Due to recent developments, namely the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president, the start of talks in Geneva and the lifting of sanctions, Iran has been the subject of countless news headlines. This recent US-Iran rapprochement has, however, also raised many eyebrows in the region, and has left some international observers perplexed. Recent events, in addition to a series of diplomatic realignments in the region, suggest that Iran-related news will continue to be headline news in the near future – and not all of it will be good news.
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France, plus Germany, otherwise known as the P5+1) are meeting in Geneva with Iranian authorities to negotiate over Iran’s nuclear program. While the meeting has been described as a “breakthrough,” two things were made clear. One rather visible, the other only implied. The first is that Iran has been struggling with an economic recession for the past years, and is now facing serious domestic pressure for the oil sanctions to be lifted. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s bid to reassure the world that its nuclear program is a harmless one was clearly done with domestic politics in mind.
The second, and less obvious, is that external pressure is starting to be placed on Israel, as Iran, Egypt and others have been pressuring Israel to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The logic informing those that propose this argument is that this is the best option for the Middle East to be completely free of weapons of mass destruction.
In the wake of US-Iran rapprochement, a puzzling web of crisscrossing interests is forming in the region. Traditional alliances are being questioned and new ones tested. These kinds of shifts typically do not bode well for stability in the region. For example, the Saudi-US relationship, characteristically one of trust and mutual aid, is silently shaking at its core. From the Saudi point of view, things are changing a little too fast.
Earlier in the year, there was Obama’s open acceptance of Mohamed Morsi’s government in Egypt before eventually calling for Morsi to step down. The Saudis viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat and to other monarchies in the region. Later on, there was the US reluctance to oppose the Assad regime in Syria, despite the promises to enter the field if chemical weapons were used. Saudi silence at the UN General Assembly during recent events further signals the extent of the Kingdom’s unease with the US’s rapprochement with Iran.
Reuters quoted Abdullah al-Askar, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Saudi Arabia’s advisory parliament, the Shoura Council, as saying, “if America and Iran reach an understanding it may be at the cost of the Arab world and the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia.” This has encouraged Saudi Arabia to strengthen its diplomatic ties elsewhere.
RT news reports that Israel and Saudi Arabia, who currently do not have diplomatic relations, are rumored to be creating an alliance. Some are pointing to this axis as potentially being the region’s new “super power.” This union could indeed have a dramatic effect in the region and on the current balance of power, further complicating the many web of interests.
Eyal Zisser, Dean of Humanities at Tel-Aviv University, told RT that “the result is that on the one hand you can see them [Saudi] cooperate with Israel when it comes to Iran, on the other hand they have close contacts with [Palestinian] Hamas. On the one hand they initiate the Arab Peace Initiative, on the other hand they support indirectly al-Qaeda.”
To summarize, if Iran manages to increase pressure on Israel concerning its nuclear weapons, and if Saudi Arabian and Israeli interests continue to coalesce, then the US will find itself in an uncomfortable position – and will likely try to wiggle out.
Perhaps because of the changes that would occur in the region as a result of this, seasoned observers and key decision makers are not over-enthused about recent developments. Despite the mainstream media’s generally optimistic forcast, a number are even openly skeptical about the move toward better US-Iran relations. For example, in USA today, Senator Robert Menendez was quoted saying “the new face of Iran looked and sounded very much like the old face, with a softer tone and a smoother edge.”
The Washington Post reminds us that things have not really changed much on the ground in Iran itself. They note that “the nationally broadcast Friday prayers last week included the familiar chants of death to America,” and that “protesters hurled eggs and insults and Rouhani’s entourage after he returned from the groundbreaking exchanges in New York.”
It has been widely reported that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is supporting President Rouhani and his efforts toward diplomacy. Most notably, he has kept the Revolutionary Guard at bay for the moment. The problem, however, lies in the fact that given the nature of Iran’s political and cultural discourse, this leniency cannot last very long.
At a certain point, public and political pressure will require Khamenei to close that “window of opportunity” and fall back to the narrative of Iran as the victim of an imperial west, which has been its fallback argument since the 1979 revolution. A narrative that is not conducive to having international inspectors poking around Iran’s nuclear facilities. A sign of this is the fact that Khamenei has publicly said that he does not expect bilateral talks with the US to yield results, placing him squarely among the skeptics.
His best option is to see how far Rouhani can get with economic concessions (to complement the political gains Iran has made in the region) and then start to close the door right at the moment that it would yield the most strategic benefit, both geopolitically and domestically. A slow moving game, perhaps, but nevertheless a dangerous one that leads us to stay wary of the general sanguinity of the moment.