Analysis |

Reconciliation With U.S. Could Bolster Iran's Regional Power, Global Standing

After years of championing its nuclear program as the national symbol, Tehran is changing direction. The talks have already boosted Iranian currency and backed Saudi Arabia into a corner.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“There was nothing new in Rohani’s remarks. He mostly repeated the words of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” said one analyst for Al-Arabia TV, during a broadcast just minutes after Iranian President Hassan Rohani spoke before the United Nations General Assembly. “Rohani’s speech was blunter and sharper than Barack Obama’s. Those looking for appeasement were disappointed,” said an Iranian expert living in Turkey, whose remarks were also broadcast on the same network.

The day after Rohani’s speech, the Saudi international newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat was quick to publish two articles warning against falling into the trap set by Rohani and American foreign policy. “The Arab world should be prepared to sip from a cup of poison, this time from the hands of the U.S.,” wrote Eid Abu Shakra, as his colleague Yussuf Al-Dini warned against America’s “lowest common denominator” policy. America would be satisfied, Al-Dini says, simply by entering into dialogue with Iran, instead of actually trying to solve the problems that trouble the region, and specifically those troubling the “moderate Arab states.” Al-Dini fears that U.S.-Iranian dialogue will come at the expense of the Syrian and Lebanese people, and give Iran a renewed mandate to meddle in regional affairs.

“Rohani fever,” which has engulfed the world in general and the United States in particular, has shaken the Arab world, and especially Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as responsible not only for the Muslim holy sites, but also for defending the region from what it calls Iranian hegemonic ambitions. The rift between the two regional powers reached its peak over the Syria crisis and civil war, as Saudi Arabia has come out heavily in favor of the rebels.

Saudi Arabia, which has committed to aid in the sanctions against Iran by increasing its own oil production, thereby reducing dependency on Iranian oil, has become a lighting rod for criticism from Iran. Ever since Saudi troops entered Bahrain to quell anti-government protests, Tehran has not ceased condemning Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf States are also fearful of the increasing military cooperation between Iran and Iraq. The Iraqi defense minister visited Tehran this week, and met with Rohani’s deputy for security matters in order to discuss the military cooperation pact between the two nations, the basis of which was forged over the last year, and includes financial support, as well as joint training exercises. A military pact between two large states sitting on the Persian Gulf is a strategic threat, especially if Syria should join in the future.

Saudi Arabia has faced difficulty in trying to forge an opposing coalition. Egypt is mired in a crisis that prevents it from addressing regional affairs. Lebanon, which has begun to flex its muscles against Hezbollah, is still not quite a reliable state. Turkey is no longer wanted as an ally due to its undying support for the Muslim Brotherhood. As long as the United States was seen as a stable ally, and its rift with Iran continued to guarantee Saudi Arabia’s place as the ultimate regional partner, Riyadh has not had to face many foreign policy dilemmas. Now, the possible reconciliation between the United States and Iran – if it happens – could cause Saudi Arabia to rethink its positions.

Hints at a shifting in the balance of power was evident last week, when Jordanian King Abdallah’s calls for Rohani to make the pilgrimage to Mecca were published in Saudi Arabia. “Hajj diplomacy” is nothing new. In 2007, the Saudi king, for the first time in relations between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic, called on then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to make the pilgrimage as well. It wasn’t the Iranian President’s first visit to the Saudi kingdom, but the invitation to make the Hajj carried with it a hidden message, particularly that the leader of the “Sunni world” sought to make peace with a representative of the “Shi’ite world.” That reconciliation was short lived, as Iran quickly reverted to being the nemesis of both Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states.

Inviting Rohani to make the hajj at this juncture is not aimed at religious reconciliation, but rather at testing the relationship between Tehran and Riyadh, against the backdrop of possible changes to U.S. policy.

Iran, for its part, has not made any bombastic policy declarations, unlike Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was quick to adopt the slogan “no problems with the neighbors,” which fell through following the revolutions in various Arab states. In contrast, Iran is acting quietly, but apparently has larger goals in mind. Aside from the pressing need to throw off the burden of sanctions, rehabilitate its economy, create thousands of new jobs, halt inflation (which is at 45% these days) and fill its coffers after the oil money stopped coming in, Iran is seeking to dispose of the strategic threats it faces.

The term “heroic flexibility” coined by Iran’s spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, which Rohani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif make sure to repeat, reflects not only a shift in Iran’s diplomatic policy, but in strategy as well. If during the eight years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the nuclear program was a national symbol and unshakable foundation of Iran’s strength, it seems now that the dialogue to constrict that program could be used by Iran to achieve more regional influence and power.

This theory must still be proved. Proof will come when the dialogue begins between the P5+1 and Iran, regarding more transparency of and supervision over Iranian uranium enrichment facilities. Rohani himself stands at the head of the supporters for the deal in 2003, which proposed freezing Iran’s nuclear program, and examining Iran’s support of Hezbollah, and even considering relations with Israel in return for reconciliation with the United States, lifting of sanctions and an American commitment not to attack.

George W. Bush’s United States was euphoric after conquering Iraq, and did not even reply to the proposal, thinking that then-Iranian president Mohammad Khatami was too weak to actually implement the deal. The proposal, which was passed along by the Swiss embassy in Tehran, was supported by Khamenei, who also approved the temporary freeze of the nuclear program.

Even now, at least according to Rohani’s declarations, Iran is seeking to “close down” the nuclear issue, for a fair price, which would grant it a new international standing. His move has received support from Khamenei in the meantime, as reports from within Iran have indicated that the media has been instructed not to criticize the president. Even Rohani’s conservative opponents have expressed support for the idea of “heroic flexibility,” even as they express concerns over “misunderstanding of the term,” or as they try to explain that only the tactics, but not the strategies, have changed.

The pressing question now, as it was during Khatami’s presidency, is how far Khamenei will allow this to go, and whether or not the president is actually strong enough to implement the policies has says he favors. Without any concrete information, only the past can be used as an example, and the past teaches that in a pinch, Khamenei knows how to change his positions. For example, he proposed helping the United States during in the attack on Afghanistan; he quietly supported the U.S. action in Iraq; he called for action against Al-Qaida; he did not hesitate to publicly oppose Ahmadinejad; most recently, he did not oppose releasing political prisoners. Seven months ago, he declared “I’m a revolutionary – not a diplomat,” and now, he’s talking about “heroic flexibility.” In Iran, they’re already willing to believe in this new hope. The Rial has already jumped 25% in value against the dollar.

Activists from the global advocacy group Avaaz, dressed as Presidents Obama and Rohani, demand ceasefire to the Syrian crisis during the United Nations General Assembly in New York.Credit: AP
Hassan Rohani signs of the guest book of the UN Secretary General. September 26, 2013.Credit: AFP

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