Nuclear deal with Iran likely to enhance US regional leverage

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US foreign policy experts say a successful nuclear agreement with Iran could go a long way in enhancing US leverage in the region

Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency Reza Najafi in Vienna on Wednesday (AFP)
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By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A successful agreement on Iran's nuclear programme could significantly enhance US leverage and influence throughout the greater Middle East, according to a new report signed by 31 former senior US foreign-policy officials and regional experts and released here Wednesday.

The 115-page report, "Iran and Its Neighbors: Regional Implications for U.S. Policy of a Nuclear Agreement," argues that a nuclear accord would open the way towards co-operation between the two countries on key areas of mutual concern, including stabilising both Iraq and Afghanistan and even facilitating a political settlement to the bloody civil war in Syria.

"A comprehensive nuclear agreement would enable the United States to perceive [regional] priorities without every lens being coloured by that single issue," according to the report, the latest in a series published over the last several years by the New York-based Iran Project, which has sponsored high-level informal exchanges with Iran since it was founded in 2002.

"If the leaders of the United States and Iran are prepared to take on their domestic political opponents' opposition to the agreement now taking shape, then their governments can turn to the broader agenda of regional issues," concluded the report, whose signatories included former US National Security Advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, as well as more than a dozen former top-ranking diplomats,

Conversely, failure to reach an accord between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the US, Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany) could result in "Iran's eventual acquisition of a nuclear weapons, a greatly reduced chance of defeating major threats elsewhere in the region, and even war," the study warned.

The report comes as negotiations over a comprehensive nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 are set to formally resume in New York on Thursday, as diplomats from around the world gather for the opening of the UN General Assembly, which will be addressed by both Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani, among other world leaders, next week.

The parties have set a 24 November deadline, exactly one year after they signed a Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) in Geneva that eased some economic sanctions against Tehran in exchange for its freezing or rolling back key elements of its nuclear programme.

While the two sides have reportedly agreed in principle on a number of important issues, there remain large gaps between them, particularly with respect to proposed limits on the size of Iran's uranium-enrichment programme and their duration.

The study also comes amidst what its authors called a "tectonic shift" in the Middle East triggered in major part by the military successes of the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL), a development that has been greeted by virtually all of the region's regimes, as well as the US - which is trying to patch together an international coalition against the Sunni extremist group - as a major threat.

"The rise of ISIS has reinforced Iran's role in support of the government in Iraq and raises the possibility of US-Iran cooperation in stabilising Iraq even before a nuclear agreement is signed," according to the report which nonetheless stressed that any agreement should impose "severe restrictions on Iran's nuclear activities… [to reduce] the risks that Iran could acquire nuclear weapons."

Still, the thrust of the report, which includes individual essays by recognised experts on Iran's relations with seven of its neighbours, focuses on how Washington's interests in the region could be enhanced by "parallel and even joint US and Iran actions" after an agreement is reached.

Such co-operation would most probably begin in dealing with the Islamic State in Iraq whose government is supported by both Washington and Tehran.

Indeed, as noted by Paul Pillar, a former top CIA Middle East analyst, both countries have recently taken a number of parallel steps in Iraq, notably by encouraging the removal of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and by taking separate military actions – US airstrikes and Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) advisers - to help break IS's months-long siege of the town of Amerli.

"There's ample potential here for more communication on a source of very high concern to both of us," Pillar said at the report's release at the Wilson Center here. "[The Iranians] see the sources of instability in Iraq; they see it is not in their interest to have unending instability [there]."

A second area of mutual interest is Afghanistan, from which US and NATO troops are steadily withdrawing amidst growing concerns about the ability of government's security forces to hold the Taliban at bay.

While it is no secret that the US and Iran worked closely together in forging the government and constitution that were adopted after coalition forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001, noted Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert who after the 9/11 attacks served in senior positions at the State Department and later the UN, "what's not as well known is that the IRGC worked closely on the ground with the CIA and U.S. Special Forces" during that campaign.

With political tensions over recent election results between the two main presidential candidates and their supporters on the rise, according to Rubin, some co-operation between Iran and the US is likely to be "very important" to ensure political stability.

"A nuclear agreement would open the way for a diplomatic and political process that would make it possible to retain some of the important gains we have made in Afghanistan over the past 13 years," he said.

As for Syria, Iran, as one of President Bashar al-Assad's two main foreign backers, must be included in any efforts to achieve a political settlement, according to the report. Until now, it has been invited to participate only as an observer, largely due to US and Saudi opposition.

"The Iranians are not wedded to …the continuation of the Baathist regime," said Frank Wisner, who served as ambassador to Egypt and India, among other senior posts in his career. In talks with Iranian officials he said he had been struck by "the degree to which they feel themselves over-stretched," particularly now that they are more involved in Iraq.

The report anticipates considerable resistance by key US regional allies to any rapprochement with Iran that could follow a nuclear agreement, particularly from Israel, which has been outspoken in its opposition to any accord that would permit Iran to continue enriching uranium.

"It goes without saying that this is of primordial importance to Israel," noted Thomas Pickering, who has co-chaired the Iran Project and served as US ambassador to Israel and the UN, among other top diplomatic posts.

Washington must make it clear to Israel and its supporters here that an agreement "would certainly improve prospects for tranquillity in the region" and that it would be a "serious mistake" for Israel to attack Iran, as it has threatened to do, while an agreement is in force, he said.

Washington must also take great pains to reassure Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-led Gulf states that a nuclear agreement will not come at their expense, according to the report.

"Such reassurance might require a period of increased US military support and a defined US presence (such as the maintenance of bases in the smaller Gulf States and of military and intelligence cooperation with the GCC (Gulf Co-operation Council) states)," the report said.

"Riyadh would be willing to explore a reduction of tensions with Tehran if the Saudis were more confident of their American ally," the report said.