After the partial nuclear deal with Iran in Geneva, the US will divide its attention over two important theatres. In the Middle East, it will have Russia as its partner and foil. China will be more hands on in the Pacific where, Pivot to Asia, is the US’s other principal thrust.
In the Middle Eastern theatre the Iran deal sets into motion two processes. One is the non-proliferation issue which P5+2 will juggle with. This is the group where Israeli intelligence will keep furnishing inputs about Iran’s venality. These stories will start being leaked, well (with a shrug of the shoulders) next week.
The main dynamic the Iran deal has set into motion is what I call R5+2. R5 stands for the five regional powers: Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Iran. The plus two are the US and Russia.
If you have grown accustomed to seeing Syria as the centre of the regional universe for the past two and a half years, the Iran deal should place that issue in proper perspective.
Consider the impact of the deal on the R5, one by one.
Saudi Arabia has in the last few days seen its hold on the GCC countries loosen. To keep himself and his Kingdom in play, Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal, addressing the GCC, suggested that the Kuwait Foreign Minister lead the group to Washington protesting against the deal. Kuwait refused as did the UAE Foreign Minister who, instead, travelled to Moscow to sign different another affidavit.
There are two different appraisals of Saudi vulnerability in the context of the deal. First is the power struggle behind the curtains, a fierce war of succession. A regime so divided and debilitated is more likely to acquiesce in the new arrangement of power in the Mid-East. But the opposite can also happen. A regime weakened internally is unlikely to be able to resist the ultra conservative clergy.
A more thoughtful approach, one which the dominant foreign policy elite in Tehran is inclined towards, considers the present power structure in Riyadh as the one most likely to be reasonable in the altered regional scenario.
Two terms former President of Iran, Hashemi Rafsanjani, shares this view. This comes across in an interview he gave to London’s Financial Times. He obviously maintained his personal relationship with Riyadh even during the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad period. In fact he was invited by the Saudi King to perform Haj last month. It was impossible for Rafsanjani to accept the invitation because American back channels with Iran were at a sensitive stage.
Rafsanjani will travel to Riyadh but only after preparations have been made for such a visit. Iran’s top leadership has to arrive first at a consensus on “de escalation” with Saudi Arabia. Rafsanjani believes a comprehensive deal with the West is possible in a year, without much Saudi opposition.
Saudi’s extraordinary clout derives from their two assets, the holiest Muslim shrines at Mecca and Medina and the world’s largest reserves of oil in Qatif the eastern provinces, which is also overwhelmingly Shia. Rapprochement with Teheran, de escalates tensions in Qatif which, in turn, enables Riyadh to tone down the Sunni-Shia divide it promoted regionally as part of its anti Iran foreign policy.
The informed view in Teheran is that the Saudi power structure is a sort of tripod: Wahhabism, Salafism and the regime in Riyadh which has a sprinkling of closet liberals. That the regime remains intact is in everybody’s interest. Should it weaken, Wahhabism’s clout grows, providing succour in the region to groups like the al Qaeda.
For Turkey, the Iran deal provides an escape from the mess it has unnecessarily landed itself into because it misread the Arab Spring and the foreign induced Syrian civil war. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, having increased his party’s vote share in three successive elections, looked like one of the world’s model statesmen. He improved the economy, promised peace with all his neighbours.
There was always in him something of an Islamist. In 1997 he was found violating canons of Kemalist secularism. He was jailed. His guilt? A poem he recited in public: “the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.”
To keep buoyant in politics, he went into “taqayya”, disguising his faith. He was a roaring success as Prime Minister. But when Muslim Brotherhood started sprouting here and there, nurtured by the Arab Spring, the West set him up as a model for a changing Middle-East. He naively bit the bait, egged on by his Sancho Panza, foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. He turned up in Tripoli for thanks giving prayer in the city square after Muammar Qaddafi’s brutal murder. Apparently Mustafa Kemal Pasha had taken part in some Libyan battle. Sprouted in Erdogan’s mind a regional architecture based on nostalgia for Ottoman rule. By now, his Islamism in full throttle, he became the principal frontline state for sending in men and material to Syria’s Islamist opposition. Prime Minister of secular Kemalist state fuelling Islamic fundamentalism next door?
When the writing on the wall became clear after the Iran deal, Davutoğlu turned up in Teheran, cap in hand. Erdogan, meanwhile is off to Moscow. Iranian gas is a blandishment. Iran has also sought names of ten Israeli spies of Iranian origin operating out of Turkey. Internal dynamics in Turkey suggest President Abdullah Gul is on the ascendant. Erdogan and Davutoğlu may well be shown the door, if balance is to be restored in Ankara.
On Egypt, Iran feigns indifference to what the US wants: a regime which is not overtly hostile to Israel. The real expectation in Teheran is that the Obama administration will pitch in strongly for a two state solution, with security guarantees for Israel. This brings Washington in line what Teheran is most comfortable with: a President Jimmy Carter like approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Also, former National Security Council member, Bruce Riedel’s condemnation of double standards on the nuclear question in the Middle East goes down well with folks in Teheran. This was Erdogan’s line too until he lost the plot in the Middle East.
(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)