What the Iran nuclear deal holds for the region

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The nuclear deal with Iran can only help Hezbollah’s political and military plans
A staff removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of Unites States, Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union during the Iran nuclear talks at the Vienna International Center in Vienna on July 14, 2015. (AFP/Carlos Barria)

A 159-page text, including five annexes. Seventeen sleepless nights. Twelve years of negotiations and deadlocks. But the historic deal between the six world powers and the Iranian government over the country’s nuclear capabilities was signed today. The agreement now faces review from a Republican-led US Congress and opposition from Arab countries and Israel.

“We have stopped the spread of nuclear weapons in this region,” said US President Barack Obama. “We put sanctions in place to get a diplomatic solution, and that is what we have done. . . This deal offers an opportunity to move in a new direction. We should seize it,” he added, noting a review ahead on Congress. He also said that he will veto any Congress legislation that might prevent the implementation of the deal.

Iranian officials were celebrating. “Today, we are at an important juncture in the history of our country and our revolution and the situation in the region,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said. “A new page has been turned and a new chapter has begun.”

It is this sort of speech coming from Iranian officials that raises a lot of anxiety in many Middle East governments, analysts say, because lifting the economic sanctions on Iran might boost the profiles and economies of several armed groups that the country backs in the region. The nuclear deal might reinforce Iranian-backed groups, such as Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias, that are fighting in Syria and Iraq. It might also antagonize the Sunni Arab monarchies that have been in a regional power-struggle with Iran for the past few years.

“Iran is becoming a part of the decision-making process in the region,” Lebanese analyst Qassem Qassir told NOW. “Tehran will probably cooperate if there is an international decision concerning the whole region. This will also apply to Iran’s allies, the groups that follow Tehran’s agenda. But, in general, I think that this is a very favoring context for Hezbollah.”

The effects on Iran

According to official Iranian television channel Press TV: “The Iranian banking, financial, oil, gas, petrochemical, trade, insurance and transport sectors will at once be annulled with the beginning of the implementation of the agreement.” Additionally, billions of dollars in Iranian revenue frozen in foreign banks will be free up. Iran will get access to more than $100 billion in frozen assets when the Iran nuclear agreement is implemented. Of course, this all depends on when Tehran curbs its nuclear program, allows access of the UN inspectors, and the IAEA certifies it.

“Reclaiming the Iranian share in the European oil market depends on our performance but we will try to do it at the maximum possible level about 42-43% of our exports,” said Mohsen Qamsari, head of international affairs at the National Iranian Oil Company.

For Lebanon’s Hezbollah, that should be good news. Party leader Hassan Nasrallah said that “Iran will become richer and wealthier and will also become more influential” under the deal reached last week, Nasrallah said in an interview with Syria’s state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV, according to a translation provided by Lebanese daily The Daily Star. “This will also reinforce the position of its allies. A stronger and wealthier Iran, in the coming phase, will be able to stand by its allies, and especially the Palestinian resistance, more than at any other time in history.”

The effects on Hezbollah

Lebanese analyst Mustapha Fahs says that regardless of how harsh the international sanctions on Iran have been over the years, Tehran continued to support Hezbollah’s military program. The financing continued despite the fact that many voices in the Iranian opposition raised concerns over how the Iranian government was investing in a foreign group money it should have used to sustain the country’s economy, Fahs says. “That’s no secret anymore. In 2013, at a football match between Iran and Lebanon on the Azadi football stadium in Tehran, tens of thousands of Iranians were cursing Lebanon and Hassan Nasrallah because they felt their money was spent on Hezbollah.”

The truth is that, in spite of serious economic challenges and austerity budgets, Hezbollah was still getting its share of aid for its not-quite-negligible expenses. “For instance, in 2005, Hezbollah’s purchasing power was half its purchasing power today, Fahs said. “It has actually doubled during the Syrian uprising. The Iranian people felt deprived, although the money sent to Hezbollah was not really enough, either. But Iran kept financing Hezbollah. Of course there were cuts on social services, but they did not affect the party’s military operations.”

While the lifting of economic sanctions against Iran will certainly help Hezbollah, it won’t happen rapidly, says Fahs. “These agreements require time to be enforced and even more time to show their effects. Hezbollah can claim the victory now, but they will have a long-term problem with adjusting the ideology to the new situation: for a long time they have advertised their anti-US stance; for decades they chanted ‘Death to America!’ It will be very difficult to keep up with the fast changes in Tehran.”

Lebanese commentator Ali al-Amine believes that changes in Iran’s position in the international community will also impact Hezbollah politically. “Hezbollah is already the strongest party in Lebanon — it has a strong presence in the government and the administration and controls decisions made by the Lebanese state,” he told NOW. “But if Iran is taking the diplomacy road, Hezbollah might have to embrace it too. In the past few years, Iran always used the military option in asserting its presence on the regional Middle Eastern political scene; it supported armed groups in Palestine, Hezbollah in South Lebanon, and others. This deal might make the political option more viable than the military pressure.”

The effects on the region

Fahs, however, does not think the Iran deal is the path to a peaceful and prosperous Middle East. “Hezbollah will feel strong under the protection of a stronger Iran. The parts of Syria under Hezbollah/Iranian/Syrian government control will become ‘occupied Syria.’ The Sunni Arab monarchies will never accept that, and they will fight back,” he said.  “Angry people act in a violent way. Imagine if more people radicalized and supported the Islamic State — if only five percent of the Sunni population started supporting the Islamic State, it would count for the entire Shiite population of the Arab countries. How would Iran mange then?”

Al-Amine is more optimistic: “The rapprochement between Iran and the West in facing terrorism in Syria will give Hezbollah more roles to play; it will put on the side the fight against Israel because for the moment it is not a priority. Terrorism is, and this provides Iran and its allied groups with international support.”

Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609. Amin Nasr tweets @Aminknasr