Start preparing for Pax Iranica. That is the unspoken message behind the interim nuclear agreement hammered out between the P5+1 powers and Iran in Geneva last month. For, despite the insistence in Washington and European capitals that it is only temporary, the new deal has nonetheless prompted what amounts to a seismic shift in Middle Eastern politics.
Already, the Iranian regime itself has received a much-needed economic reprieve. On the heels of the accord, the Obama administration released billions of dollars in blocked Iranian oil assets as a goodwill gesture. That, however, is just the beginning. According to Iranian officials, the Iranian government will gain access to as much as $15 billion of oil revenues over the next half-year under the terms of the Geneva deal. As a result, Iran is poised to receive at least $20 billion-worth of economic relief — equivalent to nearly half of the country's hard-currency reserves (currently estimated at some $50 billion) and far greater than originally envisioned by the White House.
These developments have not gone unnoticed. More and more corporations and sovereign states alike are now making plans based on the assumption that eroding sanctions will again make Iran a lucrative commercial market — and a global energy player.
As a result, Iranian officials are waxing optimistic. According to Hadi Ghavami, head of the Iranian parliament's Plans, Budget, and Auditing Commission, the country's economy, currently shrinking by 5.8 percent annually, is expected to grow 2.2 percent in the coming year.
But Iran has gained more than just a firmer economic footing. With its exclusive focus on Iran's nuclear program, the Geneva deal effectively takes the issue of the country's domestic behavior off the diplomatic table. Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, Iran's most prominent human-rights crusader, recently argued in the pages of the Washington Post that human rights and Iran's nuclear file are "complimentary halves," and implored the international community not to ignore the former for the sake of the latter. Yet mounting evidence suggests that this is exactly what is happening. Having secured a measure of compliance from the regime in Tehran on the nuclear front, Western powers appear to be more than willing to ignore the Islamic Republic's internal abuses — much to the detriment of the Iranian people.
Similarly, Iran appears to have received a pass for its regional troublemaking. No sooner were talks in Geneva concluded than U.S. officials confirmed that they would attend talks between Syrian rebels and the Assad regime, a summit Iran will likely attend as well. So the Iranian regime, which has helped perpetuate Bashar Assad's bloody war against his own people over the past two-and-a-half years, is poised to become a power broker in determining that country's future. Iran's ongoing interference in places such as Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan, meanwhile, remains entirely off the radar.
Iran's neighbors are taking notice. The countries of the Persian Gulf, which historically have harbored more than a little enmity towards Iran's ayatollahs, are nonetheless beginning to adapt to this new reality, and are now moving closer to some sort of détente with Tehran.
Some have taken this to mean that peace is suddenly breaking out in the Middle East. A fawning editorial in a recent edition of The Economist, for example, called the diplomatic breakthrough in Geneva the key to "unlocking the Middle East." Left unspoken is the simple fact that, in geopolitical terms, Iran's rehabilitation is a zero-sum game. The stronger Tehran becomes in the region, the weaker Washington and its allies will be.
Regional states understand this all too well, even if America does not. That is why some — such as the UAE — are now busy seeking some sort of accommodation with Iran. Others, like Israel, are actively formulating strategy against it. And still others, such as Saudi Arabia, are doing both. Common to all of these trends is the absence of a stabilizing U.S. regional presence. With one stroke of the pen, the Obama administration appears to have awarded Iran regional hegemony while consigning itself to strategic irrelevance.
"We are not blind, and I don't think we're stupid," Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters last month, defending this outreach. If so, the White House must surely understand that by agreeing to a nuclear deal that maintains Iran's ability to manufacture a nuclear weapon quickly, while simultaneously lessening Western leverage, it has set in motion a fundamental regional realignment that favors Tehran, not Washington or its regional partners.