“A more balanced and nuanced approach toward the Saudi-Iranian cold war”

The latest in a series of articles discusses Iranian politics after the nuclear agreement, assuming it is ratified. It opens “The historic nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 negotiators announced on July 14 is a transformative event for the Middle East, a victory for U.S. nonproliferation strategy, and will surely be one of U.S. President Barack Obama’s most consequential foreign policy achievements. Auspicious as this occasion is, though, there is no guarantee that the agreement will survive, given how contentious the implementation phase is likely to be. Nor can the deal by itself end the lingering animosity between the United States and Iran, which predates the nuclear program. The landmark nuclear agreement will only be sustainable if it continues to serve the national interests of both countries. And here, if they think beyond their strategic divorce in 1979 and the recent deal itself, they will realize that they have much to gain from improved ties—and that the agreement will be crucial to this process”.

The author is correct to argue that the deal will only survive if it is in the interests of both countries. The relationship between the United States and Iran is too complicated for any other system to work. However, if both countries manage to control their lunatic fringes then the deal has a chance of working.

He goes on to mention that “those in Tehran and Washington who oppose the deal—and those countries in the Middle East that have benefited from Iranian-U.S. estrangement—won’t make things easy. Still, the agreement is a risk worth taking, considering how unattractive the other alternatives are”.

However, those that oppose the deal seem to be very few. The GCC and notably Saudi Arabia have both given their tentative backing to the agreement. Indeed, it seems that the only nation who opposes the agreement is Israel.

As has been noted before “opponents will relentlessly lobby legislators to reject the deal on the grounds that it has not closed all pathways to a nuclear bomb and has legitimised Iran as a threshold nuclear power. But they will not be able to offer a viable alternative to it”.

If the agreement is passed, which now seems likely he argues that “If opponents fail to scuttle the deal under Obama, though, they will seek to convince Congress and the next president to continue and possibly intensify Washington’s containment of Iran. They will warn that lifting the sanctions and unfreezing Iran’s estimated $110 billion in foreign assets will make the country more eager to destabilising the Middle East. They will insist that anti-Americanism remains a foundational principle of the Islamic Republic. What they will not mention, of course, is that the U.S. policy of containing Iran for years has not worked and has helped transform Iran into a regional power.”

Pointedly he notes “The critics of the deal insist that they still don’t trust Iran. They shouldn’t. Nor does Iran trust the West. That can come only slowly and through confidence-building measures, of which this deal is a good start. Verification, transparency, and continuous monitoring of the Iranian nuclear facilities will also help. In fact, Iran has accepted the most intrusive inspection and monitoring regime ever imposed on a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, including continuous monitoring of the  Fordow facility, which is a highly fortified underground facility designed to withstand aerial bombardment. Iran has agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect, where and when necessary and in consultation with Iran, any suspected Iranian military facilities. Tehran has also agreed to answer all questions pertinent to the military dimensions of its past nuclear activities”.

He correctly notes that “But there are signs that the Islamic Republic’s and the Iranian population’s perceptions of the U.S. threat are gradually changing. Polls of Iranians unambiguously reveal that a significant portion of Iran’s highly educated population, particularly its technology-savvy youth, favour improved relations with the United States”.

He correctly writes that “Sceptics might argue that real power does not reside in the presidency, but rather in the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards. And Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, they maintain, is an inflexible zealot who will never make nice with Washington. But they are simply wrong. No Iranian president could have reached out to the United States without the Supreme Leader’s approval. Moreover, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which are exclusively accountable to Khamenei, cooperated with U.S. Special Operations Forces in 2001 to dislodge the Taliban government in Afghanistan. More recently, he has said that if “the U.S. behaves in a humane way, we will have no problem with it,” which, in the convoluted vernacular of Iran means we are ready to talk. It is also highly likely that the world will witness changes in Iran’s top leadership within the next decade, as Iran’s mostly septuagenarian leaders are replaced by younger and hopefully less idealistic ones”.

The result of this he writes is “a unique opportunity for Washington to improve relations with Tehran. The two have been tangled in a covert war for 37 years. Both have a long list of legitimate grievances. Without any introspection, hardliners in both Tehran and Washington will focus only on those grievances. Instead of focusing on that past, though, they should concentrate on common goals for the future. In truth, the United States shares more strategic interests with Iran in Afghanistan and Iraq, and against the Islamic State (also called ISIS) than it does with its other Persian Gulf allies”.

He continues noting the long term “challenge for the United States is to provide strategic incentives to transform Iran from spoiler power to a cooperative one. The two powers can engage in managed tactical cooperation where their mutual interests coincide and compete with each other where their interests are irreconcilable. A good place to start would be on ISIS, which poses a profound threat to both countries and to the entire region. ISIS has expanded beyond Iraq and Syria to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, and even Paris”.

Pointedly he mentions that “For too long, Washington has given a free pass to the Saudis even as it has been rightly critical of Iran’s regional behavior. Saudi Arabia was one of the three countries that recognized the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, it sent troops to smash the pro-democracy uprising in Bahrain in 2011, and it provided financial support to the military takeover in Egypt in 2013 that overthrew the first democratically-elected president of that country. Some Saudi clerics continue to provide ideological justification for violent extremist groups, and some private citizens provide financial support to extremists. To prevent any serious discussion of whether these behaviors help or hurt U.S. interests in the region, Riyadh simply maintains that Iran is the main source of instability and that Washington needs to “cut off the head of the snake.” Washington must slowly move away from its traditional and unconditional support of Saudi Arabia, but without fully undermining its alliance with the Kingdom. There, Washington can take a few risks. After all, Saudi Arabia cannot and will not find a better ally than the United States”.

He ends “Washington must also seek a more balanced and nuanced approach toward the Saudi-Iranian cold war. A good place to start would be discussions among all three about Yemen and then Syria. But without the nuclear agreement and reduction of tensions with Iran, the United States would not be able to play this role, which would give it some maneuvering room to protect its national interests with minimal cost in the Persian Gulf and beyond”.



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