By Jack Pearce
The P5+1 agreement with Iran provides the possibility of much greater integration between the Persian civilization and the current embodiment of a global human civilization. The stakes are not as high as is the case with China, or India, or even Russia. But this nation of over 80 million is strategically located between Europe, India, the Arabic entities near and on the Mediterranean Sea, and Russia. Iran has had a vigorous intellectual culture for much of its history. It has substantial petrochemical assets. Though handicapped by an unnecessary religiously based guidance apparatus, it has some of the institutions of a modern state at least embryonically in place.
An evolving, less autarkic Iran could have major effects in the ‘Middle East.’ This rapprochement between Iran and the world reduces the relative position of regional rival Saudi Arabia, producer of about 1/10 of the world’s oil, and for decades locked into a strategic liaison with the United States. Iran’s conduct will have effects on the reconstitution, or modification, of the State of Iraq. It could possibly have an effect on eventually coping with the drastic failure of state organization in Syria. Other applications of influence are numerous, and will doubtlessly be examined from a number of angles as events proceed.
So what should be the ‘interests’ of the United States, and Europe, in the Middle East as Iran reintegrates with its region and the world? In very general terms, we would be well served in the Middle East by a region marked by peace, prosperity, openness to the remainder of the world -- as to goods, services, capital flows, and cultural exchange -- and better governance.
These objectives are of course platitudes, but they achieve that rank precisely because they are so obviously desirable. Articulating an orientation in such general terms may help us avoid too much involvement in intramural jockeying among the States in the area.
The opening of trade with Iran could, in itself, contribute much to these objectives.
We need not fear a lack of commercial ‘animal spirits’ for economic exchange either inside Iraq or outside its borders. The relevant parts of the world, and Iraq, are champing at their bits, eager for action to unfold. This engine is revving up as this is written.
Thus, to be successful for their country, the leaders of Iran will have to take into account that creating turmoil in their neighborhood, and inviting retaliation of various sorts, will decrease their ability to attract investments needed throughout their country. They, and other countries in the area, will also need to take into account that visible dysfunction, lack of clarity, and inconsistency in their governments will discourage investment and trade, of various sorts.
In terms of national organizations, the West, and the remainder of the world, probably would be well served by a reconstitution of a viable Iraq, or its division into three areas - the Kurdish area, a Sunni heartland, and the southeastern oil producing area. However, in the case of division, much care would be required to allow the Sunni heartland to be economically and culturally viable.
Suppression, eventual suffocation, or transformation of the radically misogynist and ignorant ISIL phenomenon would seem to serve everyone else’s interest.
And of course the slow motion tragedy of Syria probably can be solved only by much closer cooperation between Iran, Russia, Europe and the United States, perhaps calling more on the United Nations apparatus to bless such a concord. Whatever constructive initiatives from the Arabic areas as can be managed could also be helpful.
A major factor, though not given official State recognition, is problems posed by Saudi Arabia. Notwithstanding its links with the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest source of political and economic instability in the Middle East, and Africa. The Wahhabi/Salafi ideology funded by SA is the source of the ISIS phenomenon, which is the largest destabilizing factor in the Middle East. Further, the Royal Family rule in Saudi Arabia, while stable for decades, has the vulnerabilities of a dynastic structure dependent upon religion in a secular, professionalized, frequently democratized age. There is a good deal of national consciousness in Saudi Arabia. But if the family continues to rule repressively, overreaches regionally, and cannot meet the rising expectations of coming generations, in a changing energy market, popular unrest could be a major problem.
The United States had to pay a price to Saudi Arabia for Saudi acquiescence in the Iran deal. This included guarantees against external threat. But everyone in the region knows that if Iran honors the P5+1 deal, Iran will, over time, have the capacity to add to global oil supplies and have more resources available to have greater economic and political effect in the region. In some scenarios, this could lead to less US and global reliance on Saudi Arabia. And this may give us more freedom of action.
Assuming inhibitions upon predation among the larger polities in the area, from a combination of local incentives and external forces (e.g. the United States), the greatest remaining threats to Saudi Arabian stability are internal unrest, and backlash from Wahhabbi fundamentalism.
It is not reasonable to expect the United States and the global community to spend all of any ‘peace dividend’ from the Iranian agreement on ‘disruption insurance’ as to Saudi Arabia’s internal arrangements. However, it arguably is reasonable to expect US/global actors to spend some of their influence on this matter, and to leverage off changed circumstances - deferring to a lesser degree the imperious preferences of the Royal Family, and discouraging the fundamentalist form of Islam to which that family has heretofore attached itself.
The most obvious (to outsiders) way to insure against future political unrest in Saudi Arabia is a gradual, but visible and progressive, program of political enfranchisement of its people. Such a process would avoid the turbulent and unstable types of transitions we have seen in recent ‘Arab Spring’ countries. It would also tend to be the least risky course for the Royal Family itself, in the long run, if carefully managed. Some within Saudi Arabia have long argued for this course.
On present evidence, subject to change, a great deal may depend upon the foresight of the heir apparent to centralized power in Saudi Arabia, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud.
In the long view, that country could have a reasonably prosperous and stable future if it were able better educate its citizenry for the modern world, build up alternate and long-term sustainable forms of energy, including solar energy, diversify its economy, and maintain internal integrity by means which do not require handicapping half its population, and leaving in educational and occupational ignorance most of its citizens.
Though he is seen as an able individual, no widely evident information indicates clearly that he is as yet capable of conceiving such a future, or leading his country toward it. A young man in a rapidly expanded set of roles, he may make significant mistakes before achieving such a vision, or, unfortunately for all concerned, never do so. Or he may be sidelined by shifts within the Royal Family.
Though one can be encouraged by some progress with Iran, the Saudi Arabian example (as well as Turkey, another problem) illustrate the frustrations of envisioning peace, prosperity, social and economic openness, and better governance in the Middle East.
Much depends on improvement in governance. But improvement is difficult. The history of the area in the last two centuries demonstrates that even given efforts to ‘modernize’ governance in the area, from within and outside the area, what has been achieved seems far short of the more sophisticated governance systems evolved elsewhere.
Nonetheless, governance matters. The history of the two Koreas provides perhaps most dramatically just how much.
One must grant that President Obama has shown some wisdom in avoiding commitment beyond our means in attempting reorganization of Middle Eastern states. Also, there remain competing visions of governance on the world stage. Even so, we owe it to ourselves and our hopes for the Middle East to encourage what useful governance improvements we can, in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, among other venues.
In doing so, one should not, however, assume that the United States and Europe have a monopoly on wisdom, or a monopoly on influence concerning this area. A stronger set of United Nations institutions (conceivably, as remote as it may seem, a sort of NATO like organization for the Middle East, indigenously based with UN or European assistance), and World Trade Organization credentializing requirements, might be helpful - though probably only gradually, and incrementally.
How much can be done as to such matters, in even a century, such as the one now before us? We do not know. The Iran deal is just one small step on whatever, possibly wandering, journeys eventuate. But it is a step in the right direction. And those concerned with such affairs need to give careful thought to how best to leverage off the potentials which it may open before us.
Jack Pearce has served as Assistant Chief of United States Justice Department’s Antitrust Division's ‘Public Counsel and Legislative’ Section, Assistant General Counsel of Agency for International Development with responsibilities in Near East, South Asia sector, National Insititute of Public Affairs fellowship at Cornell, Deputy General Counsel, White House Office of Consumer Affairs, law practice relating to pro-competitive regulatory reform, and innovator of virtual office system for attorneys and others.