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 Bandar bin Sultan is no longer intelligence chief, having been replaced by Mohammad bin Nayef, who shares U.S. concerns about the resurgence of al-Qaeda in the region.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

At Khmer Rouge Court, Long-Awaited Verdict Approaches

First phase of trial, which is coming to an end, has focused on forced exodus of Phnom Penh in 1975 - and now many are hopeful justice will be served More

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities More

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

Downing of Malaysian airliner, allegations of cross-border shelling move information war in war-torn country to a new level More

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.
Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
July 31, 2014 8:13 PM
The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict in Gaza, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities. Probably the most important destination is the local bakery. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Gaza City.
Video

Video US-Funded Program Offers Honduran Children Alternative to Illegal Immigration

President Obama and Central American leaders recently agreed to come up with a plan to address poverty and crime in the region that is fueling the surge of young migrants trying to illegally enter the United States. VOA’s Brian Padden looks at one such program in Honduras - funded in part by the United States - which gives street kids not only food and safety but a chance for a better life without, crossing the border.
Video

Video 'Fab Lab' Igniting Revolution in Kenya

The University of Nairobi’s Science and Technology Park is banking on 3-D prototyping to spark a manufacturing revolution in the country. Lenny Ruvaga has more for from Nairobi's so-called “FabLab” for VOA.
Video

Video Gazans in Shelled School Sought Shelter

Israel's air and ground assault against Hamas-led fighters in Gaza has forced many Palestinians to flee their homes, seeking safety. But safe places are hard to find, as VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jabaliya.
Video

Video Rapid Spread of Ebola in West Africa Prompts Global Alert

Across West Africa, health officials are struggling to keep up with what the World Health Organization describes as the worst ebola outbreak on record. The virus has killed hundreds of people this year. U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders are watching the developments closely as they weigh what actions, if any, are needed to help contain the disease.
Video

Video Michelle Obama: Young Africans Need to Embrace Women's Rights

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama urged some of Africa's best and brightest to advocate for women's rights in their home countries. As VOA's Pam Dockins explains, Obama spoke to some 500 participants of the Young African Leaders Initiative, a six-week U.S.-based training and development program.
Video

Video Immigrant Influx on Texas Border Heats Up Political Debate

Immigrants from Central America continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in south Texas, seeking asylum in the United States, as officials grapple with ways to deal with the problem and provide shelter for thousands of minors among the illegal border crossers. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the issue is complicated by internal U.S. politics and U.S. relations with the troubled nations that immigrants are fleeing.
Video

Video Study: Latino Students Most Segregated in California

Even though legal school segregation ended in the United States 60 years ago, one study finds segregation still occurs in the U.S. based on income and race. The University of California Los Angeles Civil Rights Project finds that students in California are more segregated by race than ever before, especially Latinos. Elizabeth Lee reports for VOA from Los Angeles.

AppleAndroid