Decline of U.S. influence means Iran and Saudi Arabia may just have to get along — eventually
Thirty-five years ago Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran chanting “death to America.” But today Iran wants to work with the United States to stabilize Iraq while negotiating a deal on its nuclear program. The journey from death threats to diplomacy is both a triumph of U.S. statecraft and a symbol of its declining power.
When I spoke to thinkers, politicians and business people on a recent trip to Tehran, I was struck by the strong consensus that America’s hegemony in the Middle East and in global affairs is giving way to a multipolar order in which power is more widely shared and where its nature is changing. Not long ago, they said, the United States bestrode the Middle East as a unipolar power, the main source of order and disorder, the biggest consumer of hydrocarbons and the most active military power. It was not for nothing that it was nicknamed the “Great Satan.” But today the United States is but one of many players in the region’s security struggles, and its purchases of oil are eclipsed by China’s.
The real Great Satan for today’s Iran is Saudi Arabia. As Nasser Hadian, a professor at Tehran University, explained to me in an interview last week: “It is the Saudis who are challenging us almost everywhere – increasing their oil output and bringing down the prices; forming a GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) oriented against Iran; challenging us in Iraq, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Lebanon, in Syria and building infrastructure inside Iran.”
When I travelled to Riyadh a few weeks ago, I found that Iranian suspicions of Saudi interference are more than reciprocated, with a litany of complaints about Iranian activism in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain.
This geopolitical struggle shows the extent to which the dynamics of the region are now set within it. The United States is no longer the main definer of order but rather a resource that Iran and Saudi can use in their struggle against one another – with Saudis encouraging the United States to conduct military strikes in Syria, while some in Tehran may secretly be hoping for them in Iraq.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq set off a chain of events that are dissolving the post-World War I order of the Middle East that the United States has guaranteed in the post-colonial era. In its place we are seeing a resurgence of sectarian identities that were subordinated to nationalism during the mandates in the colonial period and by autocratic governments during the Cold War. If you want to see these in action, you could do worse than travel to Qom, Iran, the Shiite religious center.
Within a stone’s throw of the Fatima Masumeh shrine and the famous seminary is a street full of Arab shops, houses and conveniences. “It is like a China Town,” said a young resident of Qom, “only it is filled with Arabs.” The “Arab street,” as it is known locally, is a haven for Shiites from the Arab world. It is also a reminder of Iran’s regional role and aspirations — Qom has long been the spiritual capital of global Shiism — aspirations that have led Tehran to offer to defend Shia shrines in Najaf, Samarra, Karbala and Damascus.
After years of relentlessly bad news from the frontlines in Syria, there is now talk that the warring factions of the Middle East might be drawn together in a new concert to keep order in a most unlikely place: Iraq. Is it possible that the battlefield that divided the world during the George W. Bush era could bring bitter enemies together under President Barack Obama?
The rise to prominence of the radical Sunni force, the Islamic State in Iraq the Levant, is probably the only thing that Saudis, Iranians, Americans and Europeans are equally worried about. While it’s true that the Saudis have at least turned a blind eye to the funding of the militant Islamist organization, the group is committed to overthrowing the House of Saud, Saudi Arabia’s royal family.
Last week, the influential journalist David Ignatius invoked former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to talk about a new concert of powers in the Middle East along the lines of the one drawn up after the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. The key then, as now, is reconciling both rising and established powers.
When I asked Kayhan Barzegar, director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran, the same question, he also saw prospects for an eventual grand bargain. “Iran would be willing to cooperate on a battle against extremism as a broader agenda in the Middle East region including Syria.” In fact, he claimed that Tehran would be careful not to get involved in too visible a partnership with the United States on Iraq because “such bilateral cooperation with the U.S. will surely alienate Saudi Arabia and the Sunni world, killing any chance of regional cooperation.”
In a post-American Middle East, this kind of concert of powers is the only way to stop the bloodshed. But my instinct — after talks with Iranians and Saudis over the last few months — is that the prospects for a grand bargain are some way off. Although both sides are frightened of an uncontrolled escalation, they have both gained power and prestige from a Middle East split along sectarian lines. Neither side is yet exhausted by the proxy wars or satisfied with the current balance of power. The potential rewards still outweigh the risks of the struggle, particularly for Saudi Arabia, which sees the conflicts as a means of reversing Iranian hegemony in Syria and Iraq.
However, although the Iraqi crisis will not salve relations between Riyadh and Tehran, it does offer an opportunity for a further step toward détente with the West.
In the end, the success or failure of a nuclear deal with Iran will determine whether this is possible, but there are genuine reasons for optimism. Part of the reason is fatigue with biting financial sanctions. Part of it is the overlap of strategic interests in Iraq. Part of it is domestic change in Iran: more than 70 per cent of the Iranian population was not born when the 1979 revolution took place.
“The paradox of the religious revolution,” argues Tehran University’s Hadian, “is that it has created the most secular society in the region. The new generation in Iran is secular, pragmatic, and more open to the West.”
But, of course, the biggest driver for Tehran’s engagement with Washington is America’s desire to disengage from the region, hardly an open invitation for the United States to linger.
PHOTO: Personnel from the Kurdish security forces detain a man suspected of being a militant belonging to the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the outskirts of Kirkuk June 16, 2014. REUTERS/ Ako Rasheed