Predicting Iran’s future role in the Middle East

The picture taken a couple of days ago of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif with the U.S. Secretary of State and the other foreign ministers of the P5+1 group of nations in Vienna during negotiations pertaining to Iran’s nuclear program reminded me of a similar picture taken of the “Big Four” at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles after the end of World War 1.

The Versailles picture depicted then U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, French prime minister Georges Clemencea and British and Italian counterparts David Lloyd George and Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, and virtually marked the birth of a new world order. Likewise, the expressive Vienna picture showed the six world powers of today more or less welcoming Iran to the global “nuclear club,” in addition to declaring Tehran a regional partner in the Middle East.

The way Americans and Iranians dealt with the extension of the negotiation deadline was quite interesting too. Each side was keen to underline the need to avoid a dead-end or a breakdown before the world media. However, each side also sought to “sell” the extension as a diplomatic victory to its own domestic audience. This is understandable given that Zarif—supported by President Hassan Rowhani whom U.S. President Barack Obama views as a reformist “dove” and worthy ally–desires to reassure the conservative ‘hawks” that he stood his ground, and insisted on Iran’s right to acquire nuclear technology. The scene is similar in Washington where Obama plans to weaken his Republican critics’ ability to derail his policies after passing the point of no return in building a Middle East strategy in which Iran now features as an ally.

Secrecy

The secrecy shrouding what has been achieved in Vienna, as well the previous secretive talks in Muscat, gives the impression that Obama wishes to impose his new strategy on a skeptical–even antagonistic–American public as a fait accompli.

What the Obama administration wants from its regional allies is to ignore the Iranian threat by citing a more sinister threat from ISIS

Eyad Abu Shakra

Furthermore, the president realizes that he needs to reassure Israel and its powerful U.S. lobby, bearing in mind that Israeli premier Benyamin Netanyahu insists that any U.S. rapprochement with Tehran takes on board the Likud-led government’s vision of Israel’s distinguished regional role and its strategic interests in the U.S.’s overall Middle East agenda.

Incidentally, this is something that is well understood by the Iranian lobby in Washington which Zarif helped create during his diplomatic days in America, and the Iranian foreign minister today remains close to its leaders and organizers. Over the past few years, this lobby has succeeded in winning over some pro-Israel circles, especially within the Democratic Party, reassuring them of Israel’s gains if Tehran moderates led by Rowhani defeat their conservative opponents. In the meantime, the confrontation continues in Tehran between Rowhani’s moderates and the conservatives connected with Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The former aim to increase their popularity by managing to scale down the international sanctions without infringing on Iran’s “sovereign right” to acquire nuclear capabilities, while the latter believe that winning a strategic “war of wills” with the West is worth the sacrifices made by the Iranian people under the welter of sanctions. The conservatives also believe that the money Iran is spending on its subservient sectarian militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere is money well spent; and has been instrumental in forcing the West to give significant regional concessions. In fact, Tehran’s recent boast that it is in control of four Arab capitals is directed primarily at its domestic audience, which is being told that the West only understands the language of force.

Claiming victory

Thus, in terms of gains and losses Washington and Tehran are both claiming victory, but what are the repercussions of their rapprochement on the Middle East?

In its drive towards an alliance with Iran, the Obama administration has been trying its best to reassure its traditional regional allies and friends of its firm commitment to maintaining old ties. Indeed, it has been trying to justify its Iran policy by highlighting the need to quell the threat of extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the al-Nusra Front. However, the administration which seems to regard this priority as its only option, and is totally ignoring the overall political climate in the region, is causing great confusion and unease among its traditional allies and friends who feel that Washington has yet again forced its done-and-dusted policy on them with scant regard for their opinions and fears.

The issue of Ayn al-Arab (Kobane) has revealed deep differences between the American and Turkish positions regarding both the fate of the Assad regime in Syria and the future role of the Kurds. Another example of conflicting priorities between Washington and its regional allies pertains to the nature of the Iraqi regime and where Iraq’s Sunnis stand. Then, there is the Yemen issue following the pro-Tehran Houthis’ takeover of Sana’a and the grave threat of sectarian strife between the Shi’ite militia and al-Qaeda in Yemen’s southern Sunni provinces.

Regional allies

In short, what the Obama administration wants from its regional allies is to ignore the Iranian threat citing a more sinister threat from ISIS and other extremist Sunni groups. It also expects them to unconditionally and unreservedly accept its rapprochement with Tehran. The reality, however, is that they are hesitant, and this fact also applies to many in Washington, including the administration itself as highlighted by the resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

The fact of the matter is that the regimes in the Middle East have adopted clear anti-terrorism policies, but confronting terrorism can only be conducted through a rational and honest political process. The tragic outcome of America’s failed policies in post-2003 Iraq is now clear for all to see. Moreover, President Obama will be leaving the White House within two years while the suffering peoples of the Middle East will still be around to pay a heavy price for arrogant, irresponsible and selective Western policies. The only difference this time is that it is not just the region that will pay a heavy price, the West will as well.

Turning a blind eye to root causes while concentrating only on symptoms is going to increase despair, resentment and violence, not only in the Middle East but across the world.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on November 27, 2014.

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Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.

 

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