For Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, this was never really about Iran’s nuclear program. They will judge the interim deal on the basis of whether it strengthens Iran’s regional position — which it almost certainly will. Their basic assumption is that whatever’s good for Iran will, somehow, come at their expense. For them (but not for the United States), this is a zero-sum game, so, by definition, this is a bad deal.
Just two years ago, analysts were pointing to Iran’s decline, which found itself increasingly isolated. Despite its claims to the contrary, the Iranian regime had failed to take advantage of the Arab uprisings; its faithful support of a brutal Assad regime was plain for all to see. Assad’s days seemed numbered, anyhow, as Western officials were fond of saying. Iran has recovered nicely. This interim deal — coming so soon after Hassan Rouhani’s surprise victory — continues to undo the damage, strengthening Iran’s economic state at home and rehabilitating the country in the eyes of the international community.
This brings us to Syria and it could conceivably go in one of two directions. An optimist might argue that Iran’s staunch support of the Assad regime is a product of its isolation. Having less to lose, it sticks with its allies and it only has two or three, one of them being Syria. Perhaps this interim deal addresses some of that insecurity and Iran starts to play a less destructive role in the Syrian conflict. I suppose this is plausible but probably only in the longer run — after a comprehensive deal is secured. For now, Iran has no real incentive to distance itself from Assad. That would be premature after all — what if the negotiations fail and the interim deal falls apart?
The United States, meanwhile, is even less likely — or just as unlikely as it was before — to put serious pressure on Iran over its support of the Assad regime. That simply isn’t the American focus right now and anything that could potentially complicate the coming negotiations is likely to be put to the side. Assad was already given a free hand with the U.S.-Russia chemical weapons deal in September. He had now become a partner, rather than an enemy, even if that meant to looking the other way as the rebels struggled to respond to Assad’s military offensives.
It is understandable that the interim deal with Iran, which was complicated enough, had little to say about Syria. But any final, comprehensive deal should, in fact, be comprehensive. That means addressing Iran as well as Hezbollah’s crucial support for the Assad regime. The Obama administration, however, has not done a great job of adopting an approach that views the region’s seemingly disparate conflicts as not just inter-linked but intertwined. Doing so would require a coherent regional strategy rather than the boutique approach that they have so far favored.
At the end of the day, skeptics (rightly) fear that the administration’s two top priorities — Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — are priorities for a reason. If the Iranian problem, in all its various forms, is resolved, that gives the United States one less fundamental national security threat to worry about. If one wanted to be less consumed by the Middle East and refocus attention on other neglected regions, then this would presumably be a solid first step. Of course, that’s exactly what the Gulf countries — as well as Israel — are worried about.