May 8, 2015

Nuclear Deal or Not, Dark Years Await the Middle East

The regional impact of the world powers and Iran making a deal over Tehran’s nuclear program will be significant to say the least. It will mark a new era in the Middle East; one in which the US and Iran no longer will seek to undermine each other at every given opportunity. In this era of truce, the US and Iran can dialogue about regional problems rather than seeing the absence of diplomacy exacerbate existing conflicts. Yet, in spite of this pending historic achievement, dark years await the Middle East.

It all goes back to the disastrous decision by George W. Bush to invade Iraq. The repercussions of the Iraq war will be felt more strongly in the region in the next 10 years than it was in the 10 years immediately following the war. The reason in a nutshell is as follows: The invasion of Iraq weakened the United States to the point that the American-led order in the region began to collapse. The instability we are currently seeing in the Middle East is partly driven by the process of finding a new equilibrium; and that process is almost without exception bloody. It’s the storm before the calm, so to say.

But this is no ordinary storm because the Iraq war didn’t just destroy the regional order, it began destroying the very state structure that any order must be built on. At the end of the day, the Bush administration didn’t just change the regime in Iraq, it destroyed the Iraqi state as a whole. Combined with the deep societal problems many Arab countries suffered from — largely as a result of their unfree political systems and the security pact Arab regimes had struck with Washington in which a premium was put on short term stability rather than longer term political liberalization — this unleashed forces that spread chaos and turned several authoritarian states in the region into failed states.

As difficult and painful the process of establishing a new order is in and of itself, it is next to impossible to build a durable balance on the backs of collapsing states.

In the next 10 years, these twin problems will bring much suffering and chaos to the Middle East. It will likely get worse — much worse — before it gets better.

It is no surprise that the United States and Iran have chosen this moment to overcome their near four decades long enmity. The environment surrounding them is becoming so chaotic and threatening, that the cost of sustaining their own enmity simply is becoming unbearable. Washington can no longer afford to confront Al Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban and the destabilizing activities of its own allies on top of its confrontation with Iran. Similarly, Tehran can no longer handle the spread of sectarianism, its rivalry and proxy war with Saudi Arabia in addition to the dispute with the US over the nuclear program.

As much as great power rivalries have defined Middle East politics for the past decades, strong states — even former rivals — now share a common threat: Failed states and the chaos they bring about. Their rivalry notwithstanding, Iran and the US need each other to meet the twin challenge of both stabilizing and rebuilding the failed states and creating a new security architecture for the region that establishes a new balance in the Middle East. Obviously, the US and Iran cannot meet this challenge alone. By definition, the process must be inclusive — no security architecture will succeed unless it has wide regional buy in. That requires the involvement of all major players, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel.

By virtue of its strong state, Iran can play a critical stabilizing role in the region. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini recognized this, stating that the nuclear deal can “open the way to a different role of Iran in the region” that will usher in security and stability to the region. Iran would, Mogherini pointed out, play a “major but positive role” in the conflicts roiling the Middle East, particularly in Syria.

This is a daunting task. Expectations should be tempered. There are no quick fixes. But at least one major obstacle appears to have been overcome: The US and Iran can now talk to each other, consult with each other and even quietly coordinate their policies as the region confronts the chaos burning the Middle East. That’s nothing short of a game changer.

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post

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