By Gregory R. Copley:
A rapprochement between the US and Iran — now possible because of the domestic political needs of both governments — would change the global strategic landscape. A strategic rapprochement between the two once-allied states, estranged since 1979, would cut a swathe through the geo-strategic reach of Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) into the Persian Gulf/Middle East, and revive the prospect of a return of the US to influence in Central Asia.
Moreover, it would relegate Turkey to second-tier status as far as the US was concerned, and could pave the way to the gradual transformation of Iranian society. This, in turn, could also lead to the restoration of the classical relationship of Iran with Israel, something which existed for millennia. And Iran could confirm its status as a power with reach into the Mediterranean. Indeed, the prospect exists for a rapprochement between Iran — where almost two-thirds of Azeri people live — with the Republic of Azerbaijan to its immediate north, sharing the Caspian Sea.
The leaderships in Washington and Tehran have more prosaic need of a grand bargain which would end some 34 years of estrangement. For the US Government of Pres. Barack Obama, a final settlement of the stand-off with Iran would give it the only real foreign policy success in the two Obama terms in office, save for the “accidental” healing of the isolation of Myanmar. The re-opening of US-Myanmar relations actually took away one of the PRC’s key pearls in the Indian Ocean; an ally which stretched from the Chinese border down into the Indian Ocean in the heart of India’s sphere.
For the Iranian Government of Supreme Leader “Ayatollah” Ali Khamene’i and Pres. Rouhani, a rapprochement with the US would spell the end of sanctions which have severely constrained the Iranian economy and forced it to rely on Russia and the PRC. Not that Tehran has objected to the new alliance with the PRC and the attendant participation by Iran in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). That is something which Tehran would not willingly surrender at this stage.
Iran has, despite the degree of isolation which US-led embargoes have imposed on it, prospered strategically in recent years. It has effectively defeated all pressures to emerge as the principal power of the Persian Gulf and the Mashriq. It has fought proxy wars with its neighbors — Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, in particular — all of which faced far less constraint than did Iran. The proxy war which Iran has waged with those three neighbors, plus the United States, in Syria (where Iran has had no option but to support its principal ally, the ‘Alawite Government of Pres. Bashar al-Assad), is far from over, despite the reality that the Syrian Government has emerged essentially in control of Syria.
Saudi Arabia has endeavored to bring together the radical jihadist Sunni militias in Syria for one last push against the Assad Government, promising a force of 40,000 fighters to confront Syria’s conventional military establishment and pro-Government militias. But this time the gloves are off, and the jihadists — including those linked with al-Qaida and other extremist salafist philosophies — are now seen as being directly tied to Saudi Arabia. This makes Saudi Arabia a direct threat to Iran and its interests, and Iran can be expected to retaliate commensurately, as it is promised to do. Saudi Arabia in the past has backed away from direct confrontations, but this time faces an existential threat.
Turkey, having realized late in the play that it had backed a losing gambit in Syria, and one which directly threatened the most vital of Iran’s geopolitical interests (more vital even than retaining the Iranian Arab province of Khuzestan, according to Iranian leaders), has attempted to mend fences with Iran. This meant, for Turkey, not only betraying its Israeli intelligence links to Iran, but entering into a formal intelligence exchange agreement with Iran. This, coupled with Turkey’s move to acquire a PRC air defense system, has put it into a category of self-created isolation with NATO and the US, even though it may have saved Turkey from the full fury of an Iranian campaign to literally dismember Turkey through the support of insurgency and opposition rmovements (Kurdish and others) within Turkey.
Turkey had, in the first weeks of November 2013, also attempted to back-peddle on its anger with the European Union (EU), describing Turkish membership of the EU as “essential”, but reiterating at the same time that its military position of occupation of northern Cyprus was also — and equally — “essential”. That cannot work, with the result that Turkey may have ultimately to surrender (at least for now) any chance of progressing with the process of achieving EU membership in order to stave off the Iranian threat. Few in the West have understood just how the second half of 2013 saw Turkey move from an aggressive position against Iran (in Syria) and a close ally of Obama’s Washington to a defensive position in which the US disappeared as an ally and Iran loomed as the victor of Syria and the impending and overwhelming threat to Turkey’s survival.
Much has been made recently of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Pakistan in terms of using Pakistan’s undoubted skills to train the 40,000-strong jihadist force for Riyadh’s war in Syria, and Pakistan’s probable deployment of nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia’s CSS-2 ballistic missile force (aimed predominantly at Iran). Indeed, Pakistan has seen much Saudi investment, including investment in the Pakistani nuclear weapons program, and there is no doubt that the Pakistan Government responds to calls for help from its major investor. But Pakistan, too, has long seen the benefit of cooperation with Iran, and now sees the prospect of Iranian oil and gas being piped to Pakistan, saving Pakistan’s economy (and particularly its cities) from the energy shortfalls which loom. Pakistan, too, having learned the lesson of relying on its Pashtun links in Afghanistan, now seeks to cooperate with Iran and the Dari-speaking and Turkmen populations of Afghanistan which have traditionally been at odds with the Pashtun.
Many key Pakistani officials recall the stability which prevailed in Afghanistan when the Shah of Iran was able to subsidize and influence the Afghan leaders.
In the short term, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are quietly scrambling to build a nuclear military capability of their own, to counter-balance that of Iran. Few doubt that Iran will, whatever happens diplomatically, soon have an indigenous nuclear weapons production capability. The fact that Iran already has a dozen or more imported nuclear weapons is taken for granted within the region, even if US official policy is to avoid discussion of the issue. Turkey, historically, played a key rôle in getting nuclear technology for Pakistan and Iran, and has clearly, for some time, been preparing its own nuclear weapons plans, even in the knowledge that this would not sit well with NATO or the US.
Pres. Obama’s abandonment of the leaders of Turkey and Saudi Arabia — his two “most favored” allies — in exchange for a rapprochement with Iran essentially transformed Turkish Prime Minister Reçep Tayyip Erdo?an and Saudi Arabia’s King ‘Abdallah bin ‘Abd al-’Aziz al Sa’ud from close friends to implacable foes (not that, according to reliable sources, the King ever trusted Pres. Obama to deliver on his promises of support). For Mr Obama, however, there was no choice if he was to achieve any strategic success on which to revive his sagging US domestic political appeal; the alliance with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey to topple Assad in Syria not only failed; it made Obama a figure of derision in many international circles. He had to walk away, therefore, from his soul-mates in Ankara and Riyadh in order to save himself.
The rapprochement which is most likely to occur between Iran and the US will have longer-term consequences than either party has fully considered. Opening Iran to exposure to the world will, in the medium term, so dramatically erode the power of the clerics in Iran that they will have difficulty in retaining power, at least in the way they now exercise it.
The process paves the way for a dramatic reversal of Iran-Israel mutual hostilities, given that in post-rapprochement Iran there is little to be gained in postulating Israel as the great enemy. Nuclear weapons or not, a stable post-revolutionary Iran ceases to pose the threat to Israel which some perceived it to be in the 1991-2013 era. But until the deal is done between the US and Iran, it behooves Israel to sustain a strong rhetorical position against clerical Iran. Firstly, it helps the US have at least some leverage in negotiating with Tehran; and secondly it gives Israel an ongoing stake in the game.
This piece is cross-posted from OilPrice.com with permission.