By Riad Kahwaji
The U.S.-Iranian rapprochement is generally a very positive step supported by all nations, especially America’s allies in the Middle East who are growing tired of frequent wars in their volatile region. The Arabian Gulf States are leading advocates of a Middle East free of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), and thus are most concerned about Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Qatar and Oman have previously attempted to even mediate between Washington and Tehran. A peaceful resolution to the standoff between the West and Iran would be a much better result than a war which would take place in and around the Arabian Gulf. However, for Arabian Gulf States, differences with Iran go beyond its nuclear program. They include Tehran’s policies vis-à-vis Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and the Gulf waters, and galvanizing Shiite groups in the Arab world to act against their central governments.
Israel, in turn, has a different perspective on the Iranian threat than that of the Obama administration. The two allies differ on the timetable of the Iranian nuclear program where Israel believes Tehran would reach a nuclear threshold within six months, while the America believes it could still take over a year. Also, the size of concessions Israel would expect of Iran’s nuclear program seem to be bigger than Washington’s. While Israel wants to see Iran’s program dismantled, the U.S. in turn seems confident it can contain a limited enrichment program. In addition, Israel is very worried about the steady expansion of Iran’s area of influence around it, especially in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Worth considering is the U.S. military’s shrinking footprint in the region and the American public’s loss of appetite for any further military adventures in the Middle East. Nowhere is this backtracking seen more clearly than President Obama’s turn to congress on the decision to carry out punitive strikes following Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
Even without the diplomatic breakthrough in New York last week between American and Iranian leaders, anyone in Washington in recent months heard from U.S. officials that sanctions against Iran were working, thus there is no need for military action against Iran, and the Israeli government does not have the domestic support to carry out a unilateral strike against Iran. So the Arabian Gulf States are not expecting to see any military action by the Obama Administration against Iran anytime soon and do not believe Israel will do it alone.
Excited by its success in sealing a deal with the Russians over Syria’s chemical weapons at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Washington seems to be moving swiftly to score another diplomatic success in a deal with Iran over its nuclear program. However, disassociating the Syrian civil war from the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons would not be as easy as separating Iran’s nuclear program from Tehran’s meddling policies in the region. Clearly we are yet to see a successful implementation of the UNSC Resolution 2118 to dismantle the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal in a civil war environment. Hence it will be many times harder to see a proper international environment for a nuclear deal with Iran at a time the Middle East is boiling with ethno-sectarian tension with Iran in its center. Many Arab countries, especially the ones in the Gulf, have come to support the Syrian predominantly Sunni rebels in the fight to overthrow the Alawite Syrian regime backed by its Shiite allies: Iran and the Lebanese group Hizbullah. The Sunni-Shiite fighting has spilled over into neighboring countries like Lebanon and Iraq. Hizbullah’s involvement in Syria drove the Arab Gulf States to brand Hizbullah as a terrorist group and is about to take a series of disciplinary actions against it.
The fighting in Syria has provided a cover for the transfer of large quantities of weapons to Hizbullah in Lebanon, in a manner that drove Israel to maintain a high state of readiness along its borders and to send its jet fighters to hit alleged convoys carrying surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles from Syria to Hizbullah. Thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) are deployed in Syria to assist the regime forces in the fighting against the rebels, which gives Tehran a bigger influence on Damascus. This fact is placing Iran in a much stronger position to retaliate against Israel if the latter ever decides to strike Tehran’s nuclear facilities. The IRGC and Hizbullah have reportedly increased their international operations against Israeli targets abroad, which had prompted the European Union to place Hizbullah’s armed wing on its list of terrorist groups. Turkey, another regional power has become more vocal in its criticism of Tehran’s actions in Iraq and Syria. Ankara has provided strong support to the Syrian rebels.
Therefore, President Obama’s quest to improve relations with Iran will be very tough, not only at home where he is facing strong opposition from Congress, but also from his allies abroad, especially in the Middle East region. While making progress on the nuclear front with Iran, Obama must make sure he is making progress in resolving the war in Syria to reduce the sectarian tension, and must also retain the confidence of his regional allies and assure them that their interests and security will not be at stake as a result of whatever deal he could reach with Tehran. Unilateral actions by America’s allies in the region, like Turkey’s recent decision to snub Washington and partner with China in developing its ballistic missile defense system, and the Arabian Gulf States’ decision to back the toppling of the U.S.-backed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, are all signs of growing discontent with U.S. foreign policy in the region. U.S. credibility is at an all-time low in the Middle East.
The move to build on his historic phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif at the United Nations must be a very delicate one. Rouhani himself has strong challenges to overcome at home in dealing with hardliners. Although both Obama and Rouhani must be commended for their courageous move to break the thick ice that froze the relations between the two countries for the past 34 years and seek a diplomatic solution, they must realize the size of the task ahead of them and know it is about much more than the nuclear program. A simple deal on limiting enrichment and increasing inspections will not do it. Nor will opening a bazaar like Tehran wishes to in order to trade one file for another. The regional and international scene has become more complicated.
Resuming ties between Iran and the United States is a highwire act. It is not just about the legacy and reputation of Rouhani and Obama and their respective personal agendas. Fast unfolding regional developments during the current period could be about shaping the future Middle East and seeing the emergence of a new world order. Consequently, the stakes are extremely high and there will be no boundaries for the regional or international players who will all be fighting hard for their survival and global standing.
Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA