By Ameen Izzadeen
(This article was
In realpolitik, there are no permanent enemies or friends but only permanent interests. The Middle East is witnessing a silent shuffle or a realignment of alliances. What was dismissed as wishful thinking of a daydreamer only months ago is a possibility today. Iran and the United States are mending fences and may even resume diplomatic ties which remain frozen from 1979. However, the process has set off alarm bells in countries which are regarded as the United States’ traditional allies in the Middle East. Israel and Saudi Arabia are highly agitated.
On Tuesday, on the eve of a crucial meeting between P5+1 nations and Iran on curbing Iran’s nuclear programme, US President Barack Obama asked key Senators for a delay in imposing fresh sanctions on the Islamic republic. The United States has also indicated that the sanctions which are throttling Iran’s economy could be relaxed in a minor way if an interim deal could be reached at the current talks in Geneva.
The two countries agreed on key provisions of a deal during the last round of talks in Geneva two weeks ago. There was jubilation all round. But France, acting on behalf of Israel, scuttled it. At the last round of the talks, the US was so optimistic that its Secretary of State John Kerry made an unexpected visit to Geneva. The US even ignored warnings from Israel, its staunchest ally in the region, in the hope that a deal to prevent Iran from developing weapons grade uranium could be struck.
Though the usual blame game continued after the last round of the Geneva talks ended in no deal, a diplomatic telepathy or a willingness to improve ties prevailed between Iran and the US. This was evident in the US condemnation of Tuesday’s bomb blast at the Iranian embassy in Beirut. The condemnation was couched in a language of endearment.
Secretary Kerry said in a statement: “The United States knows too well the cost of terrorism directed at our own diplomats around the world, and our hearts go out to the Iranian people after this violent and unjustifiable attack”.
Kerry condemned the terrorist attack that killed 23 people including a senior Iranian diplomat as “senseless and despicable” and said he hoped “those responsible are brought to justice.”
The turning point in Iran-US relations came in September when President Obama and the visiting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had a phone conversation. This came a day after Kerry on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly sessions met his Iranian counterpart Mohammed Jawad Zarif for a one-on-one to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme in what was the highest level bilateral meeting between the two countries in 34 years.
Another US move that was seen as favouring Iran was the Barack Obama administration’s reluctance to get militarily involved in the Syrian conflict in support of the Syrian rebels. Iran has sent men and materiel to Syria to defend the Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus.
These developments apart, some analysts believe the United States’ national interest will be served better if it cooperates with Iran. Many believe that the two countries have an understanding on several issues. Take for instance, Iraq. Both Iran and the US feel that they stand to gain geo-strategically and economically by propping up the Shiite-dominated Nouri al-Maliki government. Then take Bahrain. The Shiite theocracy in Iran could wreak havoc in the tiny Gulf sheikhdom where a Sunni royal family rules over a population which is 60 per cent Shiite. If Iran gets involved in Bahrain, it may trigger a regional war. But the bottom line is that Iran’s hands-off policy in Bahrain has helped the US to keep its Fifth Fleet’s headquarters there and maintain its military presence in the Gulf.
Then take Afghanistan, from where the US is to withdraw most of its troops by the end of December next year. The Afghan policies of Iran and the United States have a key point of convergence. Both regard the Taliban and their al-Qaeda mentors as enemies.
Although the US knows that it stands to benefit from cooperation with Iran, it has continued its hostility with Iran in deference to Israel and Saudi Arabia, two US allies which fear a nuclear Iran will be a threat to their political dominance of the region.
US presidents are forced to please Israel because it controls the US Congress, the US media and US financial institutions through the Jewish lobby known as the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). On the other hand, the powerful oil lobby and the arms industry lobby in the US support closer US-Saudi relations, which help US companies to win lucrative oil industry contracts and weapons deals not only in Saudi Arabia but also in other Arab Gulf states.
But with the US moving into shale oil productions in America, Middle Eastern oil is likely to lose some its shine for the US. What Washington perhaps is trying to achieve is to end hostilities with Iran in such a way that any deal with Iran will not disturb Washington’s special relationship with Israel or Saudi Arabia. President Barack Obama could extend the olive branch to Iran and push for Arab-Israeli peace because he is on his second term, during which US Presidents traditionally look more at the history books than at elections.
But the Saudis and the Israelis are worried. The two countries find themselves on the same platform with regard to Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Bahrain and the Arab Spring. They appear to speak the same language on these issues.
They are becoming increasingly restless at the prospect of a nuclear deal in Geneva. They prod the P5+1 nations to up the ante so that they could scuttle the talks. The two countries will do their utmost to undo moves aimed at reaching an agreement which they fear may lead to normalisation of Iran-US relations.
They tried to advise the US. When Kerry was in the region early this month, the Saudis, who once urged Washington to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, told him: Don’t trust Tehran, tighten sanctions even more, anything short of complete nuclear concessions is a grave mistake.
They appear to take a stance that if the US does not act on Iran and Syria, they would act. The first salvo from Saudi Arabia came in July this year, when it financed and orchestrated a military coup to oust Egypt’s Iran-friendly Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi.
Then last month, the Saudis refused to take their seat on the United Nations Security Council on the grounds that the UN had failed to intervene in Syria. The snub was aimed more at the US than at the UN because it came against the backdrop of a growing disagreement between Saudi Arabia and the US over how to respond to Syria. The Saudis have begun to feel that Washington has stopped listening to them and are acting with little regard for the kingdom – read the Saudi ruling family.
Another salvo came on Tuesday in Lebanon when two suicide bombers from an al-Qaeda-linked Sunni group attacked the Iranian embassy. Iran, in keeping with diplomatic obligations, did not blame Saudi Arabia. Instead it blamed Israel, the usual suspect. But Hezbollah and Syrian officials pointed the finger at Saudi Arabia, which is arming and funding the Syrian rebels trying to oust Assad. Other analysts say the blast was probably aimed at dragging Lebanon to another civil war so that the pro-Iranian Hezbollah fighters will be busy fighting their enemies in Lebanon rather than in Syria to keep Assad in power. The Saudis are livid that Iran’s military assistance and Hezbollah fighters have changed the battlefield balance in favour of the Assad regime in the Syrian conflict.
For the Saudis, Iran is a bigger enemy than Israel. So they seem to believe that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Some Middle Eastern watchers believe that there exists a secret liaison between Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan and his Israeli counterpart. The duo are said to be meeting secretly and regularly at various world capitals. The British Sunday Times this week claimed that Saudi Arabia and Israel were making “contingencies” for an attack on Iran if the Geneva talks did not give full assurance that Iran would not pursue nuclear weapons. On Monday, the Saudis denied the report. The same paper last year claimed that Saudi Arabia had agreed to allow Israeli war planes to fly over Saudi airspace and attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The AFP reported yesterday that the draft proposal worked out by the United States, Britain, China, France, Russia, and Germany — the P5+1 — wants Iran to freeze for six months key parts of its nuclear programme. In return Iran would get minor and “reversible” sanctions relief, including unlocking several billion dollars in oil revenues stuck in international bank accounts.
This hoped-for “first phase” deal would build trust and ease tensions while Iran and the six powers hammer out a final accord that ends once and for all fears that Tehran will get an atomic bomb.
Iran on the other hand insists the P5+1 nations should recognise its right to generate nuclear energy.
But Israel, which has a huge nuclear arsenal, and Saudi Arabia want Iran to completely dismantle its nuclear programme. Saudi Arabia has indicated that it would obtain atomic bombs from Pakistan or build its own nuclear bomb if Iran is allowed to keep its nuclear facilities. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia believe that Iran was trying to mislead the P5+1 and go for weapons grade uranium enrichment when the Islamic republic feels the time is right. They feel a nuclear Iran will change the military balance of the region and a threat to regional stability and world peace. Iran dismisses such fears as unfounded and insists its nuclear programme is aimed at peaceful purposes.
With Saudi Arabia and Israel determined to weaken Iran militarily and economically, it won’t be a surprise if the Geneva deal reached on Sunday morning collapses before its six month probation period.
(This was a slightly revised version of an article that appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)