February 12, 2014

What Does 2014 Have in Store for Us? (Part 2)

Vadym P. Volokhov, Middle East Programme Manager.


Part 2

Further development of relations between Iran and the United States and the response of Israel and Saudi Arabia.

 Author on Iranian industrial exhibition. Meskhed, 2003
Author on Iranian industrial exhibition. Meskhed, 2003

Events taking place today in the region of the Middle East, of course, can't help disturbing the GCC countries. And this concern is first of all due to the fact that the USA can reach an agreement with Iran without considering interests of Arab monarchies. At this, it should happen through the implementation of the above-mentioned plans, when the West, primarily the United States and United Kingdom, will ensure its absolute dominance in this energy-rich region by further dividing it into small state-political enclaves — Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish, Alawite, Druze, etc., ones.

Since late last year, for the first time in the last 34 years, Iran and the United States began to show willingness to develop their relationship. This trend was evident in the 15-minute telephone conversation of the two presidents, H. Rouhani and B. Obama, in raising the level of talks between Iran and the group of “5+1” to the level of Foreign Ministers and, most importantly, in the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the two countries — Javad Zarif and John Kerry. Nevertheless, we should not hope that all disagreements will be resolved in the nearest future and there will be meetings on the level of Presidents of both countries. It must be clearly understood that apart from serious and diverse controversy among politicians and influential figures in Iran and the United States over direct talks between Tehran and Washington, other factors are playing their role here, the main one being the negative reaction of political players, who can be roughly divided into internal and external ones. The internal players include the political opposition, which is against normalization of relations between the USA and Iran. The external players include Russia, capable to significantly affect Iran's positions. Regarding the United States, such a role can be played by Israel.

Ethnic map of the Middle EastEthnic map of the Middle East

So, in the Middle East, is being created a new balance, in which four major players will try to find a place — Russia, Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The second echelon is Qatar and Turkey. All together, this is an excellent opportunity for the United States to manage the processes from afar, playing on the inevitable contradictions between them.

Meeting of the foreign ministers of the two countries — Javad Zarif and John Kerry
Meeting of the foreign ministers of the two countries — Javad Zarif and John Kerry

Iran — United States — Saudi Arabia: Middle East balance

In the Middle East the Islamic Republic of Iran sticks to the position of “collective security”, which basically excludes the participation of non-regional forces. This position implies a policy aimed against domination of a single country. In this Tehran has ensured the support of its allies among the regional states and different political forces, among which Syria occupies a key position.

Just six months after the presidential elections in Iran, were made key decisions on the Iranian nuclear program, opening prospects of cancelling economic sanctions. It is absolutely clear that with the lifting of sanctions, the entire Middle East opens before Tehran, turning its virtual possibilities into real plans.

However, not everything is so simple and clear, and the Iranian leadership is aware why Obama needs it. The price for the “development” of relations with the West is extremely high. Now Iran is responsible for the elimination of the Salaphi International, concentrated on Sunni territories of Iraq and Syria. This powerful association consists of 100 thousand fighters and the gained in the “Arab Spring” mobilization potential of at least half a million radical Islamists poses a serious threat to stability, and not just for the Middle East.

Iran will now have to guarantee the security of Afghanistan and to become a pillar of the regime of Hamid Karzai after the withdrawal of NATO troops, of course, if it takes place.

Iran will have to eliminate the threat from Saudi Arabia, which “all of a sudden” have faced the fact of betrayal by its most important ally.

Finally, Iran has an extremely difficult task of preventing the conflict with Israel, which is extremely concerned with escalating power of its opponent capable of unexpected moves up to the military option.

Israel is concerned about the escalating power of his opponent and capable of unexpected moves up to the heavy-handed approach
Israel is concerned about the escalating power of his opponent and capable of unexpected moves up to the heavy-handed approach

Today, a new Iranian government is able to redirect the country's policy, making the main emphasis not on security, but on development. So, the tension between Iran and the USA can turn from hostility into economic competition, for which it is extremely important to reach an agreement on the nuclear program.

Quite a real democracy that exists in Iran, as well as a very strong conservative opposing Rouhani group of prominent politicians and clergy do not give him a chance to make a mistake. The slightest failure would mean political death for him, especially given the clear signs of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's attention to the current president’s opponents. The provocation in East Ghouta (Syria) at the end of August 2013, apart from the problems of failure of agreements between the USA and Iran, carries a warning of the reality to enter into a tactical alliance between the “left to sink or swim” Israel and Saudi Arabia.

U.S. bases in the Middle East
U.S. bases in the Middle East

As for the USA, it does not hide its security interests around the world and especially in the Middle East, and this contradicts the interests of Iran and its allies. These contradictions will weaken or will be eliminated only when at least one of the parties changes its policy.

Western analysts believe that China, with its rapid development in the Asia-Pacific region, by 2030 will have overtaken the USA by some indexes. In accordance with these forecasts, Washington intends to focus its policy on East and Southeast Asia. It is likely that this change will reduce some of the tension between Iran and the United States. However, one should not expect that the United States will cease to care about the security of Israel, because Barack Obama pointed this out in his speech at the 68th UN General Assembly.

Apart from problems of safety and preserving its strategic position in the Middle East, of particular importance to the United States are issues of energy and the region's economy. But there are other aspects that can contribute to the reduction of tensions between Tehran and Washington. Among them — the relationship between Iran and the USA's allies in the region, the main of which are Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Saudi Arabia in this respect looks extremely vulnerable — on its perimeter, there are “points of tension and fault lines” in which Iran can successfully hold a series of extremely painful operations, the result of which can be decay of the KSA.

An additional source of instability in Saudi Arabia is the still unsolved problem of power transmission between generations.

Contradictions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, at first glance, seem intractable, though among the Saudi elite have already appeared groups willing to accept the situation and suggest a different, non-confrontational, way of interaction. Nevertheless, so far the probability of conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia has not been removed.

If current trends continue for another 4-6 months, there will open prospects of lifting all financial, economic and military sanctions that will quickly transform the IRI into the most powerful regional state against the background of the decline of the leading Arab states. And this means an absolutely new balance of forces in the Middle East, and most importantly — in the Persian Gulf, which produces 2/3 of the volume of oil in the world.

Russia's policy towards Iran


Similarity of the positions of the two countries on regional and international issues is quite obvious. Russian analysts, for example, believe that the Russian Federation in this knot of problems looks a serious stabilizing factor that will help Iran to solve the problems facing it, using an independent from the USA source of power. For example, Russia and Iran are opposed to NATO's eastward expansion; they are opposed to the deployment of a missile defence system in Eastern Europe and the growth of U.S. military influence in different regions of the world, particularly in the Gulf.

However, despite the coincidence of positions on the Syrian issue, Russia and Iran have not been able to join in any alliance. The matter is that Russian politicians believe Iran has biased view on the United States and the West in general. This is what creates a breach in relations with Russia, which less and less believes in the possibility of establishing a strategic alliance with Iran, while both countries could ensure each other's interests in various spheres.

Another important aspect is that Russia does not intend to promote the growth of Iran's influence on the regional level. Russian leaders believe that Iran will achieve this because of its rapprochement with the United States, and if this double-sided trend started from Tehran and Washington, will bear fruit, then the possibility of the establishment of a Russian-Iranian alliance will be minimized.

Another important aspect in the relations between Iran and Russia is that the post-communist Moscow could not find a reliable strategic ally, sharing its interests. That is why some Iranian experts and analysts have little trust in Russia, especially in the long term, and they have quite good reasons for this.

However, Iran's interest to supranational structures that are being formed in Eurasia is obvious — it needs support in a rapidly changing environment. Thus, Russia, having created a strategic regional alliance with Iran, would have received a partner with a strong economy, great human and political potential and strong leadership position in a very important region.

But the question is: the union implies equality, but is the Russian Federation ready to go for it? Moscow believes that Iran's progress to some extent can allow its elite to consider their allies as a tool for the implementation of Iranian policy.

So, in this situation to the forefront is coming the question — what sort of relations will be between Iran, the USA and Russia in the nearest future, and to what extent they can be forecasted. Illogical would be to recognize as the correct point of view the fact that rapprochement and establishment of even most minimal diplomatic relations with one side, automatically means the beginning of hostility on the other. But this is exactly how Russia sees the results of the visit of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to New York to participate in the UN General Assembly. In the relative rapprochement of Iran and the USA, Russian leaders see a challenge to their own Middle East policy; therefore, most likely, their reaction to it is not long to wait. There is even speculation that Moscow's agreeing now, after a long delay to pass over to Tehran the management of Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, is a kind of condition for Iran to review its position of rapprochement with Washington.

Meanwhile, the USA must cooperate with Iran to create a balance in the region. At present challenges thrown by the United States to the regional policy of Saudi Arabia and Israel, are no less serious than the problem posed by Iran. Iran may move in the same direction, and to benefit from both, the opposition and even hostility of these two states. In this situation it would be appropriate for Tehran to recall the traditional policy of the “pendulum”, that is, balancing between the two great powers for the sake of achieving its own national interests, to thereby ease Russia's worries about new aspirations of its southern neighbor.

At this, the alliance with the Russian Federation would certainly be joined by the “Shiite Arc", as the U.S. role in the region and other Arab countries would be getting weaker.


So, the latest trends of development of the situation in the Middle East allow to draw some conclusions:

1. The unfolding process of “Shiite revival” enhances Iran's geopolitical influence in the Middle East, especially in countries where there are numerous Shiite communities.

The fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq has strengthened positions of Iran and formed the preconditions for creating a “Shiite Arc” comprising Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

2. Formation of the “Shiite arc” union has provoked a sharp reaction from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies. At this, interests of these countries to curb Iranian influence completely coincide with U.S. geopolitical projects. To date based on the foregoing it is Saudi Arabia, not Israel, which is the main strategic adversary of Iran in the region.

3. One of the main directions of the activities of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United States and its NATO allies to prevent the growth of Iranian influence, can be considered their desire to topple the Syrian regime. The strike force in confronting B. Assad’s regime is radical Islamic movement “Muslim Brotherhood” and the Salaphis, with Riyadh's impressive financial support.

4. If with Russia, Iran, Shiite militias in Iraq and “Hezbollah”'s support, legitimate authorities in Syria manage to suppress the armed opposition, the global offensive of radical Sunni Islamic fundamentalists, extremists and terrorists of all stripes and destinations (hired for money of Wahhabi monarchies) in the Middle East will be stopped. And decrepit Arabian monarchs will have to answer for their atrocities in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Bahrain.