By Anicée Van Engeland, Senior Lecturer, Center for International Security & Resilience
When he came to address the public at Chatham House in February 2018, HE Abbas Araghchi, the Deputy for Political Affairs of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs who served as chief nuclear negotiator, was quite clear about the Iranian position on the agreement: Iranian authorities consider they have signed a contract and expect each party to abide by the contractual terms. He lamented the lack of respect on the part of the United States and insisted on the role the European Union has in upholding the contract.
A few months later, the recent intervention of the Israeli Prime Minister seems to demonstrate that Araghchi’s hard stance was justified: the United States appears to be trying to wriggle out of this contract former President Obama worked so painstakingly hard to achieve. On the 3rd May 2018, HE Javad Zarif, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also adopted a hard stance, repeating some of the forewarnings expressed by Araghchi: the Iranian authorities are eager to remain part of the contract but will reject any attempt at re-negotiating the nuclear deal. Zarif compared such attempts at buying a house and re-negotiating its price afterwards. He also labelled the United States’ behaviour as that of a bully.
Why are the Iranian authorities so adamant to keep the deal intact? The main explanation put forward by the authorities for protecting the deal is the following: the current deal focuses on the nuclear capacity only. It doesn’t include regional security and defence issues, as the authorities consider that those are internal and sovereign matters.
Iran refuses to have its defence capabilities scrutinised. The reasoning is that Iran needs to be able to defend itself, as stressed by Zarif in his speech, without outsourcing security to others. The country is indeed under important regional threats from non-state actors: ISIS is reforming in the Iraqi desert; the Taleban and Afghan-based branches of ISIS are growing in the neighbouring country; Central Asian’s terrorist groups can spread quickly at any stage; and the Iranian Kurds, under the leadership of KDPI (Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran) and PJAK (Kurdistan Free Life Party), are agitated. One shouldn’t forget that Iran played a key role in neutralising ISIS in Iraq by sending paramilitary troops and also equipping and supporting Shia militias. Iran is also now directly threatened by neighbours such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. It is therefore crucial that the country uphold its role in the region and ensure it is free from any interference, were it to be US or EU. interferences. Iran is therefore requesting the respect of sovereignty when it comes to security and defence.
There is also a double standard that the authorities have been quick to denounce: the Iranian defence budget is far less than that of Saudi Arabia. Yet, it is Iran that is being targeted for controls. This discrimination in the treatment is subtly addressed by Zarif in his recent speech when he reminds people of the support Iraq received in the war against Iran, despite Iraq’s heavy use of chemical weapons.
It seems that the United States and some European Union figures are unaware of the importance, or are able to recognise the benefits that a stable Islamic republic of Iran brings to the region, including the Gulf and Central Asia. A strong country that is militarily agile is a strong asset when it comes to fighting non-state actors, such as ISIS. When Zarif threatens to use the “right to respond in a matter of our choosing”, a statement echoed by President Rouhani, western nations are reminded of the risks, if the nuclear deal were to fall apart.: One possibility is that Iran could let the Iraqi Shia militias loose. This would mean that in a short period of time, these groups could conquer large chunks of territory that the United States would prefer to keep control of (and that are currently disputed areas). Iran could also scale back its operations against ISIS letting their threat grow in Iraq and in Afghanistan. It could also decide to interfere more aggressively in Afghanistan to protect the Shia communities and to enter Pakistan for the same purpose. Iran therefore has many options to fight back which would cause further instability in the region, beyond the re-development of the nuclear power.
Iran occupies a key strategic position in the region, one that western leaders need to come to terms with and recognise. A strong Islamic republic of Iran that is part of the current nuclear deal is an asset to regional security. Despite the desires of some in the West, a new deal that involves scrutinising Iranian security and defence, will not happen. The collapse of the current deal and a ‘no deal’ scenario will have grave consequences for regional security and beyond.