The relationship between Iran and the Western world has been confrontations since 1979 when the country experienced a revolution that led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This turbulent relationship worsened in 2002 when it was discovered that Iran was engaged in clandestine nuclear activities. The Western world unanimously condemned Iran’s nuclear ambitioned and declared that they were a threat to regional and global security.
Western countries imposed tough sanctions on the country and threats were made that military strikes would be carried out against the country’s nuclear facilities if Iran continued pursuing its nuclear ambitions. In response to these threats, Iran decided to temporarily halt its nuclear activities and let International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors visit its nuclear facilities. At the same time, the country expressed its wish to engage in negotiations for its nuclear program. The past 13 years have therefore witnessed numerous rounds of negotiations for an Iranian nuclear deal.
No agreement has been reached due to disagreements between Iran and the western countries, led by the United States, on crucial aspects of a nuclear deal. While the negotiations have been going on, the Middle East has become embroiled in numerous conflicts. Due to the US invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring of 2011, countries including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen have experienced political upheaval.
Some analysts suggest that this Islamic Republic is using its influence in the troubled counties to improve its negotiation position. This paper argues that Iran is using its present power and influence in the affected countries to obtain a better deal in its negotiations with the Western countries.
Iran’s Nuclear Negotiations
Iran’s nuclear program was started by the Shah in 1957 with the support of the US government. Nuclear Iran was part of President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program and the US encouraged the building of nuclear power plants in Iran (Pillar 2014). However, Iran choose to abandon the nuclear projects that were being carried out with the help of the United States when the Shah’s reign ended in 1979.
The West responded by violating numerous agreements and contracts with Iran and this cost Tehran billions of dollars. In addition to this, the Western countries took steps to stop Iran from legally buying the nuclear fuel needed to operate its civilian nuclear plants from the international market. Mousavian (2014) asserts that these coercive measures by the West gave the greatest impetus for Iran to start its own program to ensure self-sufficiency in the future. By 2002, Iran had mastered enrichment and its uranium enrichment plants were almost fully operational.
When the international community discovered Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities, the IAEA demanded to be given access to the sites. The Western countries opposed Iran’s nuclear program as it was suspected to have military objectives. Sanctions were imposed on the nation and the West threatened military action if Iran did not abandon its projects. Iran agreed to engage in a series of talk to reach an agreement on its nuclear program. The current negotiation efforts began with the signing of an interim nuclear deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council on 24 November 2013.
The negotiating parties failed to reach a mutually agreed, long-term comprehensive solution by the 20 July 2014 deadline. The Iranian negotiators asserted that progress couldn’t be made due to the unreasonable and excessive demands of the West during the talks (Mousavian 2014). The ability of Iran to negotiate a favourable deal has been increased by instability being experienced in some of the Middle Eastern countries where Iran is influential.
Middle East Crisis and the Iranian Influence
The past 5 years have witnessed significant political and civil disturbances in Middle Eastern countries. These strives have led to military conflicts and threatened to destroy the balance and stability in the region. Iraq has been plunged in violence since the US led invasion toppled the Saddam regime. Various factions within the country are fighting for control of Baghdad and no political solution has been reached.
The post Saddam Iraq has been split along ethnic and religious lines. Sharp divisions have emerged between the Shia and the Sunni Muslims. During Saddam’s reign, the Sunni’s enjoyed many privileges as the regime favoured this group. Government positions and top military positions were awarded to Sunnis while the Shia’s were discriminated against. After the overthrowing of Saddam, the Shia gained great power in the country. This previously suppressed group took over the running of the country. Iran has been a supporter of the Shia government and it has offered both moral and financial support to the Iraqis.
Syria experienced civil unrest from 2011 as opposition forces in the country called for an end to the Assad regime and the establishment of a democratic Syria. The Assad regime chose to cling to power and this led to a civil war among religious sects and ethnic communities in Syria (Milani 2013). The international community was split over which group to support in the Syrian crisis. While some Western and regional powers supported the armed rebel forces, others have expressed support for the Assad government.
Syria has therefore become a battleground for various factions that are supported by differing countries from the international community. Iran is one of the key players in the issue supporting the Assad forces. Milani (2013) documents that Iran and Syria have a long history of mutual cooperation. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the Syrian government became the steadiest partner to Iran in the region.
When the Arab Spring reached Syria around July 2011, Iran increased its support to the Assad regime. Milani (2013) reveals that in spite of Assad’s ruthless suppression of the people, Tehran feels that he deserves their support due to his vociferous opposition to the United States and Israel. Iran’s support has extended to material support with the country providing Assad with direct military assistance.
Lebanon has suffered from internal conflicts due to disputes between its Muslim and Christian population. The Shiite Muslims in the country have since the 1980s engaged in military activities to gain political leverage in the country. These military activities have been undertaken by the Hezbollah organisation that is classified as a terrorist organisation by some Western countries including the US. However, most Lebanese Shias view Hezbollah as a legitimate organisation fighting for the rights of the Muslims.
Iran is the greatest supporter of Hezbollah and the Iranian government takes responsibility for empowering this group and by extension the Shias in southern Lebanon. Milani (2013) declares that during the formative years of Hezbollah, Iran “offered Lebanon everything in its power: money, training, and advice” (p.81). This support has continued and Iran is today the chief financier of Hezbollah with Tehran remitting over $100 million to the organisation each year.
Hezbollah relies on Iran not only for material support but also ideological direction. The organisational structure followed by the group is borrowed from Iran. This demonstrates that Iran has significant influence in Lebanon and it has the power to affect the events taking place in the country.
Most recently, Yemen has joined the list of troubled Middle Eastern countries. This already unstable nation has been hit by new waves of sectarian violence. Yemen has fallen to the Houthi rebels who have overwhelmed the government forces and taken control of the country. Calabresi (2015) reports that in late January, the Houthi repels ousted President Abdel Rabbo and took control of Sanaa.
These Houthi rebels are members of the Shia branch of Islam and their actions have sparked retaliatory action by the Sunni tribes. The Sunni tribes have been supported by a coalition of Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia. To counter this move, Iran has stepped in to assist the Houthi rebels covertly. Gardner (2015) reports that while both Iran and the rebels deny any affiliation, senior Houthi figures have been seen in Iran allegedly seeking support. At the same time, there are reports of Iran offering military aid to the rebels and this has increased their strength.
Iran’s Power Play
The revolutions of the Arab Spring and the subsequent political upheaval across the Middle East have placed the Iranian negotiations in a more urgent context. The Middle East is experiencing significant upheaval with a fault lines emerging between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. In this sectarian division, Iran has emerged as the most powerful Shi’ite nation and it has incredible influence among the Shi’ite population in the various countries in the region. Oktav (2011) declares that the US military involvement in Iraq destroyed the balance of power in the Middle East and created a power vacuum in the Persian Gulf.
Iran was able to rise up and create a sphere of influence in the area by appealing to the Shia population in the region. As the Shi’ite leader in the Muslim World, Iran has great influence in the Middle East nations that have a sizable Shia population. Western powers have been forced to recognise that Iran is a growing regional power and no resolution to the spreading conflicts in the Middle East can be reached without Tehran’s participation.
With this understanding, the West is today more eager to reach a deal with Iran than they have been at any other time over the past decade. Calabresi (2015) states that for the first time since the negotiations started in 2013, Western countries are demonstrating an eagerness to reach a deal. This eagerness by the West has been caused by the events taking place in the Middle East. Iran is therefore at a good negotiating position since it is not the only party that has a great interest in reaching a deal.
Iran is using its influence in the Middle East to get a better deal in its negotiations by promising to cooperate with Western Countries in the resolution of the crisis. For decades, the relationship between Iran and the West has been confrontational with the US regarding this Islamic Republic as its No. 1 enemy in the region. However, the recent events in the Middle East have forced America to reconsider its relationship with Iran. The US admits that in dealing with the Middle East issues, “there is business to be done with Tehran” (Calabresi 2015, p.26).
Western nations, led by the US, have therefore reached out to the Iranian leadership asking it to cooperate in dealing with some of the conflicts. Iran has gained some goodwill from its traditional enemies such as the US by agreeing to play a part in tackling the Islamic State threat in Iraq. Since June 2014, the Islamic State terrorist organisation has emerged as one of the greatest threats to peace and stability in the Middle East. In a period less than a year, this organisation has succeeded in building a huge military capacity and taking up territory in Iraq and Syria.
The US has been unable to unilaterally tackle the ISIL problem and it has sought the support of Iran on the issue. The Obama administration has suggested that greater cooperation could facilitate the quick resolution of the nuclear disagreements between the US and Iran. Such statements demonstrate that Iran’s power in the region is providing it with leverage in the negotiation efforts.
At the beginning of the negotiation efforts in 2003, Iran was bargaining from a position of weakness since it was not recognized as a power. The situation has changed over the decade and Iran has grown into a credible regional power. Hirsch (2015) reveals that in the early to mid 2000s, the Bush administration believed that the Iranian regime would simply collapse since it looked unpopular and even brittle. The Western countries therefore expected domestic political upheaval to weaken Iran and cause the overthrow of the Islamic leadership.
The Bush administration tried to encourage the collapse of Iran by imposing aggressive sanctions against the country. Other western countries joined in this strategy that was aimed at crippling the Iranian economy. These actions did not work and Iran’s influence in the region continued to grow.
Iran is using its position as a regional power to negotiate for a greater nuclear capacity than it would have been allowed if it was not a major player in the region. According to Hirsch (2014), Tehran has refused to reduce its nuclear capacity as demanded by the West. Hirsch (2015) admits that America and other nations have been forced to drop some of their demands over the course of the negotiations.
The western countries are willing to let Iran take the position of regional power in order to promote peace. Western nations have traditionally imposed tough conditions in the negotiations since they do not want Iran to attain nuclear capabilities (Pillar 2013). Arguments have been made that the acquisition of nuclear capability would enhance Iran’s power in the region and make it a dominant player in the Persian Gulf and even the Middle East (Rahigh-Aghsan & Jakobsen 2010).
Such an outcome was undesirable and for this reason the US engaged in various actions aimed at stopping the Iranian nuclear program. However, the events in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen have led to a reassessment of the power dynamics in the region. Many political commentators believe that a regional power might help bring about stability in the region (Rahigh-Aghsan & Jakobsen 2010). Iran is already seen as a regional leader and it is believed that a nuclear capacity would help it acquire a regional “great power” status.
This would enhance the prestige of the country in the Muslim world and enable it to play a greater role in preventing conflicts in the region. Klein (2015) admits that the upheaval in the Middle East region has increased the significance of the Iranian nuclear deal. Western powers recognize that Iran’s international credibility would be increased if the nuclear deal was successfully reached. Iran’s negotiation power is therefore greater since the Western countries want Iran to play a constructive role in the resolution of the conflicts in the Middle East countries.
Iran has gained some goodwill from its traditional enemies such as the US by agreeing to play a part in tackling the Islamic State threat in Iraq. Since June 2014, the Islamic State terrorist organisation has emerged as one of the greatest threats to peace and stability in the Middle East. In a period less than a year, this organisation has succeeded in building a huge military capacity and taking up territory in Iraq and Syria.
The US has been unable to unilaterally tackle the ISIL problem and it has sought the support of Iran on the issue. This has been a remarkable change from the traditional US policy of isolating Iran. Tehran is using some of the acquired goodwill to push for a better deal. Doucet (2015) notes that the international community is advocating for a phased implementation of sanction relief once a deal is reached. However, Iran is ambitiously pushing for immediate and complete sanction reliefs once a deal has been struck with the Western countries.
Discussion and Conclusion
Iran has been compelled to use its regional power to force the West to negotiate on an equal footing with Tehran. Traditionally, the West has used coercive pressure when dealing with Iran. Mousavian (2014) asserts that rather than genuine diplomacy, the west has long focused on coercion in its dealings with Iran. For example, Western countries have imposed sanctions on Iran, sabotaged its nuclear facilities, and even assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists.
The ongoing instabilities in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have convinced the Western Countries to deal with Iran differently. Iran has taken advantage of its influence in the troubled countries to negotiate for a better deal with the Western powers. US Congressmen opposed to the deal already acknowledge that Iran has received a significant number of concessions from the Western countries during the talks held in April 2015. This proves that Iran has been able to use its position as a regional power in the negotiation process.
This paper set out to analyse if Iran is using its present power and influence in Middle Eastern countries to get a better deal in its nuclear talks. The paper began by providing a backdrop of the nuclear issue and highlighting the confrontational relationship between Iran and the Western countries. It then demonstrated how Iran has significant influence in the most of the countries that are experiencing political and civil crisis in the region.
Iran has made use of its regional power to demonstrate its important role in the security and stability of the region. The crisis in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen have been beneficial to Iran’s bargaining efforts. For the first time in the more than three decades of the Islamic Republic’s existence, Iran is in a favourable bargaining position. It can be assumed that Iran will get a better deal in its negotiations due to its present power and influence in the Middle East.
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