U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry checks his smartphone before a meeting on the Iran nuclear issue in Geneva November 9, 2013. (Reuters)

In the abstract and in isolation, a U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal is a welcome development. While it does not eliminate Iran’s nuclear program, it does complicate any future Iranian efforts to develop a robust nuclear military capability. It also shows that the United States and Iran, two sworn enemies, are capable of rationally pursuing their interests through negotiation. It may bother Israel and the Gulf Arab states, but that does not mean, a priori, that it does not serve U.S. interests. In any case, the United States’ military presence and commitment to the security of its allies in the region remain intact.

acus hariri new revised INSIGHT: Dealing Away the Middle East?Leaving aside debate regarding its fairness, a nuclear deal in the absence of a broader U.S.-Iranian regional settlement is merely a short-term arms control agreement. Like the chemical weapons deal with the Syrian regime, it betrays a lack of U.S. appetite for tackling the more challenging and arguably more urgent issues of regional security and stability: the civil war in Syria, sectarian violence and terrorism in Lebanon, Iran’s conflict with Israel and the Gulf states, and Iraq’s descent into chaos. Just as the chemical weapons agreement effectively freed the United States from having to punish Syria for violating U.S. red lines, the nuclear agreement allows it to avoid tackling its thornier issues with Iran including Syria, Hezbollah, and its long-standing aggression towards U.S. allies.

“It is… not the specifics of the U.S.-Iran deal that are troubling but its narrow scope…” – Faysal Itani, Atlantic Council Hariri Center

Admittedly, the nuclear deal could conceivably pave the way for a broader U.S.-Iranian regional settlement over these issues. Under the current U.S. administration however, this is highly unlikely. For one, the United States does not appear overly concerned with the catastrophes in the Levant or Iraq, at least outside of a narrow security prism focused exclusively on the jihadist presence in Syria. Secondly, Iran’s proxies in Syria and Lebanon are performing relatively well on the battlefield, and have absolutely no incentive to make concessions to their opponents in the absence of military pressure from the United States or support for its supposed allies in the opposition.

reu iran slavin2 300 25nov13 INSIGHT: Dealing Away the Middle East?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) chats with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the United Nations Palais in Geneva November 24, 2013. (Reuters)

It is therefore not the specifics of the U.S.-Iran deal that are troubling but its narrow scope, in the complete absence of a U.S. regional strategy other than willful neglect. This approach clearly serves Iran’s interest, by allowing it to sustain its total commitment to a regime victory in Syria, its strategic relationship with Hezbollah, and its aggressive regional posture. Given that Iran’s economic and diplomatic weakness under U.S. sanctions compelled it to make a deal, it would appear that the weaker party to these negotiations was rewarded quite handsomely and will be encouraged to persist with its ruinous policies in Syria and Lebanon.

Why the United States would see an equal interest in such a deal is less clear. Obviously, however, it drew no linkage between Iran’s regional behavior and the nuclear agreement. It is indeed difficult to shake the notion that the United States made a deal not as an attempt to bring greater stability to the Middle East but as quite the opposite: an attempt to further distance itself from the region’s more urgent and demanding crises. For despite its complexities, an arms control agreement with Iran is far easier than meaningful engagement with the deep-rooted problems of the Middle East.

This post was originally published by the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center.

The views expressed in this Insight are the author’s own and are not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you’d like to share your opinion on this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. If you are a Middle East expert or analyst associated with an established academic institution, think tank or non-governmental organization, we invite you to contribute your perspectives on events and issues about or relevant to the region. Please email us through our Contact page with a short proposal for an Insight post or send us a link to an existing post already published on your institutional blog.

 INSIGHT: Dealing Away the Middle East?

Faysal Itani

Faysal Itani is a fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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  • Procivic

    The “catastrophes” in the Levant and beyond can be traced back to the Wahabi/Taliban ideology, i.e. Saudi Arabia, the nexus of religious terrorism, whose tentacles have appeared in every trouble spot from Afghanistan and Chechnya to Libya and Mali.