Reconciliation was not a word policy-makers would have used to describe the relationship between Washington and Tehran six months ago. Hostility had been the term for 35 years of diplomatic skirmishes, embargos, sanctions, and a divisive nuclear program.
But last week, the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany sent their diplomats to Geneva to meet the Iranian representatives in a “positive atmosphere,” as the meeting was described, for two-day secret talks. Washington’s envoys said they were happy with the outcome. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also echoed the positive note, describing it as a “very important step.” He said Iran is now “looking at the future with some hope.”
But in the Middle East, hope was a far cry from the sentiment of many policy-makers in the region. Alarming reactions came from various Arab states, where the prospect of ending the 35-year-old hostility between the US and Iran is being interpreted as a major geostrategic shuffle in the world order. Saudi Arabia in particular refused to join the United Nations Security Council because it feels threatened by the US' recent diplomatic outreach to its adversarial neighbor, Iran.
According to Johnathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, US foreign policy in the Middle East is at a turning point. “The administration seems to be so eager of disengaging from the region that it overlooks threats. Sometimes it even acknowledges them but allows them to continue. This is not a good sign for any of America’s allies in the [Middle East].”
Schanzer added, “I’ve been jokingly calling [US] foreign policy the Bizzaro doctrine; it plays off like the Seinfeld comedy show where everything that you think is going to happen, goes the exact opposite way. If you look at US foreign policy now, Iran appears to be pleased, the Syrian government appears to be pleased, even Sudan seems somewhat pleased.”
For the past few years, the Middle East had two main rivalries. Saudi Arabia on the one side felt reassured by its security alliance with the US. Iran, on the other, always played its Lebanese card (Hezbollah), and it slowly slid into a partnership with Russia.
Today, it is the Syrian war where the struggle for regional power is unfolding. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries back the insurgency against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, while Iran and Russia support the regime. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have asked the US to support military intervention in Syria and to aid the rebels. Iran and Russia, by contrast, have been supplying Syrian government forces with weapons and training.
But as policy-makers in Riyadh realized the US might not back Saudi Arabia’s regional aspirations, tensions have reached new heights between the two longtime allies. “The way Syria has been handled by Washington was a source of frustration for Riyadh. They have been begging Washington for intervention. The fact that Obama changed his mind again and again has triggered a lack of confidence from Saudi Arabia,” Schanzer said.
“For now, Saudi Arabia doesn’t have other choices. They don’t have other alliances that they can rely on. But what worries me now is that the Saudi [leadership] might choose other foreign policy options that take place more in the shadows. They might support radical groups and this would mean the return of the Saudi Arabia of the 1980s-1990s,” he added.
While old regional allies of the US may be unhappy, from Washington’s perspective, the spider-web of complex Middle East politics is difficult to untangle. The region is volatile, and the Syrian crisis has been a major game changer. The hostility with Tehran over the nuclear enrichment program, combined with Russia’s involvement in the Syrian crisis alongside the Assad regime and Iran, does not leave much room for maneuver.
“The relationship between Russia and Iran seems to be very coherent, economically and politically. The US realized that it had a lot to lose from the growing tensions with Iran,” Imad Salamey, professor of International Relations at the Lebanese American University, told NOW. “Washington prefers to have a negotiated settlement and divide spheres of influence in a way that wouldn’t undermine vital interests in the region,” he said.
Salamey also says that from the US point of view, the Sunni-Shiite or Saudi-Iranian conflict in the Middle East is a dispute that must be addressed at a regional level. At the end of the day, he said, the US doesn’t need to have an immediate take in getting involved in supporting one side or the other. Salamey says reconciliation to ensure some stability in the region and to give a boost to the reformist current in Iran is needed, which in turn may facilitate some sort of solution on the nuclear question.
But is Iran’s government sincere when it states it wants to negotiate?
Lebanese commentator Ali Al-Amine, who follows Iranian politics closely, says the shift in foreign policy is genuine. “Iran’s change is for real,” he said. “The leaders know by now that the Iranian people are distancing themselves from the government’s stances. The old political era in Iran is definitely over.”
“However, we shouldn’t jump into this positive conclusion just yet,” al-Amine cautioned. “The relationship between Iran and the US is not that positive yet. But it is obvious that certain threats have completely vanished, including the military intervention in Syria and the threats to attack Iran.”
Luna Safwan contributed with translation.
Ana Maria Luca is on twitter @aml1609.