Many observers have connected the dots and concluded that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince is seeking to drag the United States into a war with Iran and Hezbollah. But that’s only half the story. Looking at the recent events through a broader geopolitical lens, a much more sinister plan emerges: a Saudi plan to trap the United States in a permanent standoff with Tehran.
While most of the world has been aghast by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s radical actions of this past week, his conduct is only inexplicable when viewed from the wrong lens, such as the Sunni-Shia sectarian frame or the even more absurd attempt to cast this conflict as part of a greater fight against terrorism. After all, Saudi Arabia provided the seed money for Al Qaeda and openly funded and armed Al Qaeda in Syria (Jabhat al-Nusra), according to the U.S. government.
When seen from a geopolitical lens, however, the unlikely alliance between Zionist Israel and the Wahhabi House of Saud, their opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and their coordinated effort to ratchet up tensions in the region suddenly acquire a degree of logic.
Rather than ethnic or sectarian motivations, Saudi Arabia’s ultimate aim is to drag the United States back into the Middle East in order for Washington to reestablish its military dominance and reimpose on the region an equilibrium that favors Tel Aviv and Riyadh. This, however, does not require just a war in Lebanon, but a permanent state of conflict between the United States and Iran.
Israel and Saudi Arabia see this as justified return to the order that existed prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The “dual containment” policy of the Clinton administration established a balance in the region centered on Israel, Saudi and Egypt, with the explicit goal of isolating and containing both Iran and Iraq. Tehran vehemently opposed the order and sought to undermine it by all means, including by targeting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
But despite Tehran’s extensive efforts, Iran failed to bring about the collapse of the U.S.-led order. Instead, it was the United States itself under George W. Bush that—inadvertently—brought about the end of the U.S.-backed balance by committing the disastrous mistake of invading Iraq. The spectacular failure of this endeavor destabilized the region and weakened the United States, to a point where it no longer could restore the old order or foist a new balance upon the region.
The Middle East has ever since essentially been orderless—there is no single dominant power or combination of states that can establish and sustain a new balance. This is precisely why it is experiencing so much instability and violence: the absence of a clear order draws all major powers into a fierce competition to define the new equilibrium. This is also why Israel and Saudi Arabia have found common cause against Iran and why they have been pushing the United States to take military action against Iran.
Israel and Saudi Arabia were the biggest losers of the Iraq war and the collapse of Pax Americana. They enjoyed maximum security and maneuverability under the previous order, and their regional rivals were checked and contained, courtesy of American treasure and blood. Their priority for the last decade has been to compel the United States to recommit itself to the region and restore the pre-2003 balance, or at a minimum re-embrace the role as hegemon over the Middle East.
But while the United States saw benefit in Middle Eastern hegemony twenty years ago, American, Israeli and Saudi interests have sharply diverged over the past two decades. Not only does the United States lack the resources to resurrect the previous balance, the benefits to U.S. national security are increasingly in question. President Barack Obama had ordered a global audit of America’s resources, commitments, challenges and opportunities early on in his presidency. The conclusion was unmistakable: the most strategically vital area for the United States in this century is East Asia. Yet, most of America’s resources were committed to the Middle East in unending wars of increasingly marginal strategic significance. America needed a course correction that reversed its overcommitment in the Middle East and undercommitment in East Asia: a pivot to Asia.
Both Tel Aviv and Riyadh viewed Washington’s reorientation towards Asia with concern. They feared it would weaken Washington’s commitment to their security while also potentially making the United States more inclined to reach an accommodation with Iran. Those fears rose dramatically as Obama resisted the Saudi and Israeli push to bomb Iran, and instead opted for diplomacy. To the Saudis, Obama had sided with Iran. The details of the nuclear deal were irrelevant to Riyadh: the problem was the very idea of the United States striking a deal with Iran, which by definition would signal the end of Washington’s policy of fully balancing Iran and leave Saudi facing its Persian rival without unreserved American backing.
Saudi Arabia’s only prospect of balancing Iran today remains the same as it was ten years ago: by dragging the United States back into the region militarily. If Iran’s nuclear program or its role in Iraq won’t compel Washington to bomb Iran, the Saudis must instigate a crisis that will force America back into the squabbles of the Middle East. Lebanon can serve this purpose precisely because it brings in a critical factor absent in both Iraq and Yemen—the Israeli angle and its American political potency. What the American public needs to fully understand, though, is that Riyadh is not seeking a one-off in Lebanon but rather a perpetual U.S. confrontation with Iran, a never ending war on behalf of Saudi Arabia.
As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in 2010, the Saudis “want to fight the Iranians to the last American.” Why the Saudis would see this as attractive is clear. Why Netanyahu would like to go along with this also follows a certain logic. That is not the mystery in this drama. The mystery is why the president of the United States would go along with something that so clearly contradicts U.S. national interest.
It is not the Saudi crown prince that is acting irrationally. It’s the president of the United States.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Shayan Modarres
Phone: 202 379-1638
Washington, DC – The National Iranian American Council issued the following statement following President Donald Trump’s tweets resurrecting his calls for “EXTREME VETTING” and a “TRAVEL BAN!” this morning:
“In today’s episode of daily misinformation, blame-shifting, and overall erosion of our democracy, the President of the United States revealed the categorical duality in his approach to combatting terrorism and his desire to persist with his nonsensical Muslim ban.
“The President has once again made clear that he is more interested in fulfilling a campaign promise to ban Muslims rather than defend our national security. The Saudi government – not the Iranian nationals and others Trump wishes to ban – inspire and fund terror attacks throughout the West.
“Underlying the farcical nature of the ban, 94 percent of deaths caused by terror attacks by Islamists between 2001 and 2015 were inspired by radical Wahhabist and Salafist thought – the very same ideology spread by Saudi Arabia. That ideology has no roots in Iran, where nationals are deeply opposed to ISIS and Iran has fought ISIS on the battlefield. Yet, Iran is targeted by the ban while those fanning the flames of extremism get a Presidential visit by Trump.
“Trump’s embrace of Saudi Arabia underscores that he is not serious about confronting terrorism. If he was, he would strengthen our alliances and form broad coalitions to halt the Saudi effort to spread Wahhabism and Salafism. Banning Iranian nationals who have historically presented no threat to American national security while selling arms to the Saudis defies basic logic.
“Not one to be beholden to facts or truth, a defiant President Trump continues to ignore these realities and persists with his effort to ban Muslims to score political points while undermining US national security.
“Trump’s tweets today removed all doubt that the revised Muslim ban is a watered down version of the first blatantly discriminatory Muslim ban, which he prefers. But despite the victories against the ban in U.S. courts, Trump has managed to continue to implement the unconstitutional ban through administrative measures. The backdoor Muslim ban – which Trump confirmed in his tweets – has already driven down the number of Iranians and nationals of Muslim-majority countries wholesale.
“Trump is concerned about scoring political points, not keeping Americans safe. It took him three days to even acknowledge the stabbing attack in Portland where two young men were killed and a third was seriously injured for standing up to Islamophobia and hate. But it took him less than six hours to exploit the terrorist attack in London to try to advance his discriminatory and unconstitutional Muslim ban. America has never been less safe than it is under the nonsensical Trump doctrine.”
Nothing in the Middle East seems normal right now. Israel locks the United States out of cease-fire talks with Egypt over Gaza. U.S.-Saudi relations look increasingly like a marriage that both sides regret getting into in the first place. Egypt’s state media publicly cheers Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he bombs Gaza. Saudi Arabia pretends to be unaware of the ongoing fighting between Israel and Hamas. Protests against Israel’s bombing campaign are larger in Europe than in the Arab Middle East.
The surprises don’t stop there. Iran’s relative silence on the Gaza war has been deafening: Spanish actors Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem have been more forceful in their criticism of Israel’s Gaza attacks than many Iranian officials.
Iran is usually known for jumping on every possible opportunity to blast Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. The Iranian game plan in the past few decades has been to boost its bid for regional leadership by portraying the Arab states as impotent “servants of American interests” in the Middle East, while portraying Tehran as the true champion of the Palestinian cause — and therefore the leader of the Islamic world.
Fighting between Hamas and Israel in Gaza is usually a political cash cow for Iran’s leaders. But by their own standards, Iranian leaders have remained curiously quiet on the ongoing, month-long fight. Why? Shifting dynamics across the Middle East and a new president in Tehran have changed Iran’s political calculus on Palestine.
Iran has a widespread reputation as Hamas’s main patron, providing the group with rockets and weapons over the past decade. But the relationship between the Palestinian Islamists and the government in Tehran has never been friction free. The Hamas leadership has long complained that Tehran talked a good game, but in practice did little to help the Palestinian Islamist group. Ideologically, there has always been a gulf between the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Sunni group and the Shiite thinkers of Qom. But full-on tensions between these disparate Islamists only broke out with the Syrian Civil War, when Hamas sided early on with the Syrian opposition and Tehran backed President Bashar al-Assad. Tehran viewed Hamas Leader Khaled Meshaal’s break with the Syrian dictator in 2012 as a betrayal after years of providing the group with both financial support and a base in Damascus.
Earlier this year, Hamas and Tehran officially reconciled. “Relations between Iran and Hamas have returned to be as they were before and we have no problem with Hamas,” the speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, told a Lebanese television channel. But mistrust remained amid the conciliatory rhetoric, as Iranian officials have told me. Leaders of the Islamic Republic do not have a reputation of forgetting quickly or forgiving genuinely.
It’s not just international politics that affect the Hamas-Iran relationship. The election of Hassan Rouhani last year and the success thus far of ongoing U.S.-Iran diplomacy have visibly tempered Tehran’s public posture on Israel. Iran has gone from questioning the Holocaust under the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to tweeting Rosh Hashana blessings under Rouhani.
The foreign policy team around Rouhani has long favored diplomacy with Washington, and fully understands that toning down Iran’s rhetoric against Israel is necessary to make progress with the United States. Beyond Iran’s changing posture since Rouhani took office a year ago — particularly since diplomacy began anew over its nuclear program — decade-old Iranian negotiation proposals demonstrate both their understanding of Israel’s importance to U.S. foreign policy-making, and their willingness to soften their stance.
For instance, in 2003, Tehran sent a proposal for improved relations with the United States to American officials via the Swiss ambassador to Iran. At the time, Rouhani was Iran’s national security adviser. His current foreign minister, Javad Zarif, was a co-author of the proposal. As part of a grand bargain with Washington, Tehran signaled its readiness to restrain Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. (The Bush administration never responded to the Iranian offer).
But perhaps most importantly, Tehran seems not to mind seeing yet another offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood take a beating. Some in Tehran thought that after the Arab uprisings of 2011, the U.S. had concluded that the Middle East’s future was in the hands of moderate Sunni Islamist national movements — Hamas’s intellectual brethren. For a moment, it seemed that Islamist parties were ready to sweep elections throughout the region. Washington wanted to be on the right side of history.
But to Iran, the United States was tilting towards the wrong Islamic movement. Once in power, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt showed stronger allegiance to its ideological partners in Syria — fighting Tehran’s ally Assad — and spent more time flirting with Saudi Arabia than with Iran. Moreover, Tehran’s suspicion of Washington’s favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood also fit with another idea it believes America has flirted with: that Turkey’s Islamist democracy, led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s political ally Recep Tayyip Erdogan, presents the best model for the region.
For some in Tehran, the current Gaza war –and Arab states’ reactions to it — show Washington was wrong to side with the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. These Sunni Islamist groups lack the popular support to win the political fight for the region’s future. And most importantly, Tehran believes that these Sunni movements cannot compete with Iran’s ability to stabilize and lead the region. Nor do they have the popular backing to balance Iran’s regional or ideological influence.
Whether Tehran’s perceptions of American calculations are correct or not is, for now, irrelevant. The Iranian government has once again demonstrated — this time through silence rather than venomous rhetoric — that to the Islamic Republic, the Palestinian cause is a means, not an end.
Today, diplomats from Iran and the P5+1 will meet to continue negotiations over Iran’s disputed nuclear programme. While most countries have welcomed this diplomacy, opposition to talks has primarily come from Israel and some GCC states. This opposition, however, is mistaken. In reality, the region will be a key beneficiary from a successful nuclear deal. Here’s why.
Contrary to the unfounded nightmare scenarios floating around, a deal would not leave Iran with an undetectable breakout capability. Through inspections and transparency measures, the international community would immediately be alerted if Iran’s nuclear activities were diverted towards military use, providing ample time to react and prevent it.
Eliminating the path to proliferation in Iran would also halt a nuclear arms race in the region. These are obvious benefits that should not be easily dismissed.
Equally important is that a deal also would prevent war with Iran. Short-sighted analyses claiming that “cutting the head of the snake” is a risk worth taking are sorely mistaken. In fact, the consequences of a US military confrontation with Iran, where Tehran would seek an edge by expanding the theatre to war to engulf the entire region, are particularly grave for the GCC states.
The open economies of the GCC states are particularly sensitive to regional instability. Moreover, if attacked, Iranian military commanders and politicians have hinted that Tehran might expand the war into the GCC states, just as Iraq expanded the war into Saudi Arabia in 1991. Even if such a strategy would not fully succeed, the instability could lead to a major exodus of the skilled foreign work force, without whom the GCC economies cannot function.
Some voices in the GCC have argued that military action against Iran is needed to restore the regional balance, which was thrown off by the US invasion of Iraq. Disregarding the advise from the GCC states, former president George W. Bush recklessly invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and unchained Iran from the two regimes that kept it in check, the argument goes. The ensuing rise in Iranian power ignited a regional power struggle with Saudi Arabia and other GCC states, which further destabilised the Middle East. The only solution, these voices maintain, is to undo the first mistake (the unleashing of Iran) by cutting the country down to size through military action.
But thinking that war would neatly resurrect the pre-2003 regional balance is as foolish as thinking that invading Iraq would bring democracy to the Middle East. One cannot mock the strategic ineptitude of the Bush administration’s Iraq war while urging the Obama administration to commit an even greater mistake by bombing Iran.
Similarly, the fear that a successful nuclear accord would lead to a US-Iran love fest is off the mark for two simple reasons. First, there is no desire for a Persian pivot in Washington as long as the Islamic Republic exists. Second, the Islamic Republic has no desire for such a relationship with the US as long as Washington seeks hegemony in the Middle East.
Tehran will not compete with Riyadh, Ankara and Tel Aviv to become Washington’s regional best friend. Rather, even after a nuclear accord, Tehran will continue to position itself as a challenger of the American order — even though its new rivalry with Washington will likely be friendlier and encompass both tactical and strategic cooperation.
Perhaps the most common fear in some quarters in the GCC is not that Iran and the US would become allies, but that the nuclear negotiations indicate that the US is withdrawing from the region and abandoning its objective to balance Iran. Consequently, the nuclear talks will further weaken US leadership in the region, followed by de facto acquiescence to Iran’s geopolitical advances. The “unleashing of Iran” will be accepted, endorsed and made permanent, it is feared.
But if the aim is to make US leadership sustainable, then a fundamental reality must be recognised: The less costly the American order is, the more durable it will be. Rest assure, the US public is strongly against engaging in more wars in the region and if US leadership means that America has to commit further blood and treasure for the Middle East, then an actual exit from the region will actually become more — not less — likely.
While the positives of a US-Iran war have been exaggerated at times, the positive regional impact of a nuclear accord has largely been neglected. Iran’s regional politics will not shift positively following a nuclear deal, it’s been assumed. Iran may become more aggressive following a thaw with the US, but it won’t become more cooperative and reconciliatory.
This skewed outlook neglects two critical factors. First, if the nuclear deal is followed by Iran’s political and economic rehabilitation in the region and globally, then the cost of Iran pursuing an adventurous and destabilising foreign policy will increase significantly. Compared to today, Iran will have something to lose in this scenario. This will likely temper Tehran’s appetite for regional conflicts.
Second, a nuclear deal will significantly enhance the influence of moderate elements in Iran’s political system. These moderate elements have long sought a more reconciliatory regional policy and did successfully take Iran in that direction under former president Mohammad Khatami. Many officials in the GCC told me during the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad era that they longed for the Iran that existed under Khatami. A nuclear deal can bring about exactly that.
Which brings us to the perhaps most important outcome of a nuclear deal: The opportunity to neutralise the primary driver behind the sectarian flames that are engulfing the region. While sectarianism may take on a life of its own, it is at its root more a symptom of a deep geopolitical conflict in the region than the cause of it. A critical step towards ending sectarian strife in the region is to resolve the geopolitical tensions underlying and fuelling it.
A nuclear deal that stops proliferation, evades war, reorients Iran in a more conciliatory direction, and increases interactions that make conflict more costly, can achieve just that.
This article originally appeared in Gulf News.
As President Barack Obama must have noticed during his visit, there is a panicky tone to almost everything the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does these days, whether it’s campaigning for two years to win a coveted seat on the UN Security Council only to give it up immediately after the vote, or its public pronouncements of going it alone in the chaos of Syria, or its break with its fellow Arab state Qatar, or the closing of the Al Jazeera office in Riyadh, or the banning of the books of renowned Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish. Or, of course, its opposition to diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program and the prospects of a US-Iranian thaw.
Riyadh’s opposition to the Iran nuclear talks has largely been understood in the context of the larger Saudi-Iranian and Sunni-Shia rivalry. Consequently, Saudi’s negative reaction was predictable, the argument goes. The Saudi royal house would undoubtedly not sit idly by as its regional rival negotiated its way out of harsh sanctions and into a potential US-Iranian rapprochement that could pave the way for an American tilt towards Tehran—all at the expense of Saudi interests.
But the intensity of Riyadh’s reaction cannot be explained solely through the kingdom’s displeasure at Tehran’s diplomatic advances. In fact, the unprecedented opening between the US and Iran is arguably only the tip of the iceberg of Saudi Arabia’s growing list of concerns. Numerous geopolitical trends in the last decade have evolved in opposition to Saudi interests. Much indicates that it is the combination of these factors, rather than just Saudi displeasure with US-Iranian diplomacy, that best explain the erratic behavior of the House of Saud.
Consider the following developments. First, the United States has significantly increased its own oil production and reduced its dependence on Saudi oil. Driven by a boom in shale oil production, America’s crude output has surged at record speeds in recent years. Last year, production rose a stunning 15 percent—the fastest absolute annual growth in any country in twenty years. According to the International Energy Agency, the United States will overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil producer as early as 2015.
The official Saudi line reads that OPEC had survived past increases in production from countries outside OPEC, and that Saudi does not worry about the America’s growing output. But some important voices in Saudi Arabia publicly disagree, charactering the US’s declining dependence on Saudi crude as “an inevitable threat.”
Indeed, being a dominant producer on the oil market has provided the kingdom with vital political influence. The US’s growing output is a direct strategic threat to that influence, according to some in Saudi.
Secondly, the Arab uprisings—and the Obama administration’s reaction to those—have further added distance between Riyadh and Washington. Saudi Arabia was vehemently against the anti-Mubarak rallies in Egypt and viewed Obama’s shift to the side of the Tahrir square protesters as a betrayal. For decades, an understanding reigned supreme between the United States and its regional Arab allies: The Arab autocracies would help ensure stability in the region and on the oil market, and in return the US would protect the states and as well as their regimes.
But since the Arab Spring, a common view in the Middle East—not just in Saudi—is that the US has betrayed this arrangement and abandoned its allies. From the US perspective, however, the Obama administration simply saw the writing on the wall: Most Arab autocracies were quickly reaching their expiration dates and the demands of the populations for greater governance, freedom and rights were both justified and unstoppable.
The new reality is that in spite of Riyadh’s massive arms purchase from the US, Washington will likely not come to its aid if the Arab spring reaches Saudi. This means that a critical avenue for Saudi Arabia to ensure regime survival is in jeopardy—at best—or, at worst, lost.
Thirdly, to make matters worse, a succession crisis looms in the Kingdom. A successor and a third in line for the throne have been appointed, but their reigns are not likely to be long due to their old age. In the next few years, the throne is likely to pass to the third generation of descendants of the kingdom’s founder Abdulaziz ibn Saud. Even under the best circumstances, such a generational shift can carry complications. In these sensitive geopolitical times, the House of Saud cannot afford a protracted succession crisis while also facing the pressure of the Arab spring, Sunni-Shia tensions in its Eastern province—and the uncertainty of American protection.
Which brings us to the fourth factor: America’s pivot to the east. Whether it is progressing at the pace originally intended or not, the reality is that the Obama administration has decided to reduce America’s military footprint in the Middle East and avoid getting dragged into any additional ground wars there. In the eyes of some in Riyadh (and Tel Aviv), the Obama administration has relinquished its responsibility to uphold order in the region and abandoned its allies to meet their fates alone.
From Washington’s perspective, the real strategic challenge to the US will come in Asia, not the Middle East. Further military entanglement in the Arab world will only undermine the US’s ability to handle future crises in East Asia.
In practical terms, this means that the United States likely will not intervene in Syria militarily—much to Riyadh’s chagrin—or put military assets at the disposal of its allies to fight their own regional rivals. The Obama administration is not going to permit its allies to use the United States as a proxy.
On top of all of this, US-Iranian diplomacy may lead to the unchaining of Iran. Tehran might break out of its isolation, be rehabilitated into the region’s political and economic structures, which in turn can enable it to legitimize its geopolitical gains in the region. A new regional order may emerge, one in which Washington will quietly accept Iran’s advances.
Had US-Iranian diplomacy made headway under former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami—at a time when Saudi-Iranian relations were warming—Riyadh would likely still have been hesitant and anxious. It would have cautiously welcomed the thaw, while remaining concerned about how US-Iranian rapprochement would affect its interest. But there would not have been any of the current overreactions. The Saudi panic is more likely rooted in its fears about the broader geopolitical trends in the region, of which US-Iranian rapprochement is one of many concerning trends to Riyadh.
Ultimately, finding a new regional equilibrium that enjoys Saudi buy-in is critical. Saudi Arabia is an important state in the region for both economic and religious reasons. Just as the containment of Iran has become a source of instability in the region, any move that would push Saudi towards greater extremism would ill serve the region. Just like Iran, Saudi Arabia must be part of the solution. In particular, Riyadh has the ability and the responsibility to defuse sectarian strife.
Panic, however, will bring Saudi Arabia no closer to such objectives.
This article originally appeared in The National Interest.
If President Barack Obama’s administration sought to prove that successful nuclear diplomacy with Tehran would not improve U.S.-Iranian relations in other areas, the recent diplomatic fiasco over Syria marks a job well done. On the very same day that the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Tehran was implementing the nuclear interim agreement, Washington successfully pressured the United Nations to rescind its invitation for Tehran to attend the peace talks on Syria based in Montreux, Switzerland.
The peace talks on Wednesday, Jan. 22, with both sides exchanging bitter recriminations, and accusing the other of responsibility for the deaths of more than 100,000 Syrians in this conflict. But the diplomatic process stumbled even before the talks began, as what first appeared to be a diplomatic coup for the United Nations ended up an embarrassing farce.
It all began on Jan. 19, when U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moonannounced that he had invited Iran to the Geneva talks after officials in Tehran had pledged to play “a positive and constructive role.” The secretary-general does not generally take bold steps without Washington’s consent, so his announcement implied that the United States had dropped its opposition to Iran’s participation and that Tehran had agreed to the communiqué of the first Geneva conference — declaring that the goal of the conference is the creation of a transitional government in Syria.
But instead of a breakthrough, Ban’s outreach almost brought about the collapse of the entire diplomatic dance around Syria. It turned out there was not enough coordination with either Washington or Tehran: The Syrian opposition, backed by Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, quickly responded to the invitation by threatening to boycott the conference. Secretary of State John Kerry urged the invitation to be rescinded, while a U.S. official told the media that Kerry was “furious” with Ban for the surprise invitation.
On top of that, Tehran declared that it had actually never accepted the first Geneva communiqué, which was the American precondition for partaking in the conference in the first place. The farce climaxed a few hours later, when Ban caved and rescinded Iran’s invitation — even though Tehran had already announced that it was declining to attend.
To hear Iranian officials tell it, they never implied that they were willing to change their stance on Syria. A high-level Iranian source told me that Tehran had repeatedly made it clear in conversations with Ban, starting on Jan. 17, that it would not accept any preconditions for attending Geneva II. Tehran, the official wrote in an email, was particularly mindful of the fact that the United Nations had “invited those who support terrorist organizations on UN list and US [terror] list [sic] without precondition.”
U.N. officials, however, see it differently. A senior U.N. diplomat told me that Iran had not been clear about the Geneva I communiqué, which had led to the misunderstanding regarding Iran’s position on the Geneva principles. Nevertheless, U.N. officials still maintain that Iran, President Bashar al-Assad’s primary ally, is needed at Geneva for the peace talks to succeed.
But rescinding an invitation is not an act befitting a U.N. secretary-general. Former E.U. High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana did not mince words about the debacle, taking to Twitter to accuse the United Nations of showing “a lack of professionalism” for having unnecessarily withdrawn Iran’s invitation.
But the rescinding of Iran’s invitation sent a strong signal. Any notion — in Washington, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, or Tehran — that the United States is shifting its alliances in the Middle East has quickly been dispelled. There is no Tehran tilt — at least not now.
Perhaps this was the reason for Washington’s insistence on Iran’s invitation being rescinded: The United States wanted to dispel any suspicion that its nuclear diplomacy with Iran has caused it to lean toward Tehran’s position on regional matters. Such a belief, after all, could generate even more ferocious Arab opposition to the already-fragile nuclear talks.
This issue goes to the core of the dilemma behind the United States’ and Iran’s diplomatic dance. While both countries share numerous common interests, they differ on the speed and public visibility of this thaw.
U.S.-Iranian cooperation could reap many benefits for both parties — including on Syria. U.S. officials privately say that Washington’s focus has shifted from seeking Assad’s ouster to the more limited initial goal of ending the violence, which means Tehran’s collaboration is needed more than ever before. Both Washington and Tehran wish to avoid a complete collapse of the Syrian state, as they fear that such a scenario would strengthen al Qaeda — perhaps even leading to the jihadist groups seizing control of some of Assad’s chemical weapons.
But Washington wants to proceed slowly. U.S. officials in the executive branch want deliberations to take place behind the scenes, far away from the eyes of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and opponents on Capitol Hill, who all are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of ending the 34-year-old U.S.-Iranian enmity.
Progress, these U.S. officials hope, will be achieved with little fanfare. In fact, occasional public humiliation of Iran can come in handy to calm those panicking about a world where the United States and Iran are no longer at each other’s throats.Why
Tehran, in turn, wants a lesser thaw in relations — but it wants it faster. Iranian officials are not looking for a partnership with the United States, and they are certainly not looking to compete with Israel, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey for the position of America’s most valuable regional ally. At best, a senior Iranian official told me, U.S.-Iranian relations will resemble U.S.-Russian ties: A rivalry, but one that nevertheless includes — or perhaps tolerates — both tactical and strategic cooperation in numerous areas.
But within that rivalry, Tehran needs Washington. It cannot completely break out of its isolation without Washington’s compliance. It needs U.S. assistance to reverse the onslaught of sectarianism throughout the region, and to contain the threat from al Qaeda.
But Iran wants the spillover effects of the progress on the nuclear issue to come faster, and wants Washington to provide it with public recognition of its seat at the regional decision-making table. In short, it wants fanfare: For Tehran, being seen as part of the solution is a big part of the solution to the region’s woes.
This is precisely why Monday’s diplomatic circus is so problematic for Tehran. The instantaneous outrage at Iran’s invitation brought to the fore the remarkable decline of Tehran’s standing in some quarters of the Arab world. It remains to be seen if it will also impact President Hassan Rouhani’s standing domestically. It is an undeniable blow to his efforts to improve relations with key Arab neighbors if Syrian opposition groups threaten to abandon their seat at the peace talks if Iran has one.
Iran could, of course, shrug off this setback. It could retreat to its narrative of resistance, and celebrate how it stood its ground and refused to succumb to any preconditions. But for Iranian-Arab relations to deteriorate at a time when U.S.-Iranian relations are improving highlights the depth of Tehran’s regional discord. And it contradicts Iran’s own discourse, which fingers American meddling as the cause of Iran’s tensions with its Arab neighbors.
But this is not just a setback for Tehran. Whatever details of the story prove true, the reality is that this diplomatic fiasco has been a confidence-eroding exercise for all parties involved. The Geneva conference may have been salvaged by ensuring the participation of the Syrian opposition, but there is now less confidence that it can amount to anything. Washington may have patched up relations with the Syrian opposition — but with positive results in Syria less likely, support for U.S. regional leadership will further weaken.
And most importantly, for the Syrian people, an end to the gruesome fighting appears ever more distant. Neither the opposition nor Assad’s forces have the strength to defeat the other. Yet the fighting continues, leaving thousands more dead solely to uphold an unsatisfactory stalemate. However, absent external support to the fighting parties — primarily from Saudi Arabia and Iran — the resources for war would quickly dry up. That’s precisely why a peace conference without both foreign powers behind this uprising-turned-proxy war is likely to go nowhere.
(This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy)
Going to Tehran; New dynamics both in the Middle East and the US made the Iran nuclear accord possible
Only six months ago, a deal on Iran’s nuclear program appeared impossible. But after the Iranian people elected the pragmatic Hassan Rouhani as president, a 17-minute phone conversation between him and President Barack Obama, and several weeks of secret talks, the deal is now a reality.
How did this stunning change of events come about? In my book A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran, I point out that both sides have lacked the political will to break the institutionalized enmity between them. I listed three factors on the US side that, alone or in combination with each other, needed to change before a full-scale investment in diplomacy could be made.
First, there had to be a significant geopolitical shift in the region that simply rendered the continuation of the US-Iran enmity too costly. Second, the domestic political landscape in Washington had to change so that the key vested interests opposing a US-Iran deal would no longer be decisive. Or third, the president had to muster enough political strength and will to decide to do the right thing for the US national interest, regardless of the domestic political price that would be inflicted on him.
To varying degrees, all three factors have changed in the past six months.
Regionally, the strategic interest of the US and two of its key allies in the region – Israel and Saudi Arabia – have been diverging on several important fronts: on Iran, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and on the Arab uprisings. Washington seeks a nuclear accord with Tehran to avoid both a nuclear Iran and war with Iran. The Saudis and Israelis, on the other hand, fear that any improvement of relations between Tehran and Washington will legitimize Iran’s role in the region and increase its influence at their expense.
On the regional balance of power, Martin Kramer, a fellow at the conservative Israeli Shalem Center points out the main issue of contention: The American belief that the regional status quo is unsustainable – the Arab populations are rising and America’s Middle East strategy has to adjust to this reality instead of continuing to back pliant Arab dictators. Kramer disagreed: “In Israel, we are for the status quo. Not only do we believe the status quo is sustainable, we think it’s the job of the US to sustain it.” On this issue, the Saudis and Israelis tend to agree. An Arab official who was briefed on talks between President Obama and King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud told the New York Timesthe Saudi monarch was unwavering in his opposition to the largely Shia pro-democracy protests in Bahrain. “King Abdullah has been clear that Saudi Arabia will never allow Shia rule in Bahrain – never.”
Secondly, the debacle over Syria made it clear that the domestic political landscape in the US has changed dramatically. As Obama sought support from Congress for an attack on Syria, the US population ferociously resisted, flooding Congress with phone calls. The most credible threat that was issued throughout this episode was not Obama’s threat to bomb Syria, but the American people’s threat to unelect members of Congress if they supported the war. In spite of support for the war from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a lobby often viewed as invincible, which is also in favour of confrontation with Syria’s ally Iran, the American people prevailed. Obama could not get support from Congress. AIPAC was defeated.
This dramatically changed the landscape because it showed that the politically safe position was not to be hawkish and pro-war, but to be sceptical of military action and favourable towards diplomacy. While this has not fully spilled over into the Iran debate, it is difficult to imagine that the American public would be so ferociously opposed to a relatively minor military engagement in Syria but favour a potentially unending war and invasion of Iran.
Thirdly, the commitment of the President to diplomacy – in spite of its potential political fallout – could not be any stronger right now. “Tough talk and bluster may be the easy thing to do politically, but it’s not the right thing for our security,” he said a day after the deal had been struck. Once Rouhani was elected and the White House concluded that he was serious and committed to diplomacy, the US president mustered the same dedication, regardless of the domestic political price. He did so partly because it was the right thing to do for US national security, but also because Iran is now – paradoxically – the lowest hanging fruit in the Middle East. There is no other issue in the Middle East that has as high of a likelihood of being solved. Here, unlike Syria, Egypt and elsewhere in the region, the US president had a good chance of making a difference.
If the parties reach a final, comprehensive deal, this will undoubtedly be a game-changer in the region. But it will also come about to some extent because both the region and the political dynamics in Washington have already changed.
(This article originally appeared in Al Jazeera)