SPEAKING FREELY A tectonic shift in the Middle East
By Mohammad Pervez Bilgrami
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
The United States and Iran appear on a path towards resuming diplomatic relations for the first time since the overthrow of the US-backed shah regime in 1979. Since then, the US and Iran had only traded barbs on regional and international issues.
Iran's controversial nuclear program and its past leader's cutting remarks over the state of Israel have added fuel to the animosity. But, verbal barbs and threats never led to direct US military intervention in Iran.
Iran's newly elected President Hassan Rouhani, described by
many as a moderate, has started a new beginning in the relationship with the West generally and the US in particular. President Barack Obama and Rouhani had a telephone conversation on September 27, the highest-level contact between the two countries in three decades, and reportedly signaled their commitment to reach a pact on Tehran's nuclear program.
The call was a result of positive talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, a day earlier, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
The call is also the result of a dramatic shift in tone in Iran and US relations. Obama has said for years he was open to direct contact with Iran, while also stressing that all options - including military strikes - were on the table to prevent Iran building a nuclear bomb. Ali Vaez, a senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group told Reuters, "The biggest taboo in Iranian politics has been broken. This is the beginning of a new era."
"The phone call was an important milestone - a calculated risk by two cautious leaders mindful of domestic constraints," Yasmin Alem, a senior fellow at Atlantic Council's South Asia Center, told the Tehran Times. "More than anything else it shows the high level of political capital invested in a peaceful resolution of the nuclear crisis."
The bonhomie between United States and Iran will create a tectonic shift in the region's already settled pro-US and anti-US camps. Moreover, It is being watched keenly by many that in the US who were not in favor of it establishing a congenial relationship with Iran.
"It is early days and it will require a lot of testing but Mr Rouhani has been more ambitious than I would ever have hoped," says Suzanne Maloney, a former US state department official and now an expert on Iran at the Brookings Institution told the Financial Times.
The relations between the US and Iran have shifted decisively over the past week, and the million dollar question is what compelled United States to extend a hand of friendship towards Iran?
The Middle East has witnessed great changes since the eruption of the Arab awakening, when the United States has started losing its unchallenged grip on the region. A US accord with Russia on Syrian chemical weapons has brought Russia back in the geopolitics of the Middle East as a significant player.
Turkey, a major US-NATO ally, has been on odds with the US on major regional issues including the coup in Egypt backed by the latter. Recently, Turkey has opted for a Chinese firm bypassing US and European NATO partners for its longstanding long range air defense system termed locally "TLORMADIS". Many observers believe that this Turkish decision will infuriate the US.
Israel which has been campaigning for strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities may find itself in a fix if the Iranian nuclear issue is solved peacefully. An Iranian nuclear bomb or the Ayatollah's cries to annihilate Israel are not Israel's real threats. Israel's real threat is Iranian calls for peace.
Israel is horrified to see Rouhani's peace proposals, which raise the threat of international pressure to give up its own nuclear arms. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states may also feel nervous over growing US-Iranian relations.
Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, strikes a cautious note on the possibility of a breakthrough. "The most difficult negotiations may not be between Obama and Rouhani, but between Obama and Congress and Rouhani and Ayatollah Khamenei. Both presidents are constrained by their domestic politics," he told the Financial Times.
If Iran is persuaded to abandon its policy of regional strategic-depth, then the Syrian civil war, Iraqi ethnic and sectarian strife and other looming issues in the region may be solved diplomatically and the continuing bloodshed can be minimized. The divulgement of current Iranian policies is more in the interest of the entire region than the sidelined Iran surviving on the hatred of West and Arabs.
It must be questioned how the Iranian political and clerical leadership will manage its approaching relationship with the United States when its pillar of regional strategy is based on an axis of resistance against the US and Israel - Iran's anti US-Israel tirades will be seen as fictional from the Levant to South America after the resumption of diplomatic ties with the United Sates.
Imminent United States-Iranian rapprochement will hugely impact the geopolitics of the greater Middle
East where new permutations and combinations have already started taking shape.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Mohammad Pervez Bilgrami is a New Delhi-based geopolitics and geoeconomics analyst focusing on West Asia and North Africa. Bilgrami is also a researcher on Shi'ite-Sunni relations and their impact on the Islamic world.