Jan. 20 could stand as a significant landmark in relations between the United States and Iran. Animosity between the two countries has persisted and intensified ever since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 which overthrew the U.S. backed monarchy and led to the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. But the recent agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program could stand as a turning point towards building a more stable relationship. That new relationship could signal a much broader shift in U.S. foreign policy as well, and not just as it pertains towards the immediate issue of curtailing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Since the conclusion of World War II, U.S. diplomatic efforts in the Middle East have been focused on two primary goals: protecting the State of Israel and ensuring the flow of oil from the region. While achieving the first goal earned the ire of many of the Arab states in the region, in order to secure the second objective, the U.S. allied itself with many of the Sunni Muslim states in the Middle East, most notably Saudi Arabia. Home to the holiest shrines in Islam, Saudi Arabia views itself as the leading Sunni state and seeks to extend that influence into the political and international realm. By contrast, Iran views itself as the leading Shi’ite Muslim state and is seeking to improve its own position in the international community.
While entire books can (and have) been written on the divide between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam and the often bloody results of that conflict, suffice to say that it remains alive and well today and that Saudi Arabia, and many other Middle Eastern nations, find themselves opposed to Iran. Indeed, aspects of this conflict can also be found in the ongoing civil war in Syria and the continuing sectarian violence in Iraq. This is what makes the potential new relationship between the U.S. and Iran so interesting and opens up the possibility of “rewriting” the diplomatic map of the Middle East.
Traditionally, the U.S. has backed the Sunni states in the region and opposed the Shi’ite states. Indeed the U.S. even gave tacit support to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War as a way to oppose the Shi’ite regime in Iran. For the U.S. to now engage the Iranian regime, as with the agreement regarding their nuclear problem, would mark a significant shift in U.S. policy in the region and has the potential for broader upset in relations with many longtime allies including Saudi Arabia and Israel.
This possibility has not gone unnoticed by these allies. Israel remains suspicious of the entire concept of negotiating Iran’s nuclear capabilities. This is not hard to understand as, should Iran obtain nuclear weapons, Israel would be the most likely target for their deployment either directly by Iran itself or through one of the militant organizations that it supports such as Hezbollah. But it is not only Israel that is fearful of a nuclear armed Iran. Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have made statements to the effect that if Iran were to obtain nuclear weapons then they would pursue their own weapon programs. The possibility exists then, to set off a nuclear arms race throughout the entire Middle East should this agreement fail to prevent Iran from developing a functional nuclear weapon.
The Obama administration would likely argue that the whole point of engaging the Iranian regime would be to prevent the scenario of a Middle East arms race. Putting aside that possibility, even assuming that this agreement could be successful in limiting Iran to a peaceful nuclear program, the “map” of Middle Eastern alliances could still be rewritten.
Egypt, resentful of the recent reduction of U.S. aid, is already turning more towards Russia as a potential ally. Saudi Arabia is reevaluating its relationship with the U.S as well upon seeing the embrace of the Iranian Shi’ite regime as a “betrayal” of sorts. Russia is already in a more powerful position in the region due to their influence in the Syrian crisis and their success in preventing U.S. military action there. And just as the U.S. was in the Cold War years, today China is deeply interested in ensuring the flow of Middle Eastern oil as it is needed to fuel the growing Chinese economy. But while Chinese dependence on that source is increasing, U.S. dependence is decreasing.
Which begs the question, is this engagement of Iran on the issue of its nuclear program a part of a broader shift in foreign policy on the part of the U.S.? Is this more than just a willingness to engage the Iranian regime? In recent years it has been suggested that the U.S. is in the midst of a “pivot” in terms of its foreign policy, shifting attention away from the Middle East and towards East Asia. If there are no critical interests in the Middle East for the U.S. to protect, is engaging Iran a way for the U.S. to ease away from its security commitments in the region and begin to direct its attention elsewhere? It is precisely this possibility that is preoccupying government officials in Tel Aviv, Cairo, Riyadh, and Tehran and these are the questions that the leaders of those countries will be looking for answers to, above and beyond the immediate concern of Iran and the nature of its nuclear program.
By Christopher V. Spencer