Talk of the “Grand Bargain” is once again finding its way to theories on the relationship between the United States and Iran, in light of their mutual desire to build bridges of trust on the nuclear issue, and of the repercussions of their understanding over regional issues, from Iraq to Syria. Iran’s leadership knows exactly what its priorities are now, starting from a strategic bilateral relationship with the United States on the basis of pledges not to change the regime in Tehran. At the regional level, the Iranians speak at times the language of a regional apparatus or system for cooperation that would include Iran, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and at other times the language of superiority and of dictates, due precisely to the possession of nuclear capabilities, as well as that of forcing the major powers to take the demands of the Islamic Republic of Iran into account.
The factors that have led Tehran to hint to its willingness to give and take on the nuclear issue are linked to the impact of sanctions, which represent the backbone of President Barack Obama’s policy towards Iran. Yet what hastened the Iranian decision to show some flexibility was the success of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at toppling the policy of “containment,” which Obama had adopted, driving the United States to settle the issue militarily if the option of convincing through negotiations were to fail. This is on the one hand. On the other, Iran’s leadership has found itself in tremendous international isolation, and has found in talk of the “Grand Bargain” an opportunity to break not only its own isolation, but also that of its Syrian ally, which for it represents a foothold for regional hegemony and the dismantlement of pan-Arabism. This also suits Israel and Turkey to a certain extent, bearing in mind that they both share with Iran the desire to take control of the balance of power in the region and exclude Arab players from it.
While Egypt currently stands outside of the balance of power, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is prominent in this context, as the only Arab country currently qualified to enter the struggle of the power balance, especially with the partnership of the remaining member-states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). However, opposite the Iranian strategy based on reshuffling the cards of the regional order currently taking shape, there does not seem to be a comprehensive GCC pre-emptive strategy with regional and international dimensions. There might be understandings being reached behind the scenes, but this is not sufficient, especially in light of the enthusiasm that distinguishes Iran’s preemptive strategy, in which presidential candidate Barack Obama finds something to please him -- at least during this transitional period. And because the issue involves several stages, it would be wise to closely examine what the elements of the “Grand Bargain” could be, and what the factors are that have led to reviving negotiations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council -- the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France, in addition to Germany -- talks that have been hosted by Baghdad in their third round, following a first round in Istanbul.
Iran’s leadership is well aware of the repercussions of the drop in oil and gas prices on its influence, domestically and regionally, especially if it remains subjected to the sanctions imposed on it -- as these sanctions have had a tremendous impact so far. Furthermore, the drop in natural gas prices has coincided with Syria’s need for financial assistance from Iran becoming ever more urgent, as a result of Damascus spending billions every month in order to combat the Syrian opposition and repress the popular uprising. Iran’s leadership has realized that sanctions against its oil exports and central bank come at a high cost at the domestic level, especially due to the declining value of Iran’s currency. It was thus imperative to find a way to reduce those sanctions, at least temporarily in order to buy time.
Natural gas prices have dropped in a manner that is harmful to major gas-exporting countries, most prominently Russia, Iran and Qatar. Russia is a wealthy country which has other resources that spare it the need to primarily rely on natural gas -- despite its importance. It is therefore temporarily in the process of adapting, but the state of natural gas prices will sooner or later have an impact on Russia’s influence, which requires a great deal of spending. Qatar will not suffer directly, but is taking stock of the perspectives and repercussions of the drop in gas prices on its economy and influence. Indeed, it also realizes that what is coming is a drop in oil prices, in view of the discovery of massive quantities of it in the United States, and in view of new technologies.
All of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council will suffer and will have to adapt to the expected drop in oil prices, in terms of their budgets and their economies, as well as in terms of spending for influence abroad. These countries have some time, compared to the Islamic Republic of Iran, which must meet the needs of a population of 60 million. Indeed, if one were to add the drop in oil and gas prices to maintained sanctions, Iran’s leadership would find itself in a predicament, as it “does not have the option of borrowing money nor of continuing to devalue its currency,” according to a seasoned expert who considers Iran’s influence to be declining due to the issue of prices. Iran’s leadership took such considerations into account when it decided to at least appear flexible.
This is in terms of the economic aspect, which is important as one of the instruments of foreign influence and very important at the domestic level, especially as the Iranian opposition is keeping a close watch on what will happen in Syria in order to restore some of the momentum it had before it was suppressed at the hands of the regime in Tehran. Syria is important for the Iranian leadership for several reasons -- whether they are local, regional or international. And with Tehran feeling that Damascus might lose the battle morally and internationally, the Iranian leadership took the Syrian issue into consideration when it decided to play the card of relative flexibility. Thus, Tehran has concluded that the strengthened siege and isolation of Syria would increase its own isolation and weaken Iran’s leadership, and has therefore taken the decision to preempt this through the nuclear issue, as enticing this is for the European Union as it is for the United States of America.
Tehran has also decided to take advantage of the Russian card, of the utmost importance in the Syrian-Iranian equation in confronting the countries of the GCC led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Vladimir Putin, president of Russia once again, is a partner of the greatest benefit for the Iranian leadership. So far, he has decided to confront the six countries of the GCC -- the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain -- for several reasons, among them what Russia has in common with the Islamic Republic of Iran in terms of their relationship with the West, and in particular with the United States, based on using “the stick and the carrot” to confront “the carrot and the stick.”
Tehran is wagering on Moscow, and Moscow is wagering on Tehran, and they have both taken Damascus as an arena to flex their muscles in preparation for trade-offs. They both want to position themselves in such a way as to reap the biggest gain from the “Grand Bargain.” It is the game of shaping the new regional order, as well as the new world order. And in this game, the leaders of the Kremlin and Iran’s mullahs believe that the opportunity is available to them with Barack Obama and with the American electoral race. They also believe Europe’s financial crisis has brought them an unexpected opportunity. The way in which the NATO and G8 summits have dealt with -- or rather avoided -- the developments in Syria has increased the conviction of Moscow, Tehran and Damascus that the scales are tipped in their favor. Then came the element of bloodthirsty extremism which has stormed the arena of the Syrian opposition, either in the guise of al-Qaeda, or in that of the Salafists or others, to lift pressures off of the Syrian-Iranian-Russian trio and give it the space to catch its breath and wage a preventive and preemptive attack.
One year ago, the GCC was in a position of leadership in keeping up with the developments on the Arab scene, and in a position of partnership with the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO). Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran seems to be the one leading in gaining favor with the permanent members of the Security Council and with European countries, by enticing them with promises of cooperation in the nuclear issue, while its focus is directed towards its regional role and the future of its bilateral relations with the United States.
The climate today is one of turning against the drums of war that Benjamin Netanyahu had previously sounded, before he got what he wanted from Barack Obama. And what he got was that he placed the ball in the American court, after obtaining a pledge from Obama that he would abandon the policy of “containment” as a basis for the relationship between the United States and Iran. Netanyahu gave Obama the time needed by the U.S. president as a candidate for a second term in office. The message reached Tehran that the timeframe had become limited, and that the United States was now committed to the military option and forced to resort to it. Tehran therefore decided to change its approach after Netanyahu’s success, and to use the timeframe to its advantage.
What are Tehran’s priorities in the time of understandings, which seem to be approaching “step by step,” in a manner similar to that of gradual “confidence-building,” and to represent a process that will take time? First, the leadership in Tehran has made it clear that its priority was to obtain a pledge from the West not to help the opposition and to cease any attempt to topple the regime. Second, Tehran insists on its right to enrich uranium and reiterates that it is for peaceful purposes. What it is willing to do is prove its good intentions in terms of not currently taking steps to manufacture nuclear weapons. Indeed, Iran’s leadership prefers not to manufacture and acquire nuclear bombs at the moment, even if it is able to do so, as it would prefer to acquire all nuclear capabilities by “pushing a button” when it decides on its own that it is ready. Equally important -- and not having occurred to the Obama administration -- is the fact that Iran’s leadership is extremely concerned with its regional role and with the United States acknowledging the centrality of the role played by the Islamic Republic of Iran and its continued presence and influence in the region, specifically in Iraq and in Syria, in Lebanon through Hezbollah, and in Bahrain as a gateway to the GCC countries. This is why Iran is seeking a “Grand Bargain.”
At this highly sensitive stage in the Arab region and in the Middle East, there is great concern about Western countries, and in particular the United States, falling in love with the promise coming from Iran’s mullahs, as they seemed to fall in love a few months ago with the promise coming from the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, as they were willing to enter into some kind of partnership with them. But beware of the promises of transitional and electoral periods, as they may well turn against those who make them, in the form of unwelcome surprises.
The writer is a prominent columnist for Dar al-Hayat, where this article was published inon May 25, 2012