A panel of expert researchers in Iranian affairs spoke during an ACRPS seminar held on November 28 to discuss the regional implications inherent to the temporary nuclear agreement reached between Iran and the West. Mahjoob Zweiri asserted that the concessions made by Iran stemmed from Iran’s wish to regain initiative in the region, and suggested that Iran’s involvement in Syria was a key factor driving the Iranians to reach an understanding with the Americans. In response to the mounting burden of the economic sanctions, Fatima Samadi saw internal Iranian pressure playing a direct role in pushing Iranian decision-makers to reach an agreement. Ibrahim Sharqieh claimed that, above all, the agreement reflected an expression of national self-interest for both America and Iran in that it ignored their respective key regional alliances, with Saudi Arabia and Israel finding themselves somewhat removed from American calculations. ACRPS researcher Marwan Qabalan maintained that the agreement was the conclusion of a long process of secret negotiations between Iran and America, a process even US allies were unaware of, and underlined the temporary nature of the agreement, with major challenges expected before any permanent agreement takes place.

A Change in Tune and an End to the “Death to America” Slogan

Fatima Samadi, researcher at the Al-Jazeera Center for Studies, emphasized Iran’s internal need to reach an agreement after five rounds of intensifying international sanctions, which had overburdened ordinary Iranians and led them to seek a way out. Moreover, she claimed President-elect Hassan Rouhani needed a political achievement with which to mark the passing of his presidency’s hundredth day. Samadi noted a change in tone of the Iranian discourse regarding America, a change that began prior to Rouhani’s election and that signified Iran’s undergoing a shift from the category of “oppressed” to one of self-interest and problem-solving. A prominent sign of the change was also visible in the Expediency Council’s President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s recent speech discussing the changing circumstances in his use of a different tone with regards to America. Rafsanjani bluntly stated that “this [old] kind of relations between Iran and America cannot continue”. Importantly, according to Samadi, the Arabic translations of Iranian official statements evidencing this change of tone fail to adequately reflect the change.

Samadi believes Iranians have abandoned the slogans long chanted by conservative factions, such as “Death to America,” and replaced them with slogans such as “Death to Nobody”. In conclusion, Samadi examined the differences between Iran and the West in understanding the text of the agreement, noting the possibility that these could undermine the entire accord. A few points in the agreement, claimed Samadi, are shrouded in ambiguity; nevertheless, the agreement stands as a testament to Iran’s regional strength, offers a space for developing its strategic assets in the region, and opens the door to an era of greater communication and understanding between Iran and America.

The Syrian Dead End and Regaining the Initiative

Mahjoob Zweiri, head of Qatar University’s Humanities Department, spoke of Iran’s internal context and reasons for hastening to sign the agreement. He noted the importance of understanding the mechanisms of the ruling institution in Iran, distinct from everything that pertains to the political “other” and the recurring attempt to regain and seize the initiative, at every internal or political crisis. The Iranian regime concentrated on developing its nuclear program in the wake of internal demonstrations, and is now attempting to regain the initiative, after feeling threatened by having over-extended itself in its involvement in Syria. Iran has taken advantage of John Kerry’s new approach to both Syria, designed to distance it from Iran, and Iran, seeking to isolate Syria. Syria has been a caldron that has hastened the Iranian-American nuclear agreement, in that its dead-end situation represents the first major political and military danger facing Iran since the Iran-Iraq war. Zweiri concluded by saying that, in addition to the challenges facing the implementation of the agreement, the repercussions of the Syrian situation and “Geneva 2” will largely impact the future of the Iranian-American agreement.

Marwan Qabalan examined how the agreement reflects upon Washington’s vision and its policies in the region, and argued that this recent development was the result of five years of secret negotiations between the Iranians and the Americans, which the US’s allies, including Israel, had no inkling of. The agreement, argued Qabalan, presented common Iranian and American interests that were made possible by the advent of the Rouhani presidency and internal Iranian pressure, derived mainly from economic conditions in the country. Qabalan also indicated that nuclear weaponry was never an Iranian objective in itself, but rather a means to expanding the nation’s influence. Iran, he said, gave it’s all for this agreement, and its achievement contrasts with the failure of the Zionist and Saudi lobbies in their efforts to prevent it.

Has the US Given Up on its Alliance with Saudi Arabia?

Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Institute, prefaced his address on the international and regional implications of the nuclear agreement by indicating that Saudi Arabia is the most important US ally being threatened by the Iranian nuclear agreement, and that it was beset with mounting fears that Iran might be taking its place, particularly in view of questions raised in American circles regarding the need for Saudi Arabia, after the rapprochement with Iran. Sharqieh opined that despite America’s policy of “deposing” traditional allies when entering into new political deals, such a development is unlikely to sideline Saudi Arabia as Saudi-American mutual interest is not something that America can neglect. He concluded by noting that the agreement stands as further evidence dispelling the notion that Israel is the de facto ruler of the US, and the real decision maker in its government. This may also be applied to the Palestinian question, and the perception of the pressure that Israel and its lobbyists exert to undermine arrival at any Palestinian agreement. Such power, argued Sharqieh, can be exaggerated, as Netanyahu’s entire media discourse was built upon warning of the Iranian danger, but now finds himself confronting a very different reality.

Prior to this seminar, on October 9, the ACRPS held a seminar on the Iranian-American rapprochement. The Center convenes such events to keep up with the changing Arab and regional political scene, toward a greater understanding of their repercussions and implications.