be a huge but necessary undertaking. Iran cannot emerge from a deal feeling that it has carte blanc to meddle in the affairs of the Arab states. Such an outcome would only encourage nervous Arab states to continue to take more risky counter-measures that have all too often proven to exacerbate already dangerous situations. It is high time that it be recognized that neither Iran and its allies or Saudi Arabia and its allies can win in any of the countries in which they and their proxies are currently engaged in deadly conflict. Neither side will or can win a decisive victory in Iraq, Syria, or Yemen. What is needed is a regional security framework that brings the parties together to negotiate solutions in each of the areas where they or their allies are currently engaged in conflict. These solutions will be imperfect, but they will help to create the security and stability that will be needed to begin to heal the region's many wounds.
Finally, with the P5+1 deal under their belt, the US and its partners can ensure that the region's nervousness with the terms of the arrangement do not lead to an arms race by turning their attention to the creation of a nuclear free zone across the Middle East.
If, and only if, the US can pivot from a completed deal to a broader regional peace will it be possible to judge the outcome a success. Otherwise it's "off to the races", since a deal without a determined follow-up program may be just a bad as (and maybe worse than) no deal at all.