The signing of the Geneva nuclear deal (Joint Plan of Action – JPOA) on November 24, 2013, has been considered from many quarters as the beginning of détente between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, after over thirty years of strained relations. However, the Iranian nuclear program is not the only issue relevant to Washington and Tehran. The negotiations aimed at forging out a final comprehensive agreement are being conducted in the wider picture of the Greater Middle East, encompassing various critical issues like the crisis in Syria, the insurgency in Iraq, the security of the Gulf, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the political deadlock in Lebanon, and the stability of Afghanistan post-2014. Iran matters in all these dossiers, and in order to sort them out the Obama administration is seeking the Islamic Republic cooperation in the prospect of a grand bargain therewith.
The advent of Hassan Rouhani, elected as the new Iranian President on June 14, seemingly provided Obama with a proper interlocutor to push forth a design which has been at the top of his foreign policy agenda since his first tenure at the White House (2009). Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), with his inflammatory words and gestures, was not the ideal figure to lead the Iranian leadership to “unclench [its] fists” and meet Washington’s “extended hand.”
In reality, the so called US shift to Iran had already been in the making even before Obama came into play. An analysis of the deeper motivations behind Washington’s course of action in the Greater Middle East could be useful to figure out the present scenario and envisage the potential developments of a process bound to shape the future of the region and of the international security.
ORIGINS OF THE US SHIFT TO IRAN
The discarding of the Axis of Evil rhetoric and the outreach to the Islamic Republic of Iran has often been ascribed to Obama’s ideological predispositions. Regardless, the American move toward Tehran rests on grounded strategic considerations that can be ascertained by retracing the US foreign and security policy in the Gulf since 1979, as of the dethronement of the Shah, Reza Pahlavi, and the establishment of the Islamic Republic.
The drastic change in strategic posture undertaken by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who walked Iran out of the Central Treaty Organization, was a source of grave concern in Washington. The Carter Doctrine was conceived to deter the Soviet Union (which had just invaded Afghanistan), as well as the newly born Islamic Republic of Iran, from projecting their ambitions to the energy-rich Arab Gulf monarchies. Concurrently, prominent American analysts were warning that the loss of Tehran as a major partner in the area would have engendered a US geopolitical overdependence on the Gulf monarchies themselves, above all Saudi Arabia.
The Carter Doctrine was later applied on the occasion of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1991. The by-product of the Operation Desert Storm was the retention by the United States of several military bases and thousands of soldiers on Saudi soil, around the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina, to carry out the dual containment facing Iraq and Iran.
The unsustainability of the dual containment was exposed in conjunction with al-Qaida’s terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Indeed, the military intervention in Iraq, launched by George W. Bush in March 2003, was meant to bring about an overhaul of the Middle Eastern geopolitical dynamics, allowing the United States to decouple from Saudi Arabia and pivot the single containment of Iran on Baghdad, as the new US security pillar in the Gulf and the Levant. That was the strategic rationale behind the regime change at Saddam Hussein’s expense and on which the neocons’ intellectual superstructure was laid.
The US soldiers left the Saudi soil after six months, but the withdrawal from Iraq, completed under the Obama administration in December 2011, certified the failure of the blueprint outlined by Bush. At that point in time, Washington required a policy redress to regain a degree of leeway in the area. Obama’s winking at the Islamic Republic of Iran is to be placed in this context, but the new realist guidelines were actually drawn up earlier, in December 2006, by the Iraqi Study Group (ISG), a bipartisan commission appointed by Bush to make recommendations on how to deal with the insurgency that was hindering the stabilization of Iraq.
In addition to suggesting a phased military retreat, the ISG final report urged Washington to embark on a “diplomatic dialogue, without preconditions” with Iran and Syria over the Middle East at large. The talks were supposed to be “extensive and substantive,” and were meant to achieve a “balancing of interests,” using “diplomatic, economic, and military disincentives,” but also “incentives to try to engage them constructively” too. In practice, the ISG pointed out the strategic urgency for the United States to recover the Persians, alongside their junior ally in the strategically-located Syria, at least for a working partnership in the various contentious issues touching on the US security stakes in the Greater Middle East. The first test bench was Iraq itself. The surge of US soldiers and the agreement between the Sunni sahwa forces and the Shiite-led government would have never been able to quell the multifaceted insurgency lacking Iran and Syria’s acquiescence.
Once in office, Obama followed the ISG bipartisan directions and the criticism he was subject to appears mostly prompted by the domestic politics competition. On the other hand, Obama was probably the right figure to accomplish this task, because reaching out publicly to the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Hosseini Khamenei, would have been much more difficult for a Republican President (although, failed efforts to defrost diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic were allegedly made by prominent representatives of the Bush administration too).
THE ROAD TO GENEVA
Tehran’s engagement turned out to be full of obstacles. In June 2009, Obama assumed a neutral position amid the green wave of protests over the Ahmadinejad’s re-election at the presidency of the Islamic Republic. Any statement or stance could have been labeled as an external interference in the Iranian domestic affairs, putting in danger from the very start Obama’s reconciliation attempts. Yet, his caution and openings did not receive positive feedbacks, while no progress was being attained in the negotiations on the nuclear program. The eruption of the Arab Spring further complicated the scenario within which he was pursuing his policy toward Iran. In particular, Washington and Tehran found themselves face to face in Syria.
Broke out as an uprising against the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, and the forty-year rule of his family, the crisis rapidly enlarged its boundaries, involving both the regional and the international dimension. Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia jumped in on the side of the opposition, whereas Iran, Hezbollah, Vladimir Putin’s Russia and, to a lesser extent, Iraq put their weight behind Assad. The dispute assumed increasing religious traits, in the form of an intra-Islamic showdown between Sunnis and Shiites.
The United States was contrary to Syria’s destabilization, because its unraveling would have encroached on the neighboring countries and imperiled the entire geopolitical layout of the Levant. Moreover, Damascus’ engulfment in an endless civil war would have jeopardized the détente process that Washington had initiated with Damascus, in the wake of the ISG report. Obama had just appointed a new US Ambassador to Syria, re-establishing official diplomatic relations after 5 years. But the media impact of the escalation of violence rendered neutrality a difficult position to maintain for long, compelling the United States and its European allies to take side against Assad, and thereby Iran, together with the Sunni front.
However, the Western endeavor remained, and still is, essentially confined to the backing of the opposition in exile. No substantial military aid has hitherto been provided to the rebels fighting in Syria, whose cadre devolved into being dominated by thousands of jihadists and extremists, plenty of them foreigners. The fear that possible arms supplies could end up in the hands of such militants, often associated with al-Qaida, made the West shied definitely away from fueling a further militarization of the conflict.
The intensification of the crisis caught Obama in the midst of the presidential election campaign. To neutralize any Republican criticism, he set aside the initial low profile of his administration and adopted a more assertive posture, pronouncing the fateful “Assad must go” and warning the Syrian President not to overstep the “red line” of the use of chemical weapons, otherwise he would have faced “enormous consequences.” Due to these statements, though, stigmatized also by Democrat analysts and commentators, Obama found himself cornered on several occasions, when confronted with evidence that the government forces had reportedly employed chemicals.
At the end of August 2013, the case was made so vigorously that there was no way to dismiss it. Obama threatened that the United States was to respond by “tailored, limited” airstrikes against Syrian military targets, but backtracked immediately from this position, specifying that the decision to follow through with the airstrikes had not been taken yet−an hesitation mirroring the uncomfortable situation challenging the White House.
The vast majority of the American public opinion was opposed to having the United States embroiled in another war in the Greater Middle East. The wording of Obama’s doctrine−leading from behind−gives the impression to have been conceived to meet the prevalent mood in the United States, likewise the non-interventionist attitude of a Nobel Peace Prize President, who had just declared the era of the war on terror as ended. In the same vein, the rebalance/pivot to Asia, apart from the real strategic reasons underlying it, appears to serve the purpose of downplaying Washington’s involvement in the Greater Middle East−the area more unsafe for any US President−and shifting the attention away from it.
With no valid policy at hand in Syria, Obama perhaps traced a line that he could not afford to cross. From a military viewpoint, the limited scope and goals set for the airstrikes raised concerns over the unpredictable consequences of an attack with no clear end state. In addition, a US military intervention, even “unbelievably small” as Kerry put it, would have been detrimental to the attempt of mending fences with the Islamic Republic of Iran, at a time when the election of Rouhani had prompted new hopes.
The tension reached its peak throughout the G20 summit held in Moscow on September 5-6. Obama and Putin were visibly at odds with each other, as the Russian President was firmly contrary to an attack in Syria and blamed the rebels for the use of chemicals. Yet, the solution that defused the crisis was right in the process of being finalized. The agreement on the elimination of the Syrian chemical stockpile, cut with Russia’s mediation and Iranian consent, was announced on September 14 and later sanctioned by the UN Security Council’s Resolution 2118.
The accord cleared the road to the Geneva nuclear deal. As soon as he took office, in early August 2013, Rouhani expressed his readiness to conduct “serious” negotiations “without wasting time,”“ so as to obtain a reduction of the energy sanctions imposed by the US and EU countries in return for an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program. The chemical weapons crisis had posed a major hindrance between Washington and the new government in Tehran, and its removal permitted them to move ahead in the direction of a deal. Shortly thereafter, throughout the annual session of the UN General Assembly in New York, Kerry’s conversation with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, as well as Obama’s phone call to Rouhani, broke the ice diplomatically and smoothed the path to Geneva and to the JPOA conclusion.
THE US “REBALANCE” IN THE REGION
The chemical disarmament agreement seriously upset Saudi Arabia, the most vocal advocate of a military attack against Assad. Riyadh had taken the lead among the foreign backers of the opposition and was hoping for a US direct intervention, viewed as the game changer in the conflict. The Saudi diplomacy was pushing hard to make it happen, under the delusion that Washington would have delivered at last. Nevertheless, to walk again through the traditional Saudi geopolitical track was leading the United States to a precipice. Obama managed to stop just at the edge and the Saudi leadership reacted heatedly, refusing to assume the rotating seat at the UN Security Council and promising to intensify its efforts to topple Assad.
The disappointments for the Saudis were to become even more bitter. Obama’s bow and hand-kissing to King Abdullah at the G20 summit in April 2009, turned out not to be a good sign, in the light of the incipient thaw in the US-Iran relations, regarded as a betrayal on the American part, and the Geneva nuclear deal. Moreover, by differentiating the US policy in Syria from Saudi Arabia’s, Obama succeeded in loosening the strategic ties historically binding Washington to Riyadh, so that the regional strategic calculus of the former has become autonomous from that of the latter−a result that the United States had been seeking since the aftermath of September 11.
The US geopolitical autonomy from Saudi Arabia will probably tend to grow in the near future, thanks to the thriving shale gas domestic production. However, the defense partnership with Riyadh and, more broadly, the security of the Gulf, will remain of strategic relevance for Washington, as confirmed by Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, who visited Riyadh in early December. The 35,000 U.S. soldiers deployed in the Gulf testify that the Carter Doctrine continues to be in force. At the same time, the assessments of the two countries may diverge or not be completely coincident, and in this event the United States is to follow a different track, like in Syria or with Iran.
Indicators that the United States intended to rebalance its regional axis toward the Persians, and the Shiites in general, could already be found in Iraq, which ended up being included in the Iranian geopolitical orbit with Obama’s approval and Saudi frustration. Most recently, Washington did not endorse the way the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain handled the protest movement driven by the Shiite majority, and even less the deployment of Saudi troops on the island. As for Yemen, American officials advocated the involvement of the Shiite Houthi group in the political process to halt their rebellion against the Sunni-dominated central government in Sana’a.
Washington is drawing closer to the Iranian position also in Syria. The conflict has been ongoing for almost three years, no military solution is on the horizon and Tehran is starting to feel the fatigue of its support to Assad. Therefore, the achievement of a political settlement, preserving a significant Iranian influence over (greater) Syria, might be in the agenda of Rouhani and his government. To allow Assad, and/or other exponents of his regime, to participate in the political transition, seems to have become an acceptable outcome for Washington, if that may contribute to effectively cope with the jihadist and extremist groups−the main threat to the US security emerging from Syria. To have the Syrian opposition and Assad working together will take time and numerous conferences besides the inconclusive Geneva II held at the end of January, 2014, but the diplomatic process might be heading in this direction.
Another fundamental arena in which a realignment will likely occur is Afghanistan, where the United States are said to be looking to a constructive Iranian role to preserve the stability of the country after 2014, following the withdrawal by the US and NATO troops.
The increasing convergence between Washington and Tehran is pushing the Iranian Sunni neighbors and competitors to adjust their posture accordingly. Although with different degrees of intensity, Turkey and the Arab monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), except for Saudi Arabia, have overtly shown an interest in cooperating and dialoguing with the Islamic Republic. On the Iranian part, Rouhani and Zarif has been conveying them continuous signs of détente about Syria, as well as reassurances about the JPOA and the peaceful nature of the nuclear program. Riyadh has not been persuaded by the Iranian statements and active diplomacy, and is still extremely wary of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and of a possible rapprochement with the United States. On the other hand, contrary to Israel (whose Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, lambasted the JPOA as a “bad deal”), Saudi Arabia cannot afford to stand apart from the regional political process and, notwithstanding the cold reaction, did not dismiss the deal, tying the attainment of a comprehensive agreement to the “good will”“ of the parties.
WHAT “GRAND BARGAIN”?
To propitiate Tehran’s cooperation, Washington made notable concessions. Rouhani’s availability to arrive soon at a preliminary compromise on the nuclear program was rewarded with an alleviation of the energy sanctions tantamount to approximately $7 billion. Nevertheless, more than the prospect of a reduction of the energy sanctions, key to inducing Tehran to sign the JPOA has been the shift of negotiating paradigm−from no uranium enrichment to no nuclear bomb. Prior, the Western request to waive the enrichment had been the major stumbling block, impeding any progress in the nuclear talks. The acceptance, de facto, of the Iranian right to enrich uranium, at the base of Israel’s criticism of the JPOA, increases the likelihood that the negotiations will go ahead and produce concrete arrangements, albeit it is nearly impossible to determine with absolute certainty the non-existence of a military dimension of the Iranian nuclear program.
However, “a balancing of interests” between Washington and Tehran alone will not suffice to advance the stabilization of the various hotbeds throughout the Greater Middle East. To that effect, also the stakes of other relevant actors shall be accommodated, or else further instability will be engendered. Besides Iran, the main players in the area are Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, Israel. Therefore, the true grand bargain should be designed among these three countries, with the United States exerting the role of regional integrator.
For instance, the involution of the political situation in Iraq has been one of the major drives behind Saudi Arabia’s counter-offensive in Syria. The sectarian-oriented policies of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, have catalyzed the Sunni discontent and the return of the insurgency, especially in the al-Anbar province. The ISG report explicitly pledged the United States to foster the “national reconciliation” in Iraq and Obama should act accordingly, by inviting Maliki to exercise moderation and to adopt a more inclusive approach. To encompass the Sunnis in the domestic political process would be beneficial to the stability of the country and will reflect positively on the search for a negotiated settlement in Syria, which will never come to fruition without Saudi Arabia’s endorsement.
Similarly, Saudi interests should not be disregarded in Bahrain, Yemen and Lebanon, and not even in Afghanistan, Pakistan and with regard to the internal security of the Kingdom. Concurrently, every bargain entails a give and take, and Riyadh is expected to keep in check the nature of its religious outreach and the spread of radicalism in the broader region and beyond. The designation of the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria as terrorist organizations denotes a renewed Saudi thrust for moderation that may favor a de-escalation in the Sunni-Shia (Arab-Persian) rift, and the advance of a new ecumenism between the two principal souls of Islam.
At the same time, Israel should expedite the establishment of a Palestinian state, in order to remove any pretext to arm Hamas and other movements in the Gaza Strip, or not to dismantle Hezbollah’s militia in Lebanon. In reverse, a step forward by Arab and Muslim countries, Islamic Republic of Iran included, in normalizing relations with Israel would help the peace process to make substantial progress, for the reason that as long as Israel will perceive its neighborhood as unsafe and hostile, it will be less prone to ease its security-related stances at the negotiating table with the Palestinians.
In this framework, the uncertainty surrounding the nuclear issue holds a disruptive potential that may hinder the achievement of a regional multilateral settlement, and trigger unwanted escalations. The US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Wendy Sherman, admitted that the JPOA envisions the possibility that Tehran will retain a “small, discreet, limited” capability to enrich uranium, but Obama’s reassurances that the United States will never let the Islamic Republic acquire military nuclear capabilities do not completely tranquilize Saudi Arabia and Israel.
A new tightening of sanctions, should the Iranians not comply with the JPOA, will unlikely curb the nuclear program, on the grounds that over the past few years, under a harder sanctions regime, it has been capable of impressive progress as to the quantity and quality of enriched uranium, as well as the number and technological sophistication of the centrifuges. Formally, the military option is still in place, but Obama tends not to remind it aloud, probably out of concern that an exacerbation of the political climate may jeopardize the talks, or out of consideration that it has become an overvalued solution in terms of the results that it would be able to yield.
Against this backdrop, the Islamic Republic is called on ensuring a great deal of cooperation in both implementing the arrangements that will be forged out with the P5+1, and in addressing the numerous lingering questions sweeping the Greater Middle East. In such respect, Rouhani’s conciliatory tones and gestures denotes the intention to distance himself from Ahmadinejad’s revolutionary drive, so as to credit Tehran as a stability factor and a reliable interlocutor, committed to pursuing its objectives by diplomatic means and a cooperative approach to security. While the international community has pinned its hopes on the pragmatic posture assumed by the Iranian new President, the engagement of the Islamic Republic cannot remain confined to security matters.
No true reconciliation−strategic in nature and enduring in the long term−will be attained without overcoming the ideological wall that continues to divide the Islamic Republic and the United States. Firstly, arms should be laid down intellectually and, from this point of view, Tehran should make a step forward. The West has demonstrated to have fully accepted the very existence of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its “rightful place in the community of nations,” as declared by Obama. It is time for the Iranian leaders to follow suit. The pledge to establish relations with the United States based on a “constructive engagement […] mutual respect and common interest,” taken by Rouhani before the UN General Assembly, is expected to be the long-awaited beginning of an authentic détente between Tehran and Washington.
The article was original edited by Comitato Atlantico Italiano.