The reformist Iranian newspaper, “Shargh”, published an article by me on Thursday, August 13, 2015. I wrote the article in English, and “Shargh” translated it into Farsi. I am posting here the English text that I sent to them:
There is general agreement that the nuclear accord between Iran and the P5 + 1 countries (America, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia) will have momentous implications. There is general disagreement, however, on just what those implications are. Several see it as having very positive implications. These include the Obama and Rouhani administrations, China, as well as most Western and other governments. Others see it as having very negative implications. These include conservative politicians in both America and Iran as well as the governments of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states (except Oman, which favors the agreement).
And then there is Russia. Russia supports the agreement and worked toward its achievement. But Moscow is nervous about what it means for Russia. Moscow foresees that as economic sanctions against Iran are lifted, much more Iranian oil and gas will come onto the world market. This will have the effect of lowering petroleum prices—something petroleum importers welcome, but other petroleum exporters like Russia do not. Moscow is also nervous about the prospects of Iranian relations with the West improving at a time when Russian relations with it are poor and may well grow worse.
At the same time, Moscow sees that Saudi Arabia and the GCC states (except Oman) are also nervous about the prospect of improved Iranian-American relations. Riyadh sees the hand of Iran opposing the Kingdom in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen. Riyadh fears that the Obama Administration’s agreeing to the nuclear accord will lead to such improved Iranian-American ties that Washington will leave Saudi Arabia and the GCC to face Iran all alone.
This fear, of course, is unrealistic. Neither Washington nor Tehran sees the nuclear accord as leading to a full-fledged Iranian-American alliance. But the reaction of both Moscow and Riyadh to the prospect of improved Iranian-American ties has been to improve Saudi-Russian ties. And so we have recently seen more contact between Saudi and Russian officials to talk about joint cooperation in various fields. Moscow especially hopes that Saudi annoyance with America will lead to Riyadh buying weapons, nuclear reactors, and more from Russia.
By itself, increased Saudi-Russian cooperation is not necessarily a bad thing. Increased trade between them really does not threaten anyone else. Further, not just Saudi Arabia and Russia, but also Iran and America have a common interest in preventing ISIS from seizing power in Syria and anywhere else. Indeed, it may take cooperation on the part of all four countries—and others still—to prevent this. Improved Saudi-Russian ties may be as important as improved Iranian-American ties for bringing this about.
The idea, though, that even somewhat improved Iranian-American relations is going to lead to significantly improved Saudi-Russian relations is far-fetched. For no matter how unhappy Riyadh is about the prospect (whether realistic or not) of improved Iranian-American relations, the Saudis are hardly likely to expect much support against Iran from a country, such as Russia, that has much closer ties to Tehran than America has or is likely to have any time soon. For Riyadh, then, the primary utility of being seen to move closer to Russia may be to awaken fears in Washington that it had better “do something for Riyadh” so as not to “lose Saudi Arabia” to Moscow.
Moscow, of course, does want improved relations with Riyadh, and will gladly sell to Riyadh arms or whatever else it is willing to buy from Russia. On the other hand, Russia does not want to give up anything it now has or hopes to acquire in terms of relations with Iran in order to improve ties with Saudi Arabia. Moscow wants to have good relations with both Saudi Arabia and the GCC on the one hand and Iran on the other, even if they do not get along with each other. Moscow does not want to have to choose between the two sides, and will go to great lengths to avoid doing so.
What all of this means is that the Iranian nuclear accord is not likely to lead to any dramatic changes in alliance patterns. Iranian-American relations will hopefully improve, but the U.S. will remain allied to Saudi Arabia and the GCC (as well as Israel). Moscow’s ties to Saudi Arabia and other GCC states (and also to Israel) may improve, but Russia is likely to remain more closely linked to Tehran as well as Damascus (as long as Assad remains in power there).
Yet despite whatever benefits might result from the Iranian nuclear accord, the Gulf region will remain tense so long as Saudi-Iranian relations remain confrontational. And they will remain confrontational so long as they are on opposite sides in the region’s ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere. Indeed, if these conflicts persist or grow worse, the region could see an all-consuming Shi’a-Sunni war—similar, perhaps, to the Catholic-Protestant wars that plagued Europe a few centuries ago.
Progress on the nuclear issue alone will not prevent this tragedy from occurring. What is needed for doing this are regional conflict resolution efforts involving Iran, the P5 + 1, Saudi Arabia and the GCC, and all other governments and opposition movements involved. The common threat from ISIS should be sufficient motive for everyone else to work together against it. Just like the nuclear negotiations, these regional conflict talks will not be easy. But if Iran and the P5 + 1 could succeed at something as complicated as the nuclear accord, I feel confident that they along with others could also succeed at regional conflict resolution too.