With less than two years left in the office of his second tenure, US President Barack Obama is about to call major shots on the Middle Eastern front that will have a monumental impact on the region. In his 2008 presidential campaign, President Obama made clear his position on Iran: of peace through dialogue, a shift away from former US president George W Bush’s policy of isolating Iran till it gives up its nuclear programme. While throughout President Obama’s first term there wasn’t much success on the Iran front, the backchannel between the US and Iran became strong, amidst opposition from Arab and Israeli quarters in Washington.
Enter the last two years of President Obama’s tenure and Iran is back on the front pages. Thenuclear deal with Iran has triggered the diplomatic community in Washington, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, and surprisingly in Islamabad — an unlikely place for most observers who are involved in the politics of the Middle East.
Contrary to the common perception in the Muslim world, Israel is not the only country that is uneasy by the US actions of cosying up to Iran. Also, Israel is not the only country in the region that has directly been the beneficiary of the American war in Iraq. Saudi Arabia has equally, if not more, played an active part in toppling Saddam Hussain’s regime and ensuring America’s tough stance against Iran. Saudi Arabia, though diplomatically silent, has been an active player in the Washington power circles. It has, together with Israel, lobbied extensively to ensure that American foreign policy doesn’t tilt towards Iran. But it appears that what is meant to happen, will happen, by all means: the US and Iran are natural allies and rapprochement between the two is inevitable.
There are two reasons driving President Obama’s shift towards Iran. First, the advisers close to the White House and the Obama Administration include Americans of Iranian descent who have, since 2008 and earlier, clamoured that the Middle East needs a new strategy of peace; one through Iran. The failure against militancy in the region, through Arab allies, allowed this group to be taken more seriously within the Obama Administration.
Second, the US has been struggling against the rise of militant groups in the region, a case in point being the Islamic State (IS). That’s one enemy that is common between Iran and the US. The recent Iranian push back against the IS has been a clear indication to the White House that perhaps, engaging Iran may not be such a bad idea to win the war against militants. It seems that the US administration is beginning to recognise militancy in the Sunni-Shia context, which is a well-needed realisation.
Iran has somewhat become a last resort for peace against militancy in the Middle East. On the flipside, however, any deal with Iran will upset the Middle East power dynamics leading to state-level clashes between Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and perhaps, Pakistan. Pakistan, a land of proxy wars between the Soviets and Americans, the Saudis and the Iranians, currently has a pro-Saudi government that wants to amend the crisis situation in the Middle East for its own domestic political interest. How far Pakistan goes in its service to Saudi Arabia is yet to be explored, but the talk is that promises of nuclear protection have been given to the Saudi king in the wake of any attack from Iran.
It’s hard to predict what the eventual outcome of the re-alignment of US policy in the Middle East will be, but what can be seen is the end of the status quo in the region. Saudi Arabia and Israel will naturally react, while Iran may start playing a greater role in the region. As for Pakistan, it is likely going to side with the Arab and Israeli bloc on the surface, while at the same time maintain under-the-table ties with Iran pushed by the US. More importantly, at the moment, any change in the Middle East will be a good change, especially if it involves the end of the status quo.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 7th, 2015.