Analysis: A stronger Iran, a weaker America and a region teetering on the brink

Agreement appears to be another step in America's flight from the Middle East rather than a genuine effort to stop Iran's rush to nuclear weapons.

December 9, 2013 03:12
US Secretary of State Kerry shakes the hand of Iranian counterpart Zarif in Geneva, Nov 24, 2013.

Kerry and Zarif shake hands in Geneva 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)


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Three years ago, in May 2010, the Islamic Republic News Agency of Iran – IRNA – published a stern, if flowery, warning following a series of incidents involving the Gulf states.

“There is no lion in the region save the one crouching on the shore opposite the Emirates states,” IRNA said. “He protects his lair, the Persian Gulf. Those who believe that there is another lion in the area [the United States], his claws and fangs have been broken in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestine.

No good can be expected from him or from his hunting forays. He is merely counting the days until he can find a way to escape when he still can. Iran, the Emirates and the others countries of the region will forever be neighbors because of their geographic situation.”

Today, those words have become reality.

The Geneva agreement appears to be another step in America’s flight from the Middle East rather than a genuine effort to stop Iran’s rush to nuclear weapons.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries are still reeling.

The special relationship between Washington and Riyadh had been the cornerstone of America’s policy in the Gulf and the Middle East for nearly a century. The United States needed Saudi oil and secure export routes through the Gulf. It supplied the kingdom with sophisticated weapons. The Gulf states believed themselves safe thanks to this special relationship, which endured for decades.

With the fall of the Shah and the rise of Khomeini in 1979, Iran became the main threat to the safety of the Gulf while America stood firm against Iranian subversive activities. That era appears to be coming to an end.

What happened in Geneva came after a series of steps that can only be seen as demonstrating the overwhelming will of the American president to distance himself from the region: getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan, with no tangible success; abandoning Mubarak, backing the Muslim Brothers and even turning his back on the new Egyptian regime battling radical Islam; zigzagging about Syria; and recently rumored to be conducting secret talks with Hezbollah and radical Islamic factions in Syria.

Taken together, these steps point to a deliberate strategy and game changer.

The anti-Iranian pragmatic front that united Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt – with Israel as a silent partner – is no more. It was already seriously weakened when Obama deserted his old ally Mubarak in January 2011 and hastened his fall.

Geneva was its death knell.

Iran is no longer the enemy of America, which views it as a potential partner in reshaping the Middle East.

Moreover, the Geneva agreement appears to be the outcome of secret talks between Teheran and Washington, with the mediation of Oman, leading the Iranians to grasp that Obama is even more eager to get rid of the issue and distance himself from the Middle East, something they had long suspected.

They were therefore able to achieve remarkable results. Their nuclear infrastructure remains intact; the West acknowledges their right to enrich uranium – in stark contradiction with the six Security Council resolutions in the framework of Article 7 of the UN Charter – that is, binding resolutions assorted with the threat of sanctions, including the use of force should they not be acted upon. Considering the spotty record of Iran in implementing those resolutions, it is doubtful whether it will do better with the Geneva agreement.

That this “preliminary” agreement will be followed by a final settlement is no less doubtful. In fact, in exchange for practically no concession from Iran, the United States and the European Union agreed to unravel the fabric of sanctions that was strangling the Iranian economy. Had the sanctions been maintained, they might have brought results.

Instead, international companies are eagerly planning their reentry to Iran. It is a process that will be hard to stop and impossible to reverse.

For Saudi Arabia, the agreement also means that Iran has been given a tacit nod to pursue its subversive activities in the Gulf. This is a direct threat to the stability of the kingdom. At home, the opposition that has long been calling for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy will step up its pressure, while the Shi’ite minority will clamor for an improved status.

And al-Qaida will renew its attacks.

It must be remembered that Saudi Arabia, being the bulwark of Sunni Islam, is facing Shi’ite Iran not only in the Gulf states, but in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. This was brought painfully home a few weeks ago when a pro-Iranian Shi’ite Iraqi militia opened mortar fire on the Saudi border. Riyadh also has not forgotten the failed assassination attempt of its ambassador to Washington by Iranian agents.

In addition, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are no longer sure that America will maintain its military presence in the area to secure the flow of oil.

Iran is already building on what it sees as a victory of the first order. It immediately turned to its Gulf neighbors, which are aware of its military and technological superiority and now feel more exposed than ever.

Teheran hosted the foreign minister of the Emirates while its own foreign minister, Jawad Zarif, went on a much-publicized tour of the Gulf states. He has been so far to Kuwait, Qatar, the United Emirates and Oman, and is due to visit Saudi Arabia.

As a peace offering, he stated that his country was ready to discuss the fate of one of three disputed islands in the Straits of Hormuz, for years a bone of contention with the Emirates.

However, Zarif did not withdraw another threat, that of invading Bahrain. Nor did he assuage the fears of the Gulf states concerning its subversive activities through their Shi’ite minorities. Iran has very much the upper hand in the area.

There could be attempts at dialogue in the coming months, but Saudi Arabia may be left with no alternative but to start its own nuclear program. At the same time, the monarchy has had preliminary talks with Russia on the basis of shared interests, such as fighting the Muslim Brothers and supporting the new Egyptian regime. Others might develop.

As to Egypt, the largest Arab country, it will in all likelihood also feel it has to develop its own program of nuclear energy. The new rulers have already stated that they were going to issue a tender for a first nuclear plant in the Dabaa area, where Mubarak had laid the cornerstone for four such plants to produce electricity.

The fact that the United States is no longer a stabilizing factor in the Middle East is preoccupying.

It appears to favor subversive radical elements – from Iran to the Muslim Brotherhood, and even Salafi movements – which detect a growing Western weakness in this trend. As a result, America’s traditional allies are deeply worried in spite of US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s efforts this week in Bahrain to pledge continuing military support.

Russia is making a spectacular comeback in the region while a new race for nuclear weapons is about to begin.

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