Iran’s regional policy after a nuclear deal

One of the many points of contention between Left and Right over a possible nuclear deal with Tehran concerns how Iran will behave in its aftermath. Opponents of a deal often suggest that Iran is likely to feel both less constrained and more determined to prove its undying revolutionary commitments, and so will become more aggressive—increasing its support for terrorist groups and insurgencies, amping up its efforts to subvert regional governments, and possibly directly threatening some of its regional rivals. The Obama administration, on the other hand, has repeatedly indicated that it believes that a nuclear deal could be the start of a wider rapprochement with Iran, ultimately producing a less fearful and therefore less aggressive Iran. Indeed, administration officials have repeatedly stated that one reason that they are going slow on Syria is that they want to wait till after a nuclear deal when they believe that Iran will be more amenable to a compromise on Syria.

There is a logic to both positions, but my best guess is that neither the fears of the Right nor the hopes of the Left are likely to pan out—at least not fully. As always, Iran’s future behavior is hard to predict because its motives going into the nuclear negotiations are unclear and its decision-making is always opaque. With those important caveats in mind, I thought I would sketch out my own thinking on this issue.

First, Iran has always seemed to fashion discrete policies toward different states of the region. In each case, Iran has a certain set of interests in a country and engages in a policy debate over how to act toward that country—in which Iran’s complicated domestic politics interact with various strategic perspectives to produce a policy toward that country. Because these policies are both derived from Iran’s strategic interests and must run the gauntlet of Iranian internal politicking, they tend to persist over time.  The tactics change, but the strategic approach tends to remain constant. 

Right now, I think that Iran has a Syria policy based on its interests and its politics as they relate to Syria. It appears to have an Iraq policy based on its interests and its politics as they relate to Iraq. And the same for Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, etc. Neither those interests nor those politics appear likely to change much, if at all, as a result of the nuclear deal. I don’t think that the Iranians see any reason to compromise on Syria—or anything else, for that matter—with the United States in response to a nuclear deal. But for the same reasons, I don’t see any reason why Iran would be less restrained in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or anywhere else. I see Iranian actions in those places as being precisely calibrated to what Iran is trying to achieve in those places, which is unlikely to be affected by the nuclear deal one way or the other.

It is also worth noting that across the region, the Iranians seem pretty comfortable with the status quo—largely because that status quo is pretty favorable to them. Their Shi’ite allies are dominant in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. In Syria, the Asad regime remains in power and is making important gains against its opposition with no sign of impending collapse. The Iranians probably feel they could be doing better in Bahrain, but of the countries in play in the region, that’s the only one Iran cares about where Iranians may not believe they are “winning.” So there is no particular reason to believe that Iran is looking to increase its aggressive involvement in any of these states but has been somehow constrained from doing so by the nuclear negotiations.

Moreover, while I can’t prove it, I think there is strong circumstantial evidence that Khamene’i and the Iranian establishment believes it has far more at stake in Iraq and possibly Lebanon than it does in a nuclear deal. They have poured resources into Iraq over the years, which is deeply bound up with Iranian society economically, socially and politically—as well as having constituted a dire security threat in the past. Likewise, Iran’s alliance with Hizballah is part of the bedrock of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy and brings Iran a coveted role in the events of the Levant. Because of Syria’s relationship to both Iraq and Lebanon, it too might be more important to Tehran than a nuclear deal if the Iranian leadership were ever forced to choose between the two. The point I am making here is simply that I cannot see Iran changing its policy in any of these countries because of a nuclear deal because I don’t think that Iran values a nuclear deal as much as it does its positions in these various countries.

Based on his various statements over the years, I think that Khamene’i’s perspective on a nuclear deal is purely transactional. If he agrees to one, it will be solely to get the sanctions removed. I think he has made it clear that this is how he sees a nuclear deal: he is willing to accept certain limits on his nuclear program in return for the removal of the sanctions. Nothing more and nothing less. Again, for that reason, I think it unlikely that he agrees to a wider rapprochement with the United States—whatever Foreign Minister Zarif and possibly President Rouhani may want—but equally unlikely that he feels that he can now take advantage of American disengagement to run the table on us.

There are a few possible exceptions to this last point. I suspect that experts from the Right may be correct that Khamene’i and Iran’s hardliners may want to prove that a nuclear deal does not mean that they have given up their enmity with the United States. If that is the case, they may increase some of their anti-status quo activities in certain selected venues. 

  • Israel is the obvious case in point: Iran may try to convince Hizballah, Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and others to mount attacks on Israel. That’s almost a “freebie” for Iran. Israel is unlikely to retaliate directly against Iran, everyone will know that Tehran is behind the attacks, and since the Netanyahu government has managed to isolate Israel in ways that the Palestinians never could, Tehran will be playing to a popular cause. The problem here is that Iran may not be able to pull the trigger on such a campaign. Hizballah and Hamas are both extremely wary of picking a fight with Israel, as demonstrated by the fact that neither has done so in the face of multiple Israeli provocations. PIJ and other Palestinian proxy groups are weaker than in the past and may have a hard time penetrating Israel’s ever more sophisticated defenses.
  • Bahrain is another possibility. Because Bahrain is a majority Shi’ite state, whose people have been disenfranchised and oppressed by the regime—and its Saudi allies—it is another arena where Iran may be able to burnish its revolutionary credentials in a relatively popular international cause. But here too, there are limits. Some Bahraini Shi’a clearly accept aid from Iran, but the majority appear to prefer not to. They recognize that the more that they can be dismissed as Iranian agents the harder it is for them to get international pressure on the regime to reform. In addition, Bahrain is a very sensitive issue for the Saudis, and the Iranians have to worry that if they press on Bahrain, the Saudis might push back somewhere else where they are more vulnerable.
  • A last possibility is Yemen. Iran has few direct stakes in Yemen and Iran’s nominal allies, the Houthis, are dominant at the moment. So Iran has little to lose there and a (relatively) powerful ally. But once again, Iran’s ties to the Houthis have been exaggerated, and it is another very sensitive spot for the Saudis. 

Consequently, it may prove difficult for Iran to make much mischief in any of these arenas—more difficult than it may be worth for them.

All that said, there is at least one factor that could produce a significant Iranian regional reaction stemming from a nuclear deal, and that is how Saudi Arabia reacts to it. As is well known, the Saudis aren’t exactly fans of a nuclear deal with Iran. Now, I do NOT expect the Saudis to acquire a nuclear weapon of their own in response. That’s kind of silly. The Saudis have had good reasons for not acquiring one all of these years (and the Pakistanis good reasons for not giving it to them). More than that, the optics would be all wrong for the Saudis. Think about it: Iran will have just signed a deal with the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China agreeing never to build a nuclear weapon and accepting limits on its enrichment program to reassure the world that it won’t/can’t get a nuclear weapon. In that context, if Saudi Arabia goes out and buys a bomb from the Pakistanis, suddenly both Riyadh and Islamabad will become the international pariahs. All of the sympathy will swing to Iran, which will be seen as having behaved well, whereas there will be worldwide demands to sanction the Saudis (and the Pakistanis) for doing exactly what Iran had agreed not to do. None of this makes sense for the Saudis.

That said, the Saudis may react in other ways. First off, I expect that soon after a nuclear deal is announced with Iran, the Saudis may announce that they are going to start a nuclear program of their own and build UP to whatever levels Iran is allowed. So if, for instance, Iran is allowed to keep 6,500 first-generation centrifuges and 150 kg of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent purity, then I suspect that the Saudis will announce that they are going to acquire 6,500 first-generation centrifuges and 150 kg of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent purity. Doing so would be an important warning both to the Iranians (that the Saudis will match their nuclear capabilities at every step) and to the West (that it will have further proliferation in the Middle East if they do not force Iran to live up to its new commitments).

Second, the Saudis may choose to ramp up their support to various Sunni groups fighting Iran’s allies and proxies around the region. Indeed, I actually think this more dangerous than the risk that Iran chooses to do so absent Saudi provocation. Again, the Saudis seem to agree with the Iranians that Iran is “winning” in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. And the Saudis also seem to believe that Iran is making important inroads in Oman and with various Shi’ite communities elsewhere in the Gulf. So while the Iranians may not need to double-down, the Saudis may, and they may choose to do so after a nuclear deal both to signal to the Iranians that they should not take advantage of it to inflict more damage on the “Sunni” side, and in fear that the United States intends to use a nuclear deal with Iran as a “Get Out of the Gulf Free” card. The Gulf states are convinced that is the Obama administration’s intent, and far from accommodating with Tehran as some have feared, the Gulf states are far more likely to get in Tehran’s face to try to deter the Iranians. This last is arguably the greatest danger of a nuclear deal. The Gulf states are not strong enough to take on Iran alone, and if they act provocatively toward Iran, even if intended to deter Iranian aggression, they could easily provoke just such aggression.  If the United States is not there to reassure the Gulf states and deter Iran, things could get very ugly.