News / Middle East

    Column: Iran Role Resurges With Nuclear Talks, Saudi Overture

    The United Nations headquarters building in Vienna, where six world powers and Iran launched talks over Tehran's nuclear projects Wednesday.
    The United Nations headquarters building in Vienna, where six world powers and Iran launched talks over Tehran's nuclear projects Wednesday.
    As Iran resumed talks this week with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), the Barack Obama administration and France tried to downplay expectations for quick progress.
     
    A U.S. official briefing reporters in Vienna said that an agreement was not imminent or certain while French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, speaking to senior journalists in Washington, said he was unsure whether a deal could be finalized before an interim nuclear accord with Iran expires on July 20.
     
    But expectations are growing that a long-term nuclear deal will be reached and that it will lead to a more recognized role for Iran in resolving other crises such as the Syrian civil war. That Iran’s fortunes are on the rise again appears to have influenced its long-time rival Saudi Arabia, whose foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal declared this week that he was going to invite his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, to visit the kingdom.
     
    The Saudi change of strategy – after months of rebuffing Iranian overtures – also reflects recognition that the regime of Bashar al-Assad is not about to collapse and that the Obama administration has prioritized counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation over regime change. Having accepted that the U.S. is not going to enter a third Middle East war because of Iran or Syria, the Saudis have reshuffled their national security establishment to discard anti-Iran hawks. Bandar bin Sultan is no longer intelligence chief, having been replaced by Mohammad bin Nayef, who shares U.S. concerns about the resurgence of al-Qaeda in the region. Just this week, Bandar’s half brother, Salman bin Sultan, was dismissed as deputy defense minister.
     
    While members of the so-called London 11 met Thursday to discuss more support for the moderate Syrian opposition, their strategy for achieving a political transition in Syria is in disarray. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy for Syria, resigned this week and Assad is about to be “re-elected” next month to a third seven-year term. His forces, augmented by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militiamen, have re-asserted control over Syria’s central spine and appear to have also gotten away with the use of chlorine gas against civilians despite Assad’s agreement last year to give up chemical weapons.
     
    If the level of violence in Syria is to decrease to alleviate the humanitarian crisis there, Iran will have to play a major role. Already, it was instrumental in achieving a cease-fire in Homs that allowed a small number of exhausted rebel fighters to retreat from that battered city. The Saudi invitation to Zarif is clear evidence that the Saudis understand that they must work with the Iranians to contain the crisis, which is threatening to destabilize many of Syria’s neighbors.
     
    If Iran is also able to clinch a nuclear deal, that will cap a dramatic turnaround in its stature.
     
    The Islamic Republic reached the prior apex of its influence in 2006 when its Lebanese partner, Hezbollah, emerged battered but not defeated by Israel in a month-long war. Iran’s image began to decline after fraud-tainted 2009 presidential elections and a harsh crackdown on protesters. It plummeted among Sunni Arabs because of Iranian support for the Assad regime.
     
    Fast forward three years and the Middle East kaleidoscope has shifted dramatically. In Tehran, a competent new president, Hassan Rouhani, has replaced the feckless Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and made progress on negotiations that should extricate Iran from the noose of economic sanctions. Meanwhile, the Arab uprisings that began in late 2010 have soured everywhere but in Tunisia. Iran has lost a chance for restored relations with Egypt, where a coup cut short that country’s experiment with political Islam. However, Iran retains considerable influence in Iraq, which has just completed its first parliamentary elections since U.S. combat forces withdrew, and in Afghanistan, where the Americans are also withdrawing most troops and the next president may be Abdullah Abdullah, an old Iranian ally.
     
    Sectarianism remains a threat to Iran that will not decline without de-escalating the Syria war. Iran also faces considerable domestic challenges. The limited sanctions relief Iran obtained from the interim nuclear accord has stemmed Iran’s economic decline but not yet brought appreciable growth. Rouhani’s team is struggling to reduce inflation while increasing employment particularly for educated youth.
     
    But other factors are promising. The crisis over Ukraine has enabled Iranian officials to portray their country as a plausible alternative source of energy for Europe compared to Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive behavior in seizing Crimea and destabilizing eastern Ukraine has reminded many in the West that they hated Russia far longer than they have disliked Iran.
     
    Since this is the Middle East, there is much that can still go wrong and likely will. Hardliners in Iran will question any nuclear agreement and ask whether Rouhani is paying too high a price for sanctions relief. In the U.S., Republicans, with an eye to Congressional elections this fall and presidential elections two years later, will also scrutinize the terms and portray U.S. concessions as excessive. Israel remains nervous about a nuclear deal although senior Israeli intelligence officials have increasingly questioned the “sky is falling” rhetoric of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
     
    Still, the action is in Vienna where negotiators are trying to solve the Rubik’s cube that is a nuclear deal. If they do, Iran is poised for a bigger role in other matters. Just ask the Saudis.

    Barbara Slavin

    Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

    You May Like

    Beijing Warns Critics Over South China Sea Dispute

    Official warns critics that the more they challenge China's position regarding disputed territories in one of world’s busiest waterways, the more it will push back

    Will New Russian Force Be 'Putin’s Personal Army'?

    With broad powers to control riots, suppress dissent, National Guard may be aimed at sending a message to West as much as keeping peace at home

    Foreign Media in Pyongyang Barred From North Korean Party Congress

    Hundreds of international journalists invited to cover historic party meeting barred from entering actual event

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Image Recognition Market Seen Doubling by 2020i
    X
    Ramon Taylor
    May 05, 2016 10:05 PM
    From auto tagging on Facebook to self-driving cars, image recognition technology as it exists today is still in its beginning phases, experts say — and will soon change the way users and corporations interact with the physical world. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
    Video

    Video Image Recognition Market Seen Doubling by 2020

    From auto tagging on Facebook to self-driving cars, image recognition technology as it exists today is still in its beginning phases, experts say — and will soon change the way users and corporations interact with the physical world. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
    Video

    Video Child Labor in Afghanistan Remains a Problem

    With war still raging in Afghanistan, the country also faces the problem of child labor as families put their school-age children to work to help make ends meet. But, thanks to VOA's Afghan Service, two families whose children had been working in a brick-making factory - to earn their livings and pay off family debts - now have a new lease on life. Zabihullah Ghazi reports.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Troops Recount Firefight Which Killed US Navy SEAL

    A U.S. Navy SEAL killed Tuesday, when Islamic State fighters punched through Kurdish lines in northern Iraq, was part of a quick reaction force sent to extract other U.S. troops trapped by the surprise offensive. VOA's Kawa Omar spoke with Kurdish troops in the town of Telskuf -- the scene of what U.S. officials called a "dynamic firefight."
    Video

    Video British Lawmakers Warn EU Exit Talks Could Last A Decade

    Leaving the European Union would mean difficult negotiations that could take years to complete, according to a bipartisan group of British lawmakers. While the group did not recommend a vote either way, the lawmakers noted trade deals between the EU and non-EU states take between four and nine years on average. Henry Ridgwell reports on the mounting debate over whether Britain should stay or exit the EU as the June vote approaches.
    Video

    Video NASA Astronauts Train for Commercial Space Flights

    Since the last Shuttle flight in 2011, the United States has been relying on Russian rockets to launch fresh crews to the International Space Station. But that may change in the next few years. NASA and several private space companies are developing advanced capsules capable of taking humans into low orbit and beyond. As VOA's George Putic reports, astronauts are already training for commercial spacecraft in flight simulators.
    Video

    Video US Worried Political Chaos in Iraq Will Hurt IS Fight

    The White House is expressing concern about rising political chaos in Iraq and the impact it could have on the fight against the Islamic State. The U.S. says Iraq needs a stable, central government to help push back the group. But some say Baghdad may not have a unified government any time soon. VOA's White House correspondent Mary Alice Salinas reports.
    Video

    Video Press Freedom in Myanmar Fragile, Limited

    As Myanmar begins a new era with a democratically elected government, many issues of the past confront the new leadership. Among them is press freedom in a country where journalists have been routinely harassed or jailed.
    Video

    Video Taliban Threats Force Messi Fan to Leave Afghanistan

    A young Afghan boy, who recently received autographed shirts and a football from his soccer hero Lionel Messi, has fled his country due to safety concerns. He and his family are now taking refuge in neighboring Pakistan. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from Islamabad.
    Video

    Video Major Rubbish Burning Experiment Captures Destructive Greenhouse Gases

    The world’s first test to capture environmentally harmful carbon dioxide gases from the fumes of burning rubbish took place recently in Oslo, Norway. The successful experiment at the city's main incinerator plant, showcased a method for capturing most of the carbon dioxide. VOA’s Deborah Block has more.
    Video

    Video EU Visa Block Threatens To Derail EU-Turkey Migrant Deal

    Turkish citizens could soon benefit from visa-free travel to Europe as part of the recent deal between the EU and Ankara to stem the flow of refugees. In return, Turkey has pledged to keep the migrants on Turkish soil and crack down on those who are smuggling them. Brussels is set to publish its latest progress report Wednesday — but as Henry Ridgwell reports from London, many EU lawmakers are threatening to veto the deal over human rights concerns.
    Video

    Video Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Ruling

    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Painting Captures President Lincoln Assassination Aftermath

    A newly restored painting captures the moments following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. It was recently unveiled at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where America’s 16th president was shot. It is the only known painting by an eyewitness that captures the horror of that fateful night. VOA’s Julie Taboh tells us more about the painting and what it took to restore it to its original condition.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora