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 Bandar bin Sultan is no longer intelligence chief, having been replaced by Mohammad bin Nayef, who shares U.S. concerns about the resurgence of al-Qaeda in the region.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

    Video Democrats Clinton, Kaine Offer 'Very Different Vision' Than Trump

    Party's presumptive presidential nominee, her vice presidential pick deliver optimistic message in Florida as they campaign for first time together

    Turkey Wants Pakistan to Close Down institutions, Businesses Linked to Gulen

    Thousands of Pakistani students are enrolled in Gulen's commercial network of around two dozen institutions operating in Pakistan for over two decades

    AU Passport A Work in Progress

    Who will get the passport and what the benefits are still need to be worked out

    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.
    In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movementi
    X
    July 22, 2016 11:49 AM
    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Poor Residents in Cleveland Not Feeling High Hopes of Republican Convention

    With the Republican Party's National Convention underway in Cleveland, Ohio, delegates and visitors are gathered in the host city's downtown - waiting to hear from the party's presidential candidate, Donald Trump. But a few kilometers from the convention's venue, Cleveland's poorest residents are not convinced Trump or his policies will make a difference in their lives. VOA's Ramon Taylor spoke with some of these residents as well as some of the Republican delegates and filed this report.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video With Yosemite as Backdrop, Obama Praises National Parks

    Last month, President Barack Obama and his family visited some of the most beautiful national parks in the U.S. Using the majestic backdrop of a towering waterfall in California's Yosemite National Park, Obama praised the national park system which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. He talked about the importance of America’s “national treasures” and the need to protect them from climate change and other threats. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Counter-Islamic State Coalition Plots Next Steps

    As momentum shifts against Islamic State in Iraq, discussions are taking place about the next steps for driving the terrorist group from its final strongholds. Secretary of State John Kerry is hosting a counter-IS meeting at the State Department, a day after defense ministers from more than 30 countries reviewed and agreed upon a course of action. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports.
    Video

    Video Russia's Participation at Brazil Olympic Games Still In Question

    The International Olympic Committee has delayed a decision on whether to ban all Russian teams from competing in next month's Olympic Games in Brazil over allegations of an elaborate doping scheme. The World Anti-Doping Agency recently released an independent report alleging widespread doping by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. So far, only Russian track and field athletes have been barred from the Summer Games in Brazil. VOA's Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.
    Video

    Video Millennials Could Determine Who Wins Race to White House

    With only four months to go until Americans elect a new president, one group of voters is getting a lot more attention these days: those ages 18 to 35, a generation known as millennials. It’s a demographic that some analysts say could have the power to decide the 2016 election. But a lot depends on whether they actually turn out to vote. VOA’s Alexa Lamanna reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora