A thaw in Iran-U.S. relations has the potential to reorient West Asia’s geopolitics for the better

This has been an extraordinary week for United States-Iran relations, dramatically overturning the regional scenario and holding out prospects not dreamt of over the last 35 years.

Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani spoke at the United Nations General Assembly on the same day — Tuesday, September 24. Mr. Obama assured Iran that his country was not seeking regime change in the Islamic Republic, an issue of considerable concern to successive Iranian governments. Mr. Rouhani in his remarks was conciliatory on the nuclear issue and called on the United Nations to support a new project, the World Against Violence and Extremism — WAVE.

Historic conversation

Separately, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif met Secretary of State John Kerry and the other Ministers of the P5+1 group on the modalities to pursue their nuclear dialogue on “fast track” basis. This was followed by a historic 15-minute telephonic conversation between Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani. Mr. Obama said he had conveyed his “deep respect for the Iranian people” and believed there was now “a new opportunity to make progress in Tehran.” Mr. Rouhani said there had been “a great deal of progress” in “reconstructing” Iran’s global position. Reporting on his dialogue with Mr. Zarif, Mr. Kerry said he had found the Iranian presentation “very different in tone and very different in the vision […] with respect to possibilities of the future.”

While the events in New York last week were dramatic, the ground had been prepared much earlier. The crippling economic sanctions, in terms of which there had been a significant fall in Iranian oil exports and other serious economic constraints, had certainly harmed Iran’s energy and economic interests and aggravated the sufferings of its people. But, on the Iranian side, there were deeper concerns emerging from the country’s longstanding near-isolated status, which excluded it from playing a meaningful role in the regional geopolitical scenario, in spite of the country’s geographical space across the Gulf and Central Asia, its energy and economic significance and, above all, its sense of its own historic importance in the march of human civilisation. During the Ahmadinejad presidency, Iran’s interests had been further hit, particularly in energy terms and in terms of the political scenario that was witnessing a strong and even aggressive assertion of Gulf Cooperation Council-led Sunni competition across West Asia.

Over the last 10 years or so, there has been an active domestic debate in Iran, with one group suggesting that the Iranian revolution was now firmly established in the Republic, and the country could pursue more accommodative policies with confidence to achieve the role warranted by its history, geography and resources. This view was best represented by the Moussavi presidential campaign in 2009. It was challenged by the other group which believed that the Islamic revolution was still under siege, and any hint of moderation would provide an opportunity to its enemies led by the “Great Satan,” the United States, to effect regime change and overturn the revolution.

As events unfolded in Iran, what could not be achieved in 2009, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected in dubious circumstances, would be realised in 2013. Mr. Rouhani’s victory enabled him to repeatedly assert in New York that he had the mandate to pursue moderate policies because he had the “full backing of all three centres of Iran.”

From the U.S. point of view, too, several factors encouraged grasping the Iranian olive branch. Chief among them was the pervasive war-weariness and the sense that military solutions to complex problems, attempted in Afghanistan and Iraq, had only left a legacy of bitterness and national breakdown, as also significant losses to the U.S. treasury. In spite of pressures from Israel and more recently from the GCC, the U.S. President believed that an assault upon Iran would hardly curb its nuclear ambitions, while there could be a wave of war and destruction across the Gulf and West Asia. More recently, the U.S. President had to cope with pressure to assault Syria. He concluded that this could open one more theatre of conflict for the U.S., with no promise of a positive outcome. The U.S. decided that diplomatic intervention and dialogue in a multilateral framework would be more effective to address the Syrian imbroglio, an approach that would be greatly facilitated by an opening to an apparently moderate and constructive Iran. Above all, the U.S. could not ignore the fact that a more stable West Asia would facilitate the shift of its strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific, particularly Northeast Asia.

The thaw in U.S.-Iran relations has not met with universal applause. Predictably, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has referred to Mr. Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and has warned the international community to be wary of the Iranian “charm offensive.” The GCC is also alarmed at this rapprochement: since the commencement of the Arab Spring, GCC leaders have condemned Iran for its “interference” in their domestic politics and its imperialist and sectarian designs in the region. They are robustly backing the opposition in Syria to effect regime change there and end Iran’s strategic outreach in West Asia and the Mediterranean. They now feel betrayed by the U.S.: Saudi commentator Abdul Rehman Al-Rashed believes this initiative will encourage the GCC countries to embrace new defensive policies to protect themselves. Another commentator, Mustafa Al-Ani, has said that the Kingdom will now pursue its interests in Syria by “ignoring U.S. interests, U.S. wishes and U.S. issues”; he ominously concludes: “We are learning from our enemies now how to treat the United States.”

Israeli opposition to the overture to Iran could place serious obstacles in the path of U.S.-Iran ties. As it is, the U.S. political establishment is deeply polarised; in fact, many of President Obama’s enemies on the Republican right are also close friends of Israel and readily influenced by its lobby in Washington. Republican Representative Eric Cantor describes Iran as “a brutal, repressive theocracy,” while Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtima calls it a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

Progress in Saudi-Iran ties

The Saudi position, on the other hand, could evolve pragmatically in the face of the new realities, since it would not wish to be isolated when the U.S. and Iran have better relations. For instance, the distinguished Saudi commentator, Jamal Khashoggi, points out that “reconciliation with Iran is in the interest of everyone … we have to look forward to it more than the Americans.” In his view, the Saudi-Iranian conflict is not inevitable: the rise of Shia fundamentalism is taking place in tandem with that of Salafist fundamentalism; these sectarian divisions should be reconciled, as had been done earlier between King Abdullah and President Rafsanjani. Progress in Saudi-Iran relations would certainly serve to stabilise the fraught situation in the Gulf where sectarian differences have acquired a new sharpness, a venom that could easily outlast the ongoing strategic competitions between the principal regional players.

U.S.-Iran rapprochement could in time prepare the ground for an unprecedented diplomatic initiative led by the principal Asian countries — China, Japan, Korea and India — all of which have a substantial and abiding interest in Gulf security, but whose interests till now have been nudged aside by the aggressive American hegemonic approach. This, with Asian propulsion, could be replaced by a new cooperative security structure that would bring together on the same platform all the principal regional and extra-regional players committed to the pursuit of moderate and accommodative approaches on the basis of consensually accepted norms and principles.

As of now, both Presidents, Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani, can be expected to invest a lot of their time, thinking and prestige in taking their ties forward, for success would mean a place in history for one and a place in the sun for the other.

(The author is a former diplomat. His new book, The Islamist Challenge in West Asia, was published last month)

This article has been corrected for a factual error.

A sentence in the second paragraph of read: "Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani spoke at the United Nations General Assembly on the same day — Thursday, October 24." It should have been Tuesday, September 24.

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