This paper was originally submitted to the ACRPS Conference on Arab-US Relations, held during June, 2014.
The emergence of Hassan Rouhani in the course of Iran’s 2013 presidential election promised a new chapter in the tumultuous relationship between Iran and the US. On September 27, 2013 presidents Obama and Rouhani had a telephone conversation while the latter was in New York for the UN General Assembly meeting. Two months later, Iran and the P5+ 1 signed the interim Agreement in Geneva. By December, during a GCC meeting in Kuwait, Arab countries appeared cautiously optimistic about the agreement. The fact that secret talks between Iran and the US were reported to have taken place much earlier (perhaps as early as during Ahmadinejad’s administration) in Oman may in fact indicate that official Arab awareness and approval of this deal predates its public knowledge.
The sharp and critical edge of the US and Iran relationship will be effectively felt first and foremost in Syria, and it is from here that the rest of the Arab world will feel the future consequences of any improved relationship between the two historic nemesis. Particularly critical to Obama’s second term, and given his proven reluctance to engage in more visible military operations in the region, is Iran’s soft power in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen in particular, and its significance for Iran’s struggle for regional power for decades to come. The course of the Arab revolutions has generated a new calculus of power in the region. Given its vast network of soft power, Iran is now indispensable for the future of US interests in the region – a deeply troubling development for Israel, but one of mixed implications for the Arab world.
The common wisdom that Iran is the unconditional supporter of Bashar Assad is patently flawed. Iran will throw Assad under the proverbial bus the instant it sees it best serving its larger regional interests. But the fact that Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic are beginning to see eye to eye on Syria points to two fundamental facts: (1) that they both fear the unraveling revolutions in the Arab world and (2) that they are both on the same page with the US on this matter. The rapprochement between the US and Iran is thus effectively a rapprochement among the counterrevolutionary forces across the Arab world, united in their concern for the short and long term consequences of the Arab Spring.
Iran and Saudi Arabia represent the two most powerful counterrevolutionary forces in the region, and their evident hostility has not only helped to degenerate these revolutions into a Sunni-Shi’i sectarianism, but through this false representation, has also acted like a pair of scissors cutting through the revolutionary momentum that threatens both their regimes. It is for this reason that there emerged a somewhat forced ménage a trois among Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel in safeguarding their respective interests, aligning them in their opposition of the more radical implications of these revolutions. The ostensible hostility between Iran and Israel on the one hand, and Iran and Saudi Arabia on the other, does not negate, but rather exacerbates the factual force of this counterrevolution triumvirate.
The implication of any emerging rapprochement between Iran and the US for the larger Arab world will depend on what we mean by the Arab world—its ruling regimes or its revolutionary uprisings. In fact none of the three forces—neither Iran, nor the Arab world or the US—are stable entities. All of them are in a state of flux, though each in a slightly different way. The prospect of a rapprochement between the US and Iran has far reaching regional implications, far more serious than merely lifting the economic sanctions in exchange for limiting Iran’s nuclear program. By far the most successful result of this Saudi - Iran alliance (through a paradoxical dialectic) is the aggressive degeneration of the Syrian revolution into sectarian violence. In exchange for a comfortable zone in the nuclear deal, Iran will happily abandon Bashar Assad to his own non-existent means.
Presiding over this triumvirate is the US. But there are a number of other alliances— say among Iran, the US, and Russia, which, thanks to the rise of the Russian imperial attitude in the region, has now assumed a much bolder posture in the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis. As a result, one should not assume the US as being the key catalyst in the relationship among Arabs and Iranians. Ultimately, insofar as this particular triangulation is concerned, it is structurally designed to oppose and end the revolutionary momentumof the Arab Spring, as well as that of the Green Movement in Iran, and way beyond across the rest of the Muslim world.
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For an articulation of the idea of “soft power” from an American imperial perspective see Joseph S. Nye Jr., Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics (2005).