The Iran nuclear deal: a new détente between the Shi’ites and the non-Muslims of the world?

The Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s meant a huge shift in Middle-East politics and the relation between Islam and the rest. Within a period of just a few months, the ancient civilisation of Persia went from a strong ally of the West, to a committed enemy of Western interests. In the next 35 years, the US became the Great Satan; fatwas were pronounced on Salman Rushdie; and Iran got involved in conflicts from Afghanistan to Lebanon. In reaction, Iran was isolated and economically crippled with sanctions.

Now there is an accord between all the 5 permanent UN security members on the one hand and Iran on the other hand. It is thus not merely the US, but also Russia, China, and Europe that has wanted this deal, which involves a lifting of economic sanctions in return for UN inspectors going to suspected nuclear weapons production sites and Iran getting rid of its stock of enriched uranium.

Looking beyond the nuclear issue, this re-alignment with Shi’ite Iran makes perfect geo-political sense. The non-Muslim world, including Russia and China, finds itself in conflict with predominantly Sunni fanatics in a large number of countries. The Chinese authorities worry about their Muslim Uygur minority which is turning increasingly violent. The Russians are battling Muslim minorities in the Caucasus and in the South-East Siberian rim. France and the UK battle Muslim fanatics both at home, in Africa, in Afghanistan/Pakistan, and in the Middle East. The US pretty much fights Islamic militancy everywhere, cheered on by pretty much every non-Muslim power block.

‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’, a well-known Arab saying goes, which makes Iran the natural ally of the whole of the non-Muslim world as Iran’s friends have come up against Sunni enemies too in recent years. Nowhere more so do ‘we’ find ourselves on the same side than in the Middle East: the non-Muslim world and the Iranians find themselves increasingly on the side of the previously hated Assad-regime in Syria, in its fight with a fanatical Sunni-caliphate. The Shi’ite minority in Jemen, a country from which the rest of world fears increased Sunni militancy, is bombarded by the Sunni government of Saudi Arabia. The Shi’ite Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon are over-stretched in their support for the Syrian regime and have to deal with a large influx of Sunni refugees upsetting the balance of power within Lebanon. The Shi’ite minorities in Egypt, Pakistan, the Arabian peninsula, and even Turkey feel similarly under threat from Sunni militancy.

Hence the re-alignment makes perfect sense from the point of view of Iran too, because Iran is the natural leader of the Shiite world but simply does not have the resources to fight a global struggle. Indeed, it looks like a sensible re-alignment for more than just a few years: it should be a partnership for the coming decades as the non-Sunni world rides out the storm of Islamic fundamentalism.

There are of course many obstacles to this deal, ranging from the near-hysterical objections of the Israeli government and Saudi Arabia (between which there is a weird alliance), to internal opposition within Iran.

I think that the objections in the non-Muslim world will prove to be minimal as the importance of having a long-run détente with the Shi’ite world is so large and so obvious that even doubts about the nuclear issue simply are not important enough to prevent this deal going ahead. After all, the non-Muslim world already has acquiesced in Pakistan having nuclear weapons, which is arguably a much less stable and sophisticated state as Iran. So the idea that the West or the rest of the world was ever prepared to go to war with Iran to remove its nuclear weapons or prevent it from getting them always was fanciful to begin with. Hence the West has already gotten more than it really needed for this deal with the agreed-upon inspections and the removal of enriched uranium from Iran. China and Russia didn’t care that much about Iran having nuclear weapons to begin with.

It is the politics inside Iran that will matter, I think, as this deal will probably herald an investment boom and major changes in the internal balance of power – away from the religious establishment and towards the economic and military establishments whose hands will be strengthened by the economic boom and closer military cooperation with others that is bound to follow this deal. I don’t know enough about that internal politics, but you would have to bet on the deal going ahead since it even carries the blessing of the supreme religious leaders, whose hands it weakens most. They must worry a lot about the fate of Shi’ites in the world, one thinks.

On that investment boom: you can bet that China and Russia will be chomping at the bits to take advantage of the business opportunities that will now open inside Iran, and France and the rest of Europe will not be far behind. The presence of the Germans in these negotiations also signals they think there is something to be gained inside Iran. Iran has a highly educated and very sophisticated multi-lingual population, so you would think that there is a lot of money to be made by investing in it earlier rather than later.

In many ways, hence, this deal makes a lot of sense and should make the ‘war on terror’ just a little bit easier for all the non-Muslims in the world. It appears as if ‘we’ might have just made a significant move towards an understanding with the Shi’ite world, maybe even a hesitant ally.

Well done on the negotiators for sticking at this for so many years! I cant help but wonder how important the old ties of the French, Germans, and Brits were in arranging the meetings of the last 10 years (old spies or something? I would love to hear the inside story on that one!). Obama too has finally deserved his Nobel peace prize!

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derrida derider
derrida derider
8 years ago

Of course the US congress may not ratify the deal – which from the Iranian POV means almost nothing. You’re right that it’s Chinese, Russian and European agreement that matters for them. That’s something Obama seems to have been utterly unsuccessful in conveying over Netenyahu ‘s noise.

From the US POV though a failure to ratify would be a disaster, precisely because it would lock the US into that crazy US-Israeli-Saudi Axis of Dumbness. All the really stupid things the US has done in the ME since the 1991 Gulf War have flowed from that alliance.

I do note though, Paul, that your stance on Syria has changed somewhat – congrats on seeing at last that the alternative to an Assad regime was always going to be even less pretty.

paul frijters
paul frijters
8 years ago

I don’t worry much about the US stance because I think (but correct me if I am wrong) that you don’t need US ratification to lift the sanctions in the UN and get UN inspectors involved. All you would need is for the US not to use its veto power, which is tied to the administration, no? If so, Congress will effectively be voting whether US companies are allowed to trade with Iran and hence get a bite at the new cherry or not, not really about whether the deal goes ahead.

On the Israeli alliance, I do think that you have a point that Israel is going to have to change its stance on Iran very quickly now lest it be seen as being on the side of Sunni-militancy. There is a lot of goodwill in the US for Israel, but I doubt it stretches far enough to wear that mantle, so Israel has to be alert to change its tune as soon as it becomes clear they wont win this one. Even nit-picking about every move Iran makes wrt inspections is now a double-edged sword for them.

On Syria: I dont really ‘have a horse in this race’ since my loyalties are with no-one in that region but rather with the West. That’s why I change my mind as to what is best for us when circumstances change. Whereas it was in Western interests to remove Assad early on in the crisis so as to prevent the vacuum and disasters that would happen in a long crisis (and that did happen), the situation has now changed. The Kurds have carved out their own state and the Sunni fanatics have become the bigger common enemy of the West. Whatever the mistakes were that led us there, this is the situation we are now faced with and if that forces us to support a brutal regime we previously wanted to topple, well, that’s realpolitik.