US-Iran rapprochement could lead to fundamental Middle East shift

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The recent rapprochement between Washington and Tehran could lead to fundamental shifts regarding other pressing issues in the Middle East.

Referring to the relations between Tehran and Washington, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once said, “The US has no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.” While this expression may be essential and of special significance in this context, it is nothing new in contemporary international relations. We have always known that the language of interests prevails in the international community.

The recent breakthrough in US-Iranian relations came as no surprise to any close follower of international affairs. The resumption of diplomatic relations between Tehran and London without prior introductions was also not surprising. I have personally said on different political occasions that relations between Washington and Tehran were likely to move forward and show continuous improvement, but everyone disagreed with me. I still remember when the political adviser to the US Embassy in Cairo was attending one of my public lectures and he totally ruled out this vision, considering my hypothesis to be merely an unfounded premonition. However, over the years, I kept warning about the risk of resigning oneself to the apparent hostile and tense relations between the US and the Islamic Republic of Iran. I was confident that there was something behind the scenes that indicated otherwise. Observers might recall former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s historic visit to Iraq a few years ago. US forces actually sponsored it and even provided security. Here I will put forward a number of ideas concerning the recent developments in the Middle East, most prominent of which is the breakthrough in the relations between Tehran and Washington and the West in general. The following is a quick review of the main ideas:

First: Iran was the policeman of the Gulf during the Shah era before the Islamic Revolution in Feb. 1979. The fall of the Shah was a resounding event and caused a great loss to US diplomacy, which did not expect this to happen so fast. The waning relations between the two countries quickly deteriorated with the detention of US hostages in Tehran for more than 444 days. The US attempt to release the hostages was a failed venture by President Jimmy Carter and was the straw that broke the camel's back in the following elections. Tensions started to take various forms in these relations, perhaps the most important of which was the hostile language adopted by Tehran toward the US and Israel. Hostility escalated to the extent that Iranian media and diplomatic corps described the US as the “Great Satan.” The situation peaked during Ahmadinejad’s era, when he even denied the Holocaust. This provoked Jews and the Jewish State and had negative repercussions on the West’s attitude in general, and the attitudes of the US and Israel in particular.

Second: The Iranian nuclear file had an influential role in shaping the foreign view of Iran and in determining its international and regional policies. The US, and the West in general, kept a watchful eye on this nuclear program, as they recognize that talking about a peaceful nuclear program involves the possibility of production of nuclear weapons, which is considered a serious threat to Israel and its allies in the hands of the Islamic revolution in Iran. Given that ensuring the security of Israel is one of the most important determinants of US policy in the Middle East, it was only natural for the Iranian nuclear file to grab the lion’s share of attention from the West over the past few years. It is probably worth mentioning that the solution to the Syrian crisis — according to the West and Israel — resided in the mere acceptance by Damascus to uncover its chemical arsenal and express willingness to get rid of it. Overnight, the Russians accepted and the Americans showed enthusiasm as the picture completely changed when Israel's security was taken into account and its interests were protected. Therefore, a significant part of the parameters of US policy toward Iran is determined and governed by Israel.

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Third: The Arab Spring and the growing tide of Islam in the region pushed Washington to adopt a new policy toward Tehran, based on the logic of betting on Islam — both Sunni and Shiite. It is no secret that the US is seeking to implement a comprehensive project placing the Arab and Islamic worlds under one umbrella while maintaining a safe distance from both of these worlds in order to preserve its security, ensure its interests and ward off the possibility of getting involved in problems of religious extremism in West Asia and North Africa. Perhaps the setback witnessed by most Arab Spring uprisings represented a new interpretation of the US attempt to build a “Sunni wall” against the “Shiite crescent.” This probably explains the position of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which first expressed enthusiasm toward Arab Spring revolutions only to have its reservations about them later on.

Fourth: The US cards held by Washington and flashed in the face of Tehran are known to almost all. They include first the possibility of releasing the Shah’s frozen assets. Decades after the fall of the imperial regime in Tehran, these sums might be significant. The US also has the potential to pave the way for Tehran to become a World Trade Organization (WTO) member. This would provide prospects for the Iranian economy and promote Tehran’s international role in general. Moreover, it falls on Washington to decide to lift the embargo on Iran, allowing Tehran to achieve international and regional gains and to move comfortably in the Gulf region and beyond. These cards in the hands of the US represent a strong temptation to Iran, especially at this stage.

Fifth: The Iranian cards, held by Tehran and sought after by Washington, also include a number of US demands. First among these is to clearly concede to putting Iran’s nuclear program under international supervision. Also, the US would like Iran to ease its hostility toward Israel, especially under President Hassan Rouhani’s rule, which removed anti-US slogans that have been a constant sight in the streets of Tehran over the past 30 years. Add to this the US and the West’s demand that Iran reduce its support to Hezbollah, so that [Hezbollah] might change its ideas and go from being an armed militia to a political party coexisting with others. Moreover, the US is counting on a truce in Iraq and Afghanistan, and believes that Iran has a role in achieving the required flexibility, especially with the growing Shiite influence in Iraq that gives Iran a kind of freedom of movement in the Gulf and surrounding areas.

Sixth: Iran is affected by the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US, which was implicated in these two countries neighboring Iran, knows very well that Tehran holds the keys to stability in Western Asia. We probably remember how sensitive the ties between Shiite Iran and the Sunni Taliban movement are, and how, at a certain moment, Iran allowed the US Air Force to use its airspace to hit Taliban strongholds after Sept. 11, 2011.

Seventh: The predominance of the Shiite presence in Iraq has begun to be reflected in a growing Iranian influence [in Iraq]. This was clearly observed in the stance on the Syrian crisis. The role and impact of Iran’s oil on the ties with Washington are also not to be neglected. US-Iranian ties have entered a period of latent political courting. It is sufficient to remember the end of the phone call between Rouhani and Obama, when they said goodbye in each other’s language as a form of courtesy and an indication of the new spirit in relations between the two countries.

Through these seven notes, I wanted to say that US-Iranian ties might change the political map in the Middle East as a whole. If we take into account the impact of the Arab Spring uprisings, we would be facing new circumstances requiring us to realize that the US is a pragmatic country that changes its policies not only according to its own interests, but also according to those of its allies. We also have to realize that in the Arab world, new alliances may begin from the qualitative shift in ties between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the US. We must build our convictions accordingly, and know that international shifts and regional transformations may go past us sometimes.

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Found in: us-middle east policy, us-iranian relations, us-iranian rapprochement, tehran, iran, hassan rouhani, barack obama
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