A de-facto alliance between Washington and Tehran

The Arab leaderships, especially Saudi leadership, have three months to effect a radical change in the equation of the American-Iranian-Arab relationship

Raghida Dergham

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Within one week, this is what Tehran reaped and sowed: The Islamic Republic of Iran celebrated the opening of a new historical chapter with the United States and the European Union, signing the declaration of what is its own understanding of the framework nuclear agreement with the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany, especially as relates to lifting the international and U.S. sanctions on Tehran. Tehran engaged Pakistan, which had declared its willingness to join the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, with the result being a joint declaration by the Iranian and Pakistani foreign ministers supporting the “facilitation” of a Yemeni dialogue.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that a "consensus" over the Iranian position on Yemen was the outcome of meetings held with officials in Oman - which neighbors Yemen - Turkey and Pakistan, which have the top two armies in the Islamic world and which are not members of the Arab coalition in Yemen. Tehran received Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had criticized Iranian interference in Yemen through the Houthis, and explained to him how the Islamic Republic has become a heavyweight in the regional balance of power. Tehran declared that it is dispatching navy destroyers and cruisers to the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, in a three month mission - the same time period ahead of the June 30 deadline for reaching a final nuclear deal that would practically establish Iran as a nuclear power in the Middle East, with a stay of execution. All this happened in just a week. All this should compel Arab leaders, particularly the Saudi leadership, to sit down to draw both immediate and long-term strategies in light of Iran's achievements, even if Tehran is exaggerating its “historic achievements” and behaving as if it has triumphed before the battle has ended.

The new chapter in the relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran is a historical event, because it gives Tehran exactly what the Mullah regime wants from the Obama administration since President Barack Obama began his series of concessions. The nuclear deal will give Tehran what it has always insisted upon, namely: recognition by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council of its nuclear “right” and caving in to Tehran’s insistence on acquiring nuclear capabilities, provided it agrees to postpone implementation. The deal establishes Iran as an honorary member of the international nuclear club with the approval of the five nuclear powers along with Germany.

The framework agreement declared last week as a prelude to the anticipated final deal to follow the negotiations of the coming three months is important in a way that goes beyond the nuclear dimension. It also meets two other important demands of the Islamic Republic: first, a public American declaration, which has the the flavor of being an official pledge, that the United States respects the Mullah regime in Tehran and will never seek to topple this regime no matter what. Indeed, this regime has now become a partner of the United States for the next ten years - at the very least - being the party pledging to comply with the inspection regime to be agreed upon for the nuclear activities led by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Regional ambitions and key threats

Second, the U.S. president agreed to another very important demand made by Tehran, namely, recognizing its regional weight, ambitions, and roles without meddling on the part of the United States. Thus, Barack Obama bowed down to the Iranian insistence on non-U.S. objection to Iranian intervention in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, to secure the nuclear deal that he wants to serve as his historic legacy. In this context, it is not important what this or that U.S. official may say about the American position on Iranian intervention here or there. The bottom line is that the Obama administration has abandoned -- or was forced to abandon -- the chips through which it could have put pressure on Tehran to stop it from encroaching on key Arab nations such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon.

The Arab leaderships, especially Saudi leadership, have three months to effect a radical change in the equation of the American-Iranian-Arab relationship

Raghida Dergham

This is the picture then: First, the U.S. president’s recognition that Iran, within 13 years, will be ready to turn into a nuclear military power. What will supposedly prevent this is an ambiguous and loose inspection mechanism whose features are yet to be specified, to be conducted by the IAEA with a yet mysterious and non-specified link to the process of lifting the international sanctions at the U.N. Security Council.

Secondly, the international sanctions on Iran will be gradually lifted at the Security Council in parallel with the gradual implementation of nuclear commitments -- in the Obama administration’s view. In the view of Tehran and a number of European capitals, however, the sanctions will be lifted as soon as the nuclear deal is signed. No matter how many ways the agreement can be interpreted, the countries gearing up to capitalize on the nuclear deal are ready to reap the spoils -- led by Russia, India, China, and Brazil, the so-called BRICS countries, which had for long appeased Iran and spared it from accountability on Syria and on the international resolutions Iran violated. The first milestone will be Russia’s delivery of advanced air defense systems such as the S-300 to Iran, as soon as the sanctions are lifted.

At the level of the United States, lifting the sanctions is the purview of Congress and not just the U.S. administration. Many in Congress consider that lifting the sanctions on Iran prematurely is tantamount to dropping a necessary “stick” to ensure Iran is honest about abiding by its commitments and pledges, and that this squanders the proverbial “carrot” at the same time.

Realistically speaking, the Obama administration in its eagerness to lift the U.S. and international sanctions, is practically funding Iranian nuclear and regional ambitions, as represented by fighting the war in Syria, supporting the Iraqi militias, backing the arrogance of its ally Hezbollah, and arming the Houthis in Yemen where the U.S. ally Saudi Arabia is fighting a fateful war.

Remaining silent

Practically speaking, the Obama administration has told Tehran that it will remain silent and will not mind the Iranian regional role, and has signaled to it on the ground that Tehran remains a de-facto ally in the U.S.-led war on ISIS.

In reality, and following more than three decades of official estrangement, the U.S.-Iranian relationship is now being normalized through this de-facto alliance and the blessing of the Iranian expansion in the Arab region, with the pledge to recognize the legitimacy of the regime in Tehran.

The Arab leaderships, especially Saudi leadership, have three months to effect a radical change in the equation of the American-Iranian-Arab relationship. Work must begin immediately in a way that goes beyond short-term actions, even if these appear to be qualitatively advanced.

Of course, it is significant that the U.S. Department of Defence (Pentagon) stated the U.S. air force has started operations to support the Saudi air force operating over Yemen, beginning with refueling in mid-air for Saudi fighters partaking in Operation Decisive Storm against the Houthis in Yemen. Washington has stressed that its military support for Decisive Storm will remain “limited”, and will not reach the level of taking part directly in the air strikes, and will instead remain limited to intelligence and logistical support. This support has come late, but it remains worthwhile, especially if intelligence assistance helps pinpoint military sites to avoid civilian casualties, and if it helps end military operations and the return to political dialogue to reach a settlement.

However, it is imperative for the Arab leaderships to demand from the Obama administration more determination and insistence, especially with regard to showing firmness with Iran to compel it to stop sending military aid to the Houthis and cease its naval deployment in the Gulf of Aden and Bab al-Mandab. Any delay in such a determination would have disastrous consequences on Yemen and Decisive Storm, which the Arab coalition cannot afford to lose no matter what the cost is. This is a fateful battle for the forces of the coalition, including Saudi Arabia, and failure will lead to extremely dangerous regional repercussions.

President Barack Obama invited the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries -- Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman - to Camp David to give them reassurances regarding the anticipated nuclear deal. Oman has practically left the Arab-Gulf camp and is now designated neutral if not close to Iran in the equation. Nevertheless, the events in Yemen have brought Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar closer together, and opened a new door to inter-Gulf cooperation and a new strategy that could be up to the level of the challenges.

Washington will not take the Arab coalition, which included Egypt -- the largest Arab army -- seriously enough unless these countries come up with a tight plan with both a strategic tack and a tactical tack.

Washington will become further divided in the coming weeks and months, not only between Republicans and Democrats, or between Congress and the administration, but also at the level of the public opinion. The majority of Americans do not want war or anything resembling a war, and thus will welcome the proposals of the Obama administration, even if they entail a showdown with Israel over the Iranian issue. However, the Democratic Party and Democratic congressmen and women will not support the Obama administration automatically. They are open to a more profound understanding of the implications of the nuclear deal with Tehran.

What does not receive attention enough in America, however, is the regional dimension of the Iranian intervention, expansion, and encroachment in the Arab countries. This is a problem for which the Arab countries bear responsibility, a problem they should explain and highlight. The American media does not accept Arab opinion easily or coherently, be it from Arab officials or Arab commentators. This is a flaw that must not be ignored, especially since the Arabs have the capacity to address it.

More importantly, there should be an Arab strategy to deal with Congress without appearing to be at odds with the administration or to be undermining its jurisdictions. There is an important window that the Arabs must not fail to benefit from. America is divided, and there is nothing wrong about trying to explain the implications of the nuclear deal in the context of the policy of self-dissociation the U.S. administration is pursuing vis-a-vis the Iranian adventures on Arab soil.

Then there is the ISIS and al-Qaeda factor. It is not logical for the Arab countries to ally themselves with the United States against ISIS and al-Qaeda without highlighting the importance of Arab participation in crushing these two terrorist organizations. The United States has stopped at the 9/11 terror attacks for which it blames Sunni Arabs. Therefore, there is a dire need to highlight the quality, quantity, history, and objectives of Arab participation in the war on ISIS and al-Qaeda, which U.S. circles largely see as Sunni terrorism.

The United States understands the language of both immediate and strategic interests, and the Arab leaderships must speak this language fluently in light of the developments, and not with an archaic, rigid language.

As stated in an article in The Wall Street Journal by both Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, both of whom served in several posts in previous U.S. administrations, if political controls are not added to nuclear controls, a deal that liberates Iran from sanctions risks furthering Iran’s expansionist abilities. This is no joking matter.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on April 10, 2015 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.

Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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