Thursday, 3 October 2013

Iran's weakening position leads to talks with Obama

US President Barack Obama talked directly with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the end of September. This was the first time any leader of the two duelling countries conducted bilateral talks with each other for 34 years.

Some are already calling the discussion a breakthrough, but in reality the geopolitical situation in the Middle East has changed so dramatically that Iran are in a much weaker position now than they were a few years ago. On the other hand, while the US might throw their weight around in the region, they truly do not want to kick-start another conflict in the Middle East if it can be avoided. So talking now makes perfect sense for both sides.

Talking is something many analysts hoped for when Mr Rouhani entered office as a successor to the firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mr Rouhani is considered a moderate in comparison, with a clear record of diplomatic competence, especially surrounding the controversial nuclear project.

And beyond any other strategic complications between the two countries, Iran’s nuclear path has proven to be the most troublesome. Tehran has used their nuclear ambitions to both threaten others and protect Iranian interests the Middle East, all without actually having a viable or deliverable nuclear weapon.

Their strategy of working towards, but never actually possessing, a nuclear weapon is a finely-tuned process of political leverage on the world stage. If the Iranian regime actually owned a nuclear weapon, it can be assured that sanctions would not be the only measure of force visited upon the country.

The US and Israeli intelligence apparatus might be fallible, but if they ever discovered a nuclear weapon in Iran, the international community would move fairly swiftly to remove the threat by whatever means necessary.

This is why having a nuclear weapon sits in the right hand column on the list of worst-case-scenarios for Iran. Tehran knows it can use their nuclear project as a bargaining chip with the West in a way they never could if they boasted a viable nuclear weapon. So long as the project was credible and the threats were scary enough, they could distract the US and Israel from their real objective.

That objective lies in building up their conventional forces and expanding their sphere of influence across the Middle East with as little interference as possible. Without the United States armed forces positioned in Iraq, Iran’s conventional forces are now the strongest military in the region. This deeply worries Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Muslim members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

It has been suggested that if Iran got enough influence over their immediate region, they could swap their nuclear project (which was never very far along anyway) for recognition of their dominant position in the Middle East. This analysis explains why the US has given so much attention to and sabre-rattling towards Iran over the past decade.

However, Iran’s grand strategy has come somewhat unstuck over the past year or so. Thanks in no small part to the effects of the Arab Spring and various shadow activities of the West’s intelligence services. The last thing the United States needs is another imbroglio in the Middle East. It has tried to extract itself as best it can, on the proviso that its strategic imperatives can be maintained and Iran contained. The conflict in Syria has broken the arc of influence carved out by Iran, which falls right into the United States lap.

Iran needs Syrian President Bashar al Assad to rule Syria for as long as he can. But this is not looking like it will be possible. The outcome in Syria is most likely going to be a terrible choice between partition, perpetual civil war (in a similar form to Lebanon in the 1980s), or some devil’s agreement linking the moderate rebels with the regime against the more radical Jihadist groups. A coherent Syria is not going to emerge, which ruins Iran’s plan.

Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia, both predominantly Shiite Muslim regions, were both very close to slipping into heavy unrest over the past few years stirred up by Iranian intelligence services. But for whatever reason - be it natural counter-revolutionary forces or state intervention - the region has not succumbed to Iranian influence. In fact, just the opposite. Tehran’s strategy has failed to entrench support for the regime in all but historically Shiite areas, such as eastern Iraq. Sunni forces in the Arab world have beaten Iran in the game.

All of this brings Iran to the negotiating table with perhaps not the influence it could have had. The Iranians are still in a relatively good position in the Middle East, which is why these talks are only hesitant and probing at this point.

But that seat is eroding very quickly. The geopolitical situation predicts a settlement between Iran and the United States. Talking to Mr Obama last week is really the only salvaging move Mr Rouhani can make at the present time.

Both want to retain their positions and ensure the other doesn’t encroach or threaten their interests. Just how a settlement would be sold to their respective publics is less predictable, as there is significant opposition to detente in both countries.

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