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.