Can Obama secure a regional deal from nuclear agreement with Iran?

US President would be helped along if Netanyahu loses next week’s Israeli elections, as now looks possible

'We are not seeking a grand bargain", said United States secretary of state John Kerry in Riyadh after his nuclear talks with Iranian ministers in Switzerland. "We will not take our eye off Iran's other destabilising actions in places like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Arabian peninsula, Yemen particularly."

He had to say this to the Saudis and other Gulf leaders, since they fear an agreement with Iran would deeply affect these other conflicts. Their strategic competition with Iran in the region and the associated Shia-Sunni sectarian rivalry could suffer – or be transformed – if that was so. It is currently locked in to Syria, where Iran supports Assad and the Saudis have enabled the growth of the murderous Islamic State (IS) group. In Iraq the Saudis fear an Iranian takeover as its forces back up the attack on Tikrit in an effort to dislodge IS. The movement's origins are directly traceable to the Sunni rebellion sparked by the US-led invasion in 2003.

In Lebanon, Hizbullah continues to get Iranian aid. In Yemen, Iranian support for rebels threatens the Saudi kingdom in its underbelly. Iran no longer supports Palestinian organisation Hamas as it used to, depriving Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu of one element in his comprehensive denunciation of Iran's role. His case against them overlaps significantly with the Saudi one. So does that made by US president Barack Obama's Republican critics in Congress who this week wrote to Iranian leaders saying they would renounce any nuclear agreement. Kerry denounced the letter as unprecedented and constitutionally invalid, just as Obama's officials condemned Netanyahu's Congress speech last week as unacceptably partisan.

The March 24th deadline on the Iran talks comes just in time for Obama to exercise executive approval of a deal in July.


He would be helped along if Netanyahu lost next week's Israeli elections, as looks possible. While his main opponent, Isaac Herzog, also fears Iran he is far closer to Israel's security establishment, which is in open rebellion against Netanyahu's policy. They say its only logical conclusion is a military attack on Iran, which would be catastrophe for the region. Kerry says the same about the Republicans' policy.

Obama's national security strategy published last month is summarised by his chief security adviser, Susan Rice, in the phrase "strategic patience". Coming out of the Iraq and Afghan wars during his two terms in office he has to confront a world changed by growing multipolarity and emergent powers questioning western-dominated institutions. Such patience is best exercised with firmness towards China and Russia alongside a willingness to maintain open relations with them, he says. He points crucially to the unanticipated consequence of his predecessor George Bush's preventive war in Iraq, intended to instal a robust democracy there. Instead the dismantling of Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime empowered Iran.

Foreign-policy legacy

Obama’s critics say he confuses patience with caution, discounts US primacy and is incapable of strategic leadership. That may underestimate his political cunning and desire to create a foreign-

policy legacy to match or outshine his domestic one. An Iran nuclear deal followed up by action to tackle the several related conflicts in the Middle East drawing on Iranian willingness to co-operate could still be transformative. That might fall short of a grand bargain that linked them, but it could make a real difference.

The Saudis and Israelis would in that case have to accept they are less indispensable US allies and be more willing to pursue regional peace initiatives, with Palestinians and Iranians respectively. Iran’s moderate leadership, emboldened by a deal and relaxing sanctions, would have reason to show its pragmatic side, putting domestic hardliner opponents on the defensive.

Such a growing convergence of interests and policy could help de-escalate the murderous Sunni-Shia rift instrumentalised by Saudi-Iranian rivalry in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. The European input to an Iran deal would lend such initiatives valuable support, helping to de-escalate anti-Islamic stereotyping there too. There would be a renewed determination to deal with the threat to their interests from a consolidating IS, surely now a greater enemy than Iran.

The terrible misjudgments that drove the 2003 Iraq invasion and its fateful sectarian consequences could partially be reversed if Obama can extract such a regional process from this nuclear deal. Technically it seems close – and no one should overlook the false intelligence about weapons of mass destruction that drove Bush and Netanyahu to justify their policies of force. Having waited patiently for this opportunity Obama should make a bargain of it.