Iran's neighbors more concerned about resurgent Iran than its nuclear program
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Here, the news is bad. Whatever the JCPOA does in terms of the nuclear program, when it comes to the conventional balance in the region the JCPOA appears to strengthen Iran. The end of sanctions does not just result in a “windfall” gain to Iran as frozen assets are released; it also adds substantial and growing amounts to Iran’s national income as normal trade relations resume, as Iranian oil production expands, and as access to markets for new technology and spare parts increases the productivity of Iranian society. In the short term this means that Iran will have more money with which to support regional allies like the Assad regime in Damascus; in the medium term as conventional weapons restrictions are lifted Iran will have the opportunity to strengthen both defensive and offensive arms capabilities; in the medium to long term Iran’s greater economic clout will substantially increase its political weight both in the region and in world affairs, giving it new allies and making a return to sanctions and isolation increasingly unlikely.
These worries loom larger because Iran, under sanctions and suffering serious economic privation, has nevertheless been able to operate effectively in regional politics, scoring gains against Sunni adversaries that have seriously alarmed some of its neighbors. If an isolated and economically challenged Iran could achieve such results, one must ask what it can achieve under the more favorable conditions that will follow the implementation of the JCPOA.
It is worth noting in this context that many of Iran’s neighbors do not share the Obama Administration’s view that the greatest danger from Iran flows from its nuclear program. Rather, the fear is that Iran’s large population, sectarian fervor and powerful security institutions make it potentially the most powerful state in the region and a threat to the security of its neighbors. For many Saudis in particular, whose close ties to Pakistan’s security establishment give them confidence that an Iranian nuclear weapon could be offset by the existence of the Pakistani arsenal, the nuclear program in Iran is much less threatening than Iran’s apparent ability and willingness to support militias, rebels and Iran‐aligned governments across the region.