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What Does a U.S. – Iran Rapprochement Mean for the Middle East?

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On June 11, 2014, the Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a policy discussion revolving around the implications of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement for the Middle East. The discussion featured Abdullah Baabood, Director of the Gulf Studies Center, Qatar University; Abbas Maleki, Senior Associate at the Belfer Center’s International Security Program, Harvard University; and Suzanne Maloney, Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Salman Sheikh, Director of the BDC, moderated the discussion, which was attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, business, academic, and media communities. Each speaker reflected on the complexities of U.S.-Iran relations, and the potential of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement to reshape the complex web of interests in the region.

The panelists began the discussion by debating whether the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries would be successful. Professor Maleki opened with skepticism towards a deal being reached before July 20th, but was optimistic that an agreement was likely within the subsequent six months. Suzanne Maloney urged caution over expecting any immediate results from the negotiations, but maintained that a comprehensive, permanent agreement between Iran and the P5+1 would be reached soon, especially considering the domestic situation in Iran since Hassan Rouhani’s election. Maloney also stated that while the talks are polarizing in the United States, President Obama has pursued diplomacy with Iran since he first campaigned for office, and he needs such a deal not only for his legacy, but “because he doesn’t need a war” or a protracted crisis in the region.

Maleki added that Iranians are not unanimously in support of a deal as a relatively small number of Iranians object to some facets of the negotiations. He said that ultimately, though, most Iranians agree that a bad deal is better than no deal and are willing to make compromises to revive the economy. Additionally, the restrictions placed on areas like travel make it difficult for many rich and middle-class Iranians to go on pilgrimages or conduct business abroad. Maleki also observed that the lack of development has significantly reduced Iran’s traditional role in the region.

Professor Baabood then provided insight on the Gulf’s position on the negotiations. He argued that each of the six GCC states have significantly different foreign policies. Oman brokered the interim deal and facilitated the secret U.S.-Iran negotiations in its typical fashion of trying to avoid conflict in the region, and Qatar has maintained good relations with Iran. Baabood said that the other Gulf States, and especially Saudi Arabia, were shocked by the deal and felt that it came at a particularly bad time. With U.S. forces leaving Afghanistan and Iraq and the Arab Spring toppling allied regimes, there was already concern that the United States was abandoning the region. Baabood added that many of the Gulf States felt that the negotiations were rewarding Iran for being a pariah while they were being completely cut out. He explained that nonetheless, the GCC quickly faced reality, welcoming the rapprochement at its recent summit, making diplomatic overtures to Iran, and applauding Oman’s role in facilitating peace in the region. Baabood concluded by noting that both sides can benefit by having a constructive dialogue that addresses their differences.

Turning to Iran-Levant relations, Professor Maleki spoke about Iran’s close and lengthy relations with Shia communities in the region. He asserted that Iran had good relations with the socialist classes in Syria even prior to the revolution, and that those are likely to continue. Maleki argued that Iran has a pivotal role in determining Syria’s future due to its access to the current Syrian regime. Maloney called Iran a combatant in Syria and agreed that there can be no sustainable solution there unless Iran is part of it. She also remarked that the Iranians are prepared to be part of a solution, but are unlikely to make many concessions. Maloney said that was clear from Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s response to Secretary Kerry when the question was raised to him in Munich and his unavailability to attend the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the first real overture from the Saudis since Rouhani’s election. She concluded that the current events in Mosul and the ongoing tensions in the rest of Iraq and Syria just reinforce Tehran’s commitment to maintaining its influence over the Assad regime.

When asked who other than the United States could lead a regional dialogue on Syria, Maloney remarked that there are not many alternatives, especially given the current lack of a UN envoy. She added that there is likely to be a real drive from Riyadh and Tehran to find a meaningful solution. Baabood commented that the conflict in Syria is a proxy war that needs to end immediately as it does not benefit either party and only instigates further conflict. He argued that more countries like Oman need to reach out to decision makers in the Gulf countries to convince them to negotiate with Iran, and that venues like Organization of Islamic Cooperation summits would be ideal for facilitating such a dialogue.

Maleki added that energy would need to be an important part of any negotiations, as these parties will need to cooperate to deal with the upcoming revolutions in shale gas and other advancements. He noted that the region could become energy deficient soon if current energy consumption trends continue, and that Iran and Qatar, the region’s most energy-rich countries, have an important role to play. Baabood recalled the development of the coal and steel communities in Europe and how cooperation benefitted countries, arguing that oil and gas trade could play that role in the Middle East if countries realize the opportunities that lie beyond antagonism.

Concerning the peace process, Maleki said that any sort of rapprochement or détente was unlikely to change Iran’s support for Palestine, which was part of Iran’s foreign policy even prior to its revolution. Maloney remarked that a collapse in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks paradoxically helps Iran focus its efforts on negotiations with its other Arab neighbors, as any forward momentum on peace talks usually ramps up Iranian activity in the region as well.

Revisiting Iran’s economic situation, Maloney stated that a rapprochement’s impact would be limited as most of the American sanctions on Iran for issues such as human rights and terrorism are likely to remain and U.S.-Iran economic relations are bound to be relatively anemic in the near future as well. The economic gains from rapprochement would only serve as a demonstration of the benefits to be gained from greater cooperation with the United States, she added.

Salman Sheikh summarized the dialogue by commenting that there is some optimism for a deal, but that it is unlikely to be reached before the July 20 deadline. He added that there are still a number of issues in Iraq and Syria—including sectarianism—that will cause further challenges in the region, even if there is a détente or a rapprochement. Ultimately, Sheikh concluded, there is opportunity, but also potential for crisis, in this rapprochement.

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