The US seems to have shifted its fundamental policies toward the Middle East.
For the next few decades, US and the West policy toward the Middle East will more likely be anchored in persuading and making Iran become their core strategic, tactical and geopolitical ally in the region; the policeman of the region, as Iran acted in pre-1979 era.
While Iranian hardliners still have deep mistrust about US intentions toward Iran, it seems that sooner or later Iran and the US will have, and are destined to have, normalized and full diplomatic ties.
History of relations
Looking at the history of Iran-West and Iran-US relationships, one can observe that Iran had been the West ally for centuries till 1979. In fact, Iran-West tensions since 1979 (mainly due to the revolutionary principles of 1979 and ideological differences) will be considered a diversion, not the norm.
Even before the discovery of oil and gas reserves, several reasons have always made the Western powers to look to Iran as their main ally, pawn, or policeman in the region.
First of all, from the West perspective, Iran enjoys a crucial strategic position right in the center of the Middle East. Second, the Iranian population is considered an ethnic minority, Persians, in a predominantly Arab ethnic region. Western powers have long used minorities in order to counter balance the power of the majority. Iran also has a religious minority, Shiite, in a Sunni majority region.
From the US perspective, being an ally with Iran and being able to influence Iran’s policy would mean that Washington would also indirectly exert more influence in the regionDr. Majid Rafizadeh
Moreover, Iran has always invested in having powerful and modern military capabilities. Furthermore, Iran is the second largest country in the Middle East, and second most populous country in the region after Egypt. Globally, Iran is the 17th most populous nation and the18th largest country in the world.
After the discovery of oil and gas, Iran’s significance for the West increased exponentially. Currently, Iran enjoys the second largest gas reserve and the fourth largest oil reserve in the world. In addition, Iran has the second largest economy in the Middle East.
US-Iran: Fundamental shift
The recent shift in US policy toward Iran rests on several other recent developments in addition to the above-mentioned factors.
From the US perspective, due to the discovery of oil reserves in the US and the fracking oil industry, Washington does not need to rely on any Middle Eastern country solely because that country has large oil reserves. As a result, if oil is taken away from American leaders’ calculations, Iran outweighs other countries because of its strategic geographical position.
Secondly, in the eyes of American leaders, Iran has the second largest gas reserves which can help US allies, the European countries, in reducing their dependence on Russia. This will tip the global balance of power in favor of the US and its allies, against Russia.
Third, Iran has already asserted its influence in several countries in the region (including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain) through its network of proxies and connections. From the US perspective, being an ally with Iran and being able to influence Iran’s policy would mean that Washington would also indirectly exert more influence in the region.
Fourth, from Washington’s viewpoint, the US does not need to break diplomatic ties with other countries in the region when it becomes an ally and have diplomatic ties with Iran. Washington will enjoy Iran’s influence in the region as well as its political, economic and diplomatic relationships with other nations. This will give Washington powerful leverage and a bargaining chip in the region as well.
Fifth, not only does Iran maintain a powerful military (Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps and Quds Force) and nuclear capabilities, but it has also shown that it is more than willing to deploy its forces on the ground (such as in Syria and Iraq) to advance specific political agendas and exert its influence in the region.
In other words, from Washington’s perspective, the US can use Iran’s military for its own geopolitical interests by being allied with Tehran. Moreover, Iran has one of the most pro-American societies in the Middle East.
After the latest developments, Washington sees that shifting its Middle East policy toward favoring Iran is a priority. From the Western and the US perspective, Iran is their natural ally as it has been for centuries. Iran’s tensions with the US and the West in the last few decades are a diversion not a norm. The only method that might change US shifting policy is if Washington sees that other countries in the region might break diplomatic ties with the US if Washington builds full diplomatic ties with Iran.
Geopolitical, economic and strategic interests
Additionally, Washington has to make a fundamental shift in its policy toward Iran in order to preserve its geopolitical, economic and strategic interests in the long term. President Obama extended his hand several times to the Iranian leaders to encourage full diplomatic ties. Each time Iran rejected the invitation, but the US will continue to plead. Iran’s hardliners (specifically Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and some of the senior cadre of IRGC) still have some mistrust toward Washington, but Washington is aware that sooner or later when top hardliners get out of the picture, this will fade away and Tehran and Washington will return to their pre-1979 era, where Iran was the US gendarme (policeman) in the region.
Finally, the Western powers’ disregard for other regional powers’ concerns regarding Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and intentions will more likely lead to more destabilization and heightened security dilemma in the region which may turn the regional tensions into conflagration.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and Harvard University scholar, is president of the International American Council. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at Dr.firstname.lastname@example.org, @Dr_Rafizadeh.