America's Arab allies are unnecessarily alarmed by the limited understanding reached over Iran's nuclear program. They imagine that in no time at all, the United States and Iran will be fast friends, Iran will emerge as the hegemon in the Persian Gulf, and Washington will sacrifice Arab security interests in Iran's favor. They are wrong.
Much divides Iran and the United States. A U.S. Gulf presence will remain. Iran no longer wants to be the heavy. Detente should be welcomed.
First, Iran's leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, authorized Iran's president and foreign minister to negotiate over the nuclear issue, not over the many other matters that bedevil Iran-U.S. relations and are of concern to the Arab states. Iran's support for President Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian rejectionists in Gaza are not issues on the negotiating table. Nor are they likely to be addressed soon.
A final agreement on Iran's nuclear program would not be concluded for at least six months. Even then, Khamenei is not going to vacate Iran's role in Syria, Gaza, Lebanon or Iraq. Khamenei, seeking sanctions relief, may reach a nuclear deal with the West. But he remains deeply suspicious of the United States and antipathetic to a resumption of diplomatic relations with the country he calls the Great Satan. Much remains to keep Iran and the United States apart.
Second, even if it reaches an understanding with Iran over more than the nuclear issue, the United States is not going to end its naval presence in the Persian Gulf or roll up the protective umbrella it has provided the Persian Gulf states for many decades. An improved relationship with Iran cannot override America's substantial interests in the region, and these rest in large part on continued close ties with the Arab states of the Gulf.
Third, the Gulf states exaggerate the possibility of Iran re-emerging as the gendarme of the Persian Gulf, a role it played under the shah and to which Iran's current rulers perhaps aspire.
Iran faces multiple domestic problems of its own. President Rouhani, cautious, sensible, is just beginning to repair the huge damage done to Iran's relations with the rest of the world under his predecessor. Iran appears strong only because the Gulf states continue to behave as if they were helpless to shape their own fate. They should welcome, not fear, Rouhani commitment to seek better relations with his Arab neighbors.
Finally, the Arab states of the Gulf would surely benefit if Iranian-American animosity abates and Iran is better integrated into the international community. Such an Iran is much more likely to end the spoiler role it has tried to play in the region and which has been the cause of so much Arab real or imagined grief.