The November 24 deal reached in Geneva by Iran and what has come to be called the P5+1 group of nations - the U.S., the U.K., Russia, China, France and Germany plus Iran, may have settled one question over Iran’s temporary curb on part of its nuclear programme in return for a partial removal of Western sanctions, but it has opened up several issues of the greatest significance to West Asia. For example, Iran is now a potentially valuable partner for the United States as Washington prepares to withdraw most of its troops from Afghanistan in 2014. Tehran can help stabilise the country and deter the Taliban; in fact, Iranian troops briefly assisted the U.S. there in 2001. Secondly, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani could help effect a settlement in Syria, where the Shia President, Bashar al Assad’s bitter obduracy has prevented a settlement and caused over 100,000 deaths in a terrible civil war, over which Western public opinion is strongly opposed to military intervention. Thirdly, Tehran already has considerable influence over Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in Iraq, where the illegal 2003 U.S-led invasion provided space for revived Sunni-Shia tensions which still cause thousands of deaths every year. Furthermore, Kurdish and even Sunni political groups have for some time now drawn on Iranian advice in forming Iraqi provincial coalition governments and resolving disputes.

Needless to say, the Geneva deal has shocked most West Asian leaders. Saudi Arabia, which sees Iran as its greatest theological rival, has openly expressed its disquiet, but West Asian Arab countries made no attempt to participate at Geneva; indeed since 2008, proposals by Bahrain, by Iran itself, and by the former Arab League head Amr Moussa for regional security talks have come to nothing. In addition, Riyadh’s attempts to undermine Mr. Assad in Damascus and Mr. al Maliki in Baghdad have both failed. The standard responses to perceived security threats, such as using oil wealth to buy more weapons, even possibly including a nuclear umbrella, will not help the Arab leaders, because Iran is already cooperating with the G6, and increased weapons purchases would worsen a destabilising arms race. As for Israel, which shares many of the Arab countries’ interests, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he is prepared to do ‘anything necessary’ to defend his country, and continues to approve settlements in the occupied territories. But the Arab leaders and Israel now face a radically altered political grammar, which they are struggling to understand. Above all, Mr. Rouhani has unquestionable democratic legitimacy, and even if justice for the Palestinians and democratic reforms in West Asia seem remote at present, it may not be long before those two issues are rightly at the top of the agenda again.

This article has been corrected for a factual error.

>>The opening sentence read: “The November 24 deal reached in Geneva by Iran and what has come to be called the G6 may have settled one question …” It should have been P5+1 group of nations - the U.S., the U.K., Russia, China, France and Germany plus Iran. G6 was an unofficial forum which brought together the heads of the richest industrialised countries: France, West Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.

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