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Commentary | 25 November 2014

US – Iran rapprochement won’t solve all regional problems

Image of Dan Plesch

Dan Plesch |Professor of Diplomacy and Strategy, SOAS University of London

Iran Middle East NPT Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Weapons Security United States Global Security

The US-led negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme are likely to succeed in taking the problem off the international agenda. But if the wider US strategic shift towards Iran is maintained, the agreement will fail to bring greater global security. While attention will continue to focus on the nuts and bolts of enrichment capacity and the operations at Parchin, the broader and largely overlooked issue is that a significant section of the Washington decision-makers have not long ago reached two conclusions. The first is that the huge increase in shale gas production has reduced if not eliminated the long-term strategic significance of Gulf Oil. As a result, the US has less need to keep oil production under control through alliances in the Southern Gulf region or constraining Iran’s ambitions. The second is that the continued escalation in broadly Salafist political violence, fuelled by elites from the Southern Gulf states and supported at least by inaction on the part of governments, is a destabilising factor. These two conclusions make the US rapprochement with Iran an attractive proposition. For the states of the Gulf Co-Operation Council, a US return to viewing Iran as a regional hegemon as it was in the time of the Shah has always been a fearful scenario. Now that this is becoming a possibility, a strong Saudi reaction, including not taking up a long-sought rotational seat on the UN Security Council, is a clear signal of that concern. Iranian activity on nuclear technology may be tolerated as Iran becomes one of ‘us’ against ‘them’, for example Isis. For very different reasons and at different times the US turned a blind-eye to Pakistan’s weapons programme and now supplies nuclear technology to India, which remains outside the NPT.

The risk of an escalation in nuclear technology competition in the region is increasing already, fuelled by the Faustian compact at the heart of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nuclear technology, and especially the nuclear fuel cycle, is inherently capable of becoming part of a weapons programme. The entire western strategy on encouraging growth of nuclear energy on the Gulf is blind to a possibility obvious to every bar room or hookah puffing strategist: states, especially those in the Gulf, are subject to regime change, after which all the carefully calibrated safety and security regimes become irrelevant.  For some, the violence of Syria and Iraq is merely the latest eruption of the revolt of the puritans from the desert against the corruption of the cities, and this carries with it a certain deep cultural momentum. But were the puritans to get their hands on nuclear reactors, then the renaissance will become a nightmare.

These outcomes are no more inevitable than they are desirable. The solution lies in re-starting the global disarmament effort left languishing in the decades of imperial hubris. It can provide a context for a renewed effort towards a Middle East WMD Free Zone, which would be a better framework to safeguard everybody’s interests than all the inspection regimes modelled of UNSCOM and UNMOVIC.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.