Wednesday, 13 November 2013

How a possible US-Iran handshake helps the world

Watching the world from behind government windows in Manila, Tokyo, or Bangkok to see the United States spending all of its diplomatic effort in the Middle East, still, after more than ten years, must be disconcerting. Not long ago anticipation permeated Asia when US President Barack Obama promised a regional “Pivot”. That excitement dims with each talk Secretary of State John Kerry schedules with Middle East leaders instead of Asia Pacific ones.

But Washington’s relentless focus on the Middle East is understandable. The United States is not trying to be the world policeman any more, at least not in the sense reminiscent of the early 2000s, however it has some tidying to do in the region before it can move on. Cleaning up the mess it in many ways created for itself.

Today, a major obstacle to settling the region is bridging the political gap of the broken US-Iran relationship. Mending that relationship will send ripples throughout the world, despite France calling the negotiations a “Fools game”.


The P 5+1 group, or the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France) plus Germany, are involved in negotiations this month with Iran over the country’s nuclear program. However, there is no mistaking the fact that this is an American and Iranian issue at heart.

The first round of talks in Geneva, which ended November 9, failed to produce a deal despite the distinct feeling of progress among the participants. The talks ended but were not unsuccessful - this is just the beginning of what could be an important turn. They might lead to continued division, but the geopolitical realities predict a budding rapprochement sooner rather than later. And it’s been a long time coming.

Negotiations should resume November 19, where the main contention will be sorting out Iran’s nuclear program and hopefully ease the internationally-imposed sanctions effort. After that, finding a way to contain the rising Sunni Islamic influence in the Middle East and creating a mutually beneficial balance of power will be the long term goals.

It won’t be easy. Each country considers the other to be manifestations of evil. Fiery rhetoric lasting more than 30 years has led to military blockades, terrorist bombings, threats of war, harsh economic sanctions and political manipulations between the two nations. The US is the “Great Satan” in Iran’s view, while Iran is part of the “Axis of Evil” according to America.

In decades past, friction between the two countries served a greater geopolitical purpose. But those days are long gone. The political reality, with the rapid regional changes underway in the Middle East, dictates that Iran and America need to cooperate more than they can afford to remain at odds.

This is why meeting this month in Geneva could be the beginning of a real fix for the two. A wider look at the region reveals the deep reasons behind the negotiation’s timing.

Iran’s new leader President Hassan Rouhani and US President Barack Obama are far less irascible than their predecessors. Each would like to see their respective strategic imperatives met by negotiations rather than forcibly changed by military threats and posturing. This was the status quo for decades.

Throughout the American-led invasion of Iraq, Iran worked to undermine US efforts in Iraq. Strategically, Iran’s goal was to give itself breathing room for an expansion of influence once Western troops inevitably withdrew. To achieve this, it bolstered Shiite militant groups in Iraq which were closely connected to Tehran.

After the Americans departed Iraq (leaving no residual US troops in the country, as per Shiite President Nouri al Maliki’s request), Iran moved to stretch its growing influence over an arc from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean coast in Syria. For a while, this tactic seemed to be going all in Iran’s favour, much to the chagrin of Washington.

But the current Syrian situation is the utter collapse of Iran’s grand strategy. Syria’s leader is still nominally in control, but only over small sections of his country. And Sunni militant groups now control huge swathes of lawless Syria and northern Iraq. Add to this the crippling of the Iranian economy through sanctions, and Iran is now in its most vulnerable position in years.

Nuclear power plant in Iran
The United States on the other hand have welcomed new negotiations with Iran because they too seek a long-term cooperative strategy with Iran. American troops will soon depart Afghanistan leaving another noticeable vacuum in the region. The US is tired of war and doesn’t want to remain handcuffed to the Middle East. But right now, there are few choices for the US to entrust regional security in the region without the cooperation of Iran.

The Cold War is over and the struggle against Sunni militancy requires an updated strategy. So in order to establish any hope of reliable stability in the region, Washington needs to bring Iran into a partnership. Iran can help contain Sunni militancy - which will allow the US to focus elsewhere around the globe - and in return Iran can receive economic investment from eager American and international businesses to help rebuild its economy.

Iran’s diplomatic opening and America’s effort to clean up the security in the Middle East require a lot of concentration from Washington. This of course puts other US political efforts around the globe somewhat on the backburner, especially in Asia. But ultimately a handshake between Iran and the US should benefit the rest of the world in time.

After all, it took seven years for the US and China to ramp-up their cooperation after a similar rapprochement in the 1970s. Sorting out the pressing issue of Iran’s nuclear program would be the first positive step to welcoming the country back into the international community, giving the United States breathing more room.

That is the takeaway point to these negotiations. Because the longer the United States is distracted by chasing terrorists and fighting fires in the Middle East, Russia and China and other regional powers all have more time to consolidate influence over their own traditional spheres and maybe cause trouble. This directly undermines the American position, as well as their allies.

If the Iran-US negotiations do break new ground, we can expect to see the United States slowly return to its other commitments around the globe. Countries in the Asia Pacific especially, but Europe also, will be watching closely for any sign of the two belligerent historical enemies coming closer as the negotiations play out.


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