Iran has a bigger problem than the West: Its Sunni neighbors

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on Lawfare.

Striking a deal is the easy part.

That would be my counsel to Iran’s leaders. As negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 grow closer to the end of June deadline, it is worthwhile to think through the potential implications of a deal for Iran and the region. The general hope is that a deal will be positive for everyone. It will certainly benefit the United States. First and foremost, a deal would reduce the likelihood of a major war against Iran. It could save lives and money, prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, greatly extend the timeline for Iran to gain a breakout capability, and help repair the mistrust that has bogged down U.S.-Iran relations since the revolution. War has proven a poor mechanism for repairing the Middle East’s problems. A triumph of diplomacy could be what’s needed.

Iran feels that it is making significant sacrifices in the negotiations. It also stands to gain from a deal. Early indications suggest Iran will be able to keep a limited enrichment program while accepting reductions in production, rigorous monitoring measures, and other intrusive safeguards. In exchange, Iran will get either immediate cessation or incremental easing of many sanctions. Either way, Iran’s economy is poised to rebound and the regime will have far more resources at its disposal than at present. Iran’s reputation in the international community will also benefit from a deal. It will have an opportunity to forge a new path in its relations with the United States and the West, and open up its economy to Western investment and trade. With a reduction of tensions, Iran would have to spend less energy worrying about the threat of the United States. This will allow it to focus on other outside challenges, particularly regionally.

That could prove problematic. The Middle East is in crisis. Every country is involved with or affected by the region’s current wars. From the perspective of Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbors, the region’s problems all stem from Iran’s quest for regional hegemony. They see Iranian efforts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen as an attempt to supplant the region’s traditional Sunni-dominated political order with a new imperial Shiite reality. Gulf Arab states worry that a post-deal Iran will be more—not less—aggressive in asserting its interests. They see the deal as a buffer shielding Iran from the one thing that has prevented its anti-monarchical Shiite revolution from taking hold in their countries: the specter of war with the United States. The deal, from their perspective, takes the threat of war off the table. With the United States out of the picture, and Iran’s bank account overflowing with sanctions relief, Gulf Arab states have no doubt that Iran will double down in the Middle East.

Tehran has done little to assuage this concern. With the West’s attention focused squarely on the nuclear issue, Iran has steadily pursued its interests in the region. In Syria, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has become one of—if not the—principal architects of Asad’s ground war against the rebellion. It has overseen the development of the National Defense Forces (NDF)—a popular, pro-Asad militia composed mostly of ‘Alawites—and was instrumental in bringing Lebanese Hizballah and Iraqi militias to the fight. As ISIS took its war into Iraq, Iran was the first to respond, transferring advisors, forces, materiel, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets to the Iraqi front lines. IRGC Qods Force chief, Maj-Gen. Qassem Soleimani, has overseen the involvement of Iraq’s Shiite militias in the conflict where they have become (along with the Kurdish peshmerga) the leading indigenous counterweight to ISIS—and Soleimani has become a social media celebrity in the process. The largely Shiite, Iranian-sponsored Popular Forces militia (Hashd al-Shaabi), has been gradually surpassing the American-backed Iraqi military as the dominant force in the country’s war against the Islamic State. The IRGC’s advisory role to the Houthis in Yemen is far less clear. Iran has reportedly supplied its Yemeni allies with arms, training, and money, but this assistance is probably less responsible for the Houthis sudden rise than their collaboration with Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Iran likely has far less influence in Yemen than in Iraq or Syria, but to Gulf Arab states Iran is the puppet master and the Houthis are its puppet.

If Iran’s behavior over the last few years has any bearing on its future behavior, then it would seem that a deal will do little to curb its foreign involvement.

From Tehran’s perspective, these activities are legitimate. It is helping defend the governments in Syria and Iraq from terrorists and helping counter Al Qaeda in Yemen through its Houthi allies. Iran, with some justification, blames Saudi Arabia for the growth of the virulent anti-Shiite strand of Sunni extremism that has taken hold in the region and seems committed to combating extremist forces in places where they harm Iran’s interests. If Iran’s behavior over the last few years has any bearing on its future behavior, then it would seem that a deal will do little to curb its foreign involvement. There are obvious limits to what Iran is willing to do and can do beyond its borders, but there is no evidence that Iran will slow down its foreign activities after a deal. The Islamic State and other Sunni extremist groups will remain a threat to Iran and there is no third party with the wherewithal to prevent Iran from supporting its allies militarily or financially.

The Gulf Arab states know this and believe they are on their own when it comes to dealing with Iran. The recent Camp David summit between President Obama and GCC leaders was about countering Iran. Gulf Arab leaders are seeking conventional weapons and defense agreements from the United States to deter Iran militarily. The assurances they received were viewed as positive, but most Gulf Arab states see such support as just the tip of the iceberg of what’s required. American assurances and defense cooperation will help them deter Iran militarily, but it will not help them root out Iranian influence from the region or from their own countries. It is Iran’s “meddling” as they often put it that causes them the greatest consternation. They not only fear that Iran is reshaping the political and sectarian landscape of the region, they fear that Iran has designs to completely overturn the present order of their monarchical regimes.

There is a feeling among Gulf Arab leaders that they will lose out in the nuclear deal. Iran will one day have a nuclear breakout capability, will no longer fear the United States, and will have an economy on the rise. They also mutter darkly that the United States might dump them overboard in favor of Tehran. This has led to the growing realization that if Arab states want to push back against Iranian influence they will have to do it directly. They can no longer lean on the United States to counter Iran; they must take ownership of that task and find ways to take on Iran themselves. They want to counter Iranian influence and they feel that they can no longer count on U.S. military power as a deterrent. They see Iran’s success in unconventional operations (e.g., proxy support) and are increasingly convinced that in order to effectively counter Iran they will need to fight fire with fire. A proxy war with Iran is already occurring on the battlefields of the region. It will probably get worse.

What is most dangerous is that the Middle East’s intra-regional conflict is increasingly being driven by sectarian impulses. Exaggerated perceptions of Iran’s sectarian (as opposed to strategic or security-oriented) intentions in the region have made its actions appear to be a thinly-veiled attempt of subverting Sunni dominion through Shiite clients. From this perspective, Gulf states view Sunnism and Sunni Arabs to be under attack by Iran and its Shiite brethren. They see the conflict in sectarian terms and assume the Iranians do too. For this reason, they do not view sectarianism as a problem, but rather a natural response to Iran’s policies that helped empower Shiites in post-Saddam Iraq. They feel that sectarianism will go away only if and when Iran reverses its regional policies and the Shiites go back into the shadows. In other words, Gulf Arab states do not feel that they have any responsibility in reducing sectarianism in the region. ISIS might be misguided and an unfortunate outgrowth of the moment, but ultimately it is Iran that is culpable.

Whatever the cause, sectarianism is now the context for decisionmaking in the Middle East.

Iran likely does not appreciate just how severe the rupture with its Sunni Arab neighbors has become. Iran understands that Sunni extremism is a problem. It does not consider its policies to be fueling the growth of that extremism. Likewise, neither Iran nor Gulf Arab states seem to grasp that their policies have collectively turned sectarianism into the biggest threat to Middle East stability. Iran’s leaders seem to think that while inconvenient, the issue of sectarianism will pass once the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are resolved. Gulf Arab leaders think it will pass only when Iran changes its behavior or the Shiites no longer hold power. Whatever the cause, sectarianism is now the context for decisionmaking in the Middle East.

The nuclear negotiations have been a lightning rod for Iran. With the nuclear issue attracting the bulk of outside attention for the last few years, Iran’s activities in other areas have received comparatively little scrutiny. While they have been highly critical of Iran and the deal, Gulf Arab states believe they have held back in deference to Washington and its stake in negotiations. That might no longer be the case after a deal is reached. Iran’s Arab rivals are determined to end Iran’s regional involvement. If, in the aftermath of a deal, they perceive the United States to no longer be an effective check on Iran’s ambitions, they will find ways to push back against Iran with more resolve and more zeal than at present. We are already seeing a more assertive policy shift in the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis in Yemen. This is likely just the beginning of a move toward a more forward-leaning posture aimed at rolling back Iranian advances in the region. This means that Gulf Arab states will likely remain non-committal to seriously combating ISIS, and that support to other Sunni extremist organizations at war with Iran and its allies will continue. This will prolong current conflicts and could lead to new ones. It will continue to draw the United States back into Middle East wars. It will not lead to regional stability.

A nuclear deal has the possibility of benefiting Iran, the region, and the West. It is the right policy to pursue. Resolving the nuclear issue will be an important step forward for Iran. But it will not be a cure-all. A deal will provide Iran a greater sense of security by decreasing the threat of military confrontation with the United States. The relaxing of sanctions will help strengthen Iran’s economy and provide more resources to fuel its regional ambitions. However, pursuing those ambitions has exasperated tensions with Gulf Arab neighbors. A deal will not help bridge the gap between Iran and its Sunni Arab competitors. Divergent aspirations of power, religious bigotry, and blame-everyone-else-but-me-ism will continue to plague the region. These pathologies are at the root of Middle East instability and can only be treated from within. That requires Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbors to accept that their policies have collectively contributed to the conflicts and sectarianism now ravaging the region. It requires compromise between Iran and its Arab neighbors and a decoupling of sectarian chauvinisms from the decisionmaking process. But myopic policies and lack of accountability show no signs of abating. In the absence of fundamental change, the future outlook for Iran and the region is discouraging—deal or no deal.