Last week, diplomacy celebrated a victory as an agreement was reached between the world’s greatest powers and Iran about its nuclear programme. The USA, Russia, China, UK, France and Germany agreed to lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for a stop in the uranium enrichment process. UN inspectors will also be allowed access to several Iranian sites. But this deal will only last six months, and it does not directly address Iran's military ambitions. Additionally, Syria will become an even greater question than before.
Other regional powers in the Middle-East are worried about Iran’s potential to attain nuclear weapons. Not present at the negotiating table, Israel and Saudi-Arabia are deeply unsatisfied with what they take to be an acceptance of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, called US President Barack Obama, to “suggest” to him he needs to change his ways “if he intends to stay the most powerful man on Earth”.
Saudi-Arabia, on the other hand, is likely to step up their arms support for oppositional forces in Syria. This happens as a result of Iran getting a greater scope for action, something which will boost Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria may, in fact, decide the whole future of Iran’s nuclear programme.
To fully grasp Syria's role here, we first need to better understand the immediate reactions to the nuclear deal. Two factors are central for whether it is hailed as a breakthrough in a deadlocked situation, or condemned as a fatal misstep.
Firstly, we have geography. As mentioned, Israel and Saudi-Arabia are the most outspoken opponents of the deal. This is simply because they are the regional powers closest to Iran, and would be the first to suffer if Iran is being deceptive. Their reaction is therefore not surprising at all.
The second factor for judging the deal's merit is more interesting. Shall we believe in the slow, gradual and sometimes fickle power of negotiations between potential enemies in international politics? US President Obama has notoriously, ever since his inauguration, made a show of willingness to extend a hand to those who hold up their clenched fists. If we trust his analysis of the happenings, the deal is a substantial victory. And his perspective is the one many political analysts seem to support at the moment, albeit in a more cautious variant.
Lady Catherine Ashton, the chief of the European Union foreign policy, is considered another kingpin in the unhurried process of mediation with Iran. What the EU lacks in military strength, it tries hard to make up for in soft power. With potential success stories like these negotiations, the argument for an effective pan-European foreign policy is solidifying. But again, for those with the attitude that diplomacy is a mere shadow-game concealing military realities, the EU’s strength is here based on delusion.
Iran’s nuclear programme is, at its core, a big test for the power of diplomacy.
Six tense months
The “hard versus soft power” debate will therefore undoubtedly be heated in the coming six months, as the process of nuclear negotiation continues. And it is what happens after those six months that will decide the debate. If Iran – whose president is showing cooperative and with a “friendly” public opinion – can maintain the commitment, it will gradually become more accepted in the international community. A new dynamic would then develop, and Israel and Saudi-Arabia will have the possibility to alter their tough stance.
However, Iran and the international public opinion will not be the only dynamic at work in the coming months. Syria will get the bulk of the attention. Middle-Eastern patterns of conflict are so complicated that they are impossible to predict: like a game of chess with innumerable pieces that every now and then change colour and position. A major like Iran's deal will therefore cause most other parts of the board to be affected.
Now that the nuclear deal is settled for the time being, Syria will again be the king and queen of this chess-game. With increased engagement from Saudi-Arabia and Iran, the conflict will be a much more immediate concern in the coming months than the follow-up of Iran’s commitments. Israel may also decide to increase its direct engagement with its war-torn neighbour. The stability in the region depens on the way this dynamic will unfold. How the nuclear deal with Iran ends up affecting the conflict in Syria can therefore come to be the central factor determining the deal’s success.
The focus turns to Syria
At the moment, President Obama’s diplomacy Iran is hailed as a success by many. His strategy on Syria, on the other hand, has been more erratic. The real outcome of the chemical weapons agreement with Syria is still an open question. Without the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Obama's options in Syria would be significantly more limited. Actually solving the nuclear problem in Iran will not happen without an end to Syrian civil war.
Edited by: Michele Anoardi
Photo Credits: U.S. Government Work