The Bad Deal

NOW: The bad deal

In Geneva, the Obama administration “successfully” negotiates the terms of America’s surrender

While many analysts seem to be celebrating the interim agreement just signed in Geneva – under which Iran will suspend portions of its nuclear program in exchange for decreased economic sanctions – a closer examination in the context of regional trends gives little reason for optimism.

To think that Iran would sacrifice its nuclear program for the sake of appeasing the United States and easing sanctions is to ignore the real motivation behind the program. For decades, Iran and some of its regional rivals, especially Saudi Arabia, sought to project power through the manipulation of identity politics. This has happened at the expense of increasing sectarian tensions within many countries, especially Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and more recently Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria.

But with the launch of Iran’s nuclear program, the Islamic Republic added a new dimension to its ability to project power, one that has so far confounded its rivals. The fact the program has become so globally notorious and controversial only reinforces Iran’s commitment to it and underscored both its legitimacy and its necessity in the minds of its leaders.

So why should they give it up now? What could the United States possibly offer Iran at this stage to warrant abandoning its nuclear program? Easing off of sanctions, even lifting them all together, is simply not the same as having nuclear weapons, which provide a sense of security and an ability to project power far beyond national borders.

This position means more to Iran than it does to any of its regional rivals (other than Israel, that is). Iran is an exceptional state in the region, both ethnically and confessionally: the majority is of Persian stock and adheres to Shiite Islam in a region where all other states have either Arab or Turkic majority populations who mostly identify as Sunni.

Because of this, Iran’s threat perception is far more acute than that of its neighbors (again, other than Israel), and its ability to project power is highly dependent on infiltrating and marshaling Shiite communities across the region. Beyond that, Iran has only its economic and military might to rely on. The possibility of establishing real and lasting alliances with other states in the region has always been unlikely, even more so today given how identity politics continues to dictate much of the prevailing ethos.

As such, possessing nuclear weapons is now viewed as an existential need for Iran’s leaders. The idea that they would just give up on this ambition is fanciful to say the least. To believe as much at this particular point in time – when identity politics seem more relevant than ever and recourse to genocide and chemical weapons seems to have paid off for Iran and the Assad regime – is simply stupid. The choices made by the Alawite community in Syria and by Shiite communities across the region, as well as Iran’s adamant support thereof, should underscore in the minds of all analysts the real reasons why Iran is attached to its nuclear program and the lengths the Islamic Republic will go to protect it and take it to its logical conclusion.

Iran’s willingness to enter into an agreement at this stage should, therefore, be seen for what it truly is: a stalling tactic premised on Iran’s reading of the Obama administration and its priorities as dictated by its isolationist tendencies and ideological predilections.

The coming six months will give Iran more time to quietly develop its already-secretive nuclear program while pushing for a greater role in the Syrian conflict. The Geneva agreement effectively gives Iran a free hand there, as the Obama administration seems to have decided to work with them on Syria as well. The priority of the Obama administration at this stage seems more focused on containing the rising threat of al-Qaeda than on removing Bashar al-Assad or ending his genocide. Working with Iran, and by extension the Assad regime, therefore makes more sense. In fact, this cynical concession on Syria came first, shortly after Russia facilitated a deal over Syria’s chemical stockpiles, and served to pave the way for the nuclear agreement in Geneva. The Obama administration’s willingness to ignore Assad’s genocide and Iran’s role in it served as a trust-building measure.

Indeed, if Iran’s leaders hadn’t independently figured out that they could get away with so much by working with the Obama administration, their Russian allies must have pointed it out. For Russia has its own historical reasons for suspecting the Arab and Turkic peoples and the Sunni world at large, and the country’s alliance with Iran is not by any means a transient affair. The two countries have too many similar threat perceptions and coinciding interests, and the prevailing worldviews among Iranian and Russian elites are similarly anti-Western. These facts are not likely to change anytime soon.

Those analysts attempting to frame the Geneva agreement as part of a well-considered American strategy for encircling Russia (and China) and for weaning Iran off its alliances make no sense. In reality, the Geneva agreement amounts to a capitulation by the Obama administration, and tends to consolidate America’s exit from the region while celebrating the country’s ever-smaller footprint in global affairs. This would not necessarily be such a bad thing had the ensuing vacuum not been filled by Iran and Russia, and had the latter not imposed their presence on the scene by supporting genocide in Syria.

Indeed, the nature of Iranian and Russian interests, concerns, and threat perceptions do not augur well for stability and peace in the region. Instead, they seem bound to usher in a long period of conflict and instability. And since the conflict has been framed in ethnic and confessional terms, those pesky Arab and Turkic Sunnis are probably not going to go gently into that good night.

Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian dissident and the president of the Tharwa Foundation. He currently divides his time between Washington, D.C. and Turkey where he works with local Syrian activists on developing long-term peace-building and democracy-promotion programs.

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