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 Bandar bin Sultan is no longer intelligence chief, having been replaced by Mohammad bin Nayef, who shares U.S. concerns about the resurgence of al-Qaeda in the region.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

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