Amid uncertainty as to whether the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany can reach a deal with Iran on its nuclear programme lies a deeper question: would a deal lead to Washington’s acceptance of a dominant role for Tehran in the Middle East?
The evidence that it might is more than anecdotal, even though the US has not made explicit statements about a shift in regional policy.
That the American administration is still unclear about the future with Iran was evident in recent remarks by Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, and president Barack Obama. Both have said that if a nuclear accord were not reached by the end of March, a further extension would be of no benefit.
Such an attitude suggests we have reached a crucial moment in talks. Yet a nuclear agreement is a priority for Mr Obama and as a further incentive, the president and officials in his administration have implied that America would be willing to recognise Iran’s regional influence.
This was most obvious when Mr Obama sent a secret letter last October to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. According to The Wall Street Journal, which first mentioned the letter, the US president sought to highlight the advantages of reaching a nuclear deal. He stressed parallel interests in fighting ISIL and sought to reassure Mr Khamenei that coalition attacks in Syria would not target president Bashar Al Assad’s forces.
The paper also reported that the Americans offered reassurance that they would not aim to weaken Tehran’s Iraqi allies. A striking illustration of the implications occured last August. Iraqi militias linked to Iran broke the ISIL siege of Amerli, the town in northern Iraq where thousands of Shite Turkmen had been surrounded by the militants for months. The siege ended with assistance from US aircraft and video showed the head of Iran’s Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani, celebrating in the town.
In December, US secretary of state John Kerry said of Iranian attacks against ISIL that “the net effect is positive”. And General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has echoed this view.
These are all signs of a significant reversal in Washington’s view of Iran’s regional sway. Even the Houthi takeover of Yemen, viewed by neighbouring Saudi Arabia as a threat, did not seem to alarm the White House. Indeed, reports indicated that the US had opened channels to the Houthis, as both share a hostility toward Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Some say that the administration regards Iran as a more reliable long-term partner in the region than the Sunni majority countries of the Gulf. This school of thought rests on a perception that the Gulf states have contributed, officially or through private channels, to the expansion of jihadist groups in the Middle East and beyond. Moreover, the Sunni Arab world is more fragmented than the Shiite, over which Iran has significant authority.
Poor relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia in recent years haven’t helped matters. Ties were severely strained over America’s abandonment of president Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt in 2011. Add to this Mr Obama’s refusal to take action in Syria and his administration’s seeming openness to Iran.
However, Mr Obama himself does not seem to view the relationship with Iran and the Sunni Arab countries as an “either or” proposition. Rather, he seems to believe that America would gain from a wider array of regional contacts. We are nowhere near a return to the 1970s, when Washington regarded Iran as the anchor of security in the Gulf allowing it to purchase massive amounts of US weapons.
Just as the Obama administration’s relations with Saudi Arabia have deteriorated, so have those with Israel. Mr Obama’s personal ties with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu are abysmal, in part because of deep disagreement over Iran and in part, because Mr Netanyahu has done nothing to advance peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
But how long will this situation last? If there is no nuclear agreement, it will be very difficult for Mr Obama to sustain his position with respect to Iran because it breaks every rule that has been followed in Washington for 30 years. But it could be that the Iranians, sensing Mr Obama’s keenness, will accept an agreement, having extracted as many American concessions as they can.
Even so, Mr Obama should be careful. He has pushed his plans with Iran quietly while making no serious effort to reassure traditional American allies in the region. Nor has he given due regard to the profound importance of the Syrian conflict. The president may have a case for realigning regional relations, but he has managed the process poorly. If this heightens Sunni anxieties it can only further destabilise the Middle East.
In one way, the strategy will reinforce the status quo in the region. Recognition of Iran’s importance means that Mr Obama is signing off on a continuation of Mr Al Assad’s rule in Syria. At the same time the Shia-led Iraqi regime is less likely to open up to the Sunnis if Tehran is given leeway to block it. Iran will take from America, but it has little impetus to give.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut
On Twitter @BeirutCalling