The consummation of a full, multidecade agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany), based on last week’s agreed parameters of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program, is likely to have monumental consequences – mostly for the better – across the Middle East. I base this expectation on one important historical analogy, and on several possible – I believe, likely – developments related to domestic, Gulf-wide, Middle-East regional and international dynamics. An agreement that sparks normal economic and political relations between Iran and major international powers would neutralize and then reverse the damage that was done to Iran’s relations with many countries after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Post-1979 revolutionary Iran was a pivot around which many regional developments and controversial relationships revolved. Some elicited anti-Iranian Arab pushback, all of which contributed to the violent situation today that many analysts and politicians describe as either a regional cold war between camps headed by Iran and Saudi Arabia, or a broad Sunni-Shiite ideological battle that includes localized military clashes.
A full deal on Iran’s nuclear facilities and sanctions would be the historical bookend that begins to reverse the negative regional consequences of the 1979 revolution.
The successful international diplomatic re-engagement of Iran by leading world powers reverses the failed American-led strategy of sanctioning and threatening Iran. Instead, it opens the way to resolving future disagreements through credible negotiations that address the needs of all sides equitably and respectfully. This key international dimension of current events will have lasting impact because it makes diplomacy as attractive as warfare.
The three other dimensions I mentioned stem from the core domestic expectation: that systematically removing economic sanctions on Iran will result in a robustly expanding economy that engages in enhanced commercial trade with regional and global partners.
Iran’s 80 million able people and its recent decades of semi-isolation mean that hundreds of billions of dollars in commercial activity await to be transacted.
In turn – as happened with Turkey in recent decades – a steadily expanding productive economy with a large domestic base should open the door to more people-to-people regional contacts in tourism, education and other fields, more relaxed political relations, and – most importantly – greater common interest among regional states to maintain a stable status quo that benefits everyone.
This trend ideally would trigger the last two developments I expect, in the Gulf and also across the wider Middle East. In the Gulf, rational thinking would replace the exaggerated hysteria in many Arab countries that now sees Iran as a predatory threat and a Shiite menace. An Iran that is trusted by – and keeps its nuclear agreements with – the world’s powers will be seen as a party with whom one can negotiate and coexist. I would expect a gradual softening in the public recrimination between the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran, alongside symbolic exchanges of visits between senior officials, followed by a serious exploration of how to minimize antagonisms or threats across the Gulf region for the well-being of all concerned.
I expect this to happen because I do not see how Iran and Saudi Arabia actually threaten each other in practical ways, as opposed to their ideological differences. As they resume normal economic and political contacts in the years ahead, and continue to suffer the frightening expansion of ISIS and Al-Qaeda across fragmenting, war-torn Arab states, I would urge and hope that one more major development would occur: That the Arab-Islamic powers of the Middle East, with the support of global powers, would explore the establishment of a Helsinki-type agreement that allows ideologically different states to coexist without militarily threatening, undermining or attacking each other. The 1975 Helsinki Accords saw the Soviet- and American-led blocs agree on the status quo in post-World War II Europe while agreeing on fundamental aspects of human rights, freedoms, and cultural, scientific, humanitarian and economic relations.
The Helsinki Accords indirectly contributed to the eventual collapse of the Soviet empire, which resulted in improved conditions across most of the regions involved. Such a new security architecture for the Middle East agreed by Arab states, Iran and Turkey, with big power support (Israel would have to await the resolution of its conflict with Arab states to join), would allow domestic political and economic conditions to evolve more positively, as they have across Eastern Europe, for example.
Arabs and Iranians would all benefit from such an evolution that would follow. As their economies develop, they would interact with one another more routinely and realize that their different ideological worldviews are not existential threats.
Iranian-GCC entente is a critical requirement for any such development. This is now made possible by the nuclear agreement that took such a momentous first step last week.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.
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