Potential Maps: The Western-Iranian Rapprochement

There are signs that Iran’s relations with western countries are experiencing fundamental changes. During September and October, Iran began new rounds of negotiations on its nuclear programme, considered by Iranian and western officials to be the most serious and a cause for optimism since 2002.
An unprecedented meeting between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif (far right) and his American counterpart, John Kerry (far left) [AP]


There are signs that Iran’s relations with western countries, particularly the United States, are experiencing fundamental changes. During September and October, Iran began new rounds of negotiations on its nuclear programme, considered by Iranian and western officials to be the most serious and a cause for optimism since 2002. There are economic and financial reasons, and technical difficulties within the programme, that pushed Iran to express its willingness to accept the international conditions, as the USA seeks to avoid a military solution to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear power. It is not unlikely, if the parties reach a final and lasting solution on the nuclear crisis, that the improvement of Iranian- western relations will reflect on the map of regional balances, especially in light of regional disagreements on Egypt, and the aggravation of the Syrian crisis.

Between the end of September 2013 and the middle of October, it seemed as if Iran’s relations with the western world were witnessing dramatic, successful changes. On 16 October, the EU representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, praised two days of talks in Geneva between the representatives of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) and Iran. Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, described the talks as ‘essential and a motivation for progress’. He said the talks, ‘open up new horizons of relations between Iran and western countries.’ Although Ashton and Zarif spoke separately, and did not hold a joint press conference, their language is unprecedented in the history of the Iranian nuclear issue since it was put onto the international agenda in 2002.

However, the beginning of this new tone was not in Geneva, but in New York, at the United Nations headquarters, where the U.S. president, Barack Obama, and the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, spoke on 24 September at the annual meeting of the United Nations. Rouhani’s speech began a busy schedule of official and media meetings, initiating a conciliatory relationship with the West, particularly the United States. Despite the fact that Obama’s speech was cautiously optimistic about a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, the Americans did not hide their hope for a new approach to dealing with Iran. After the arrangements for handshake between the two presidents in the UN corridors had failed, Obama phoned Rouhani, an unprecedented step in the relations between the two countries since 1979.

Is the Iranian nuclear issue now fast moving towards a negotiated solution? And to what extent will solving this matter affect the regional balance of power in the Middle East?

Nuclear issue: The terms of settlement

It was not a secret, when Rouhani won the presidential elections, that Iran needed someone like him as president at this stage, as Iran sought a new beginning in its international relations, especially after the serious damage to its economy as a result of a series of UN and Euro-American sanctions. In the past year, Iranian oil production fell by half, and the country’s economy shrank by more than five per cent. In spite of the regime’s power, and the might of its security forces in dealing with domestic opposition, further economic decline portends the involvement of new social classes in the opposition camp.

On the other hand, there are concerted reports that indicate that the Iranian nuclear programme is facing serious difficulties, particularly with regard to arming the nuclear stockpile that is, converting enriched uranium into weapon-grade material. Iran, of course, is not seeking to acquire a nuclear bomb, but to possess the ability to manufacture the bomb if it becomes necessary. In the face of a precarious economic situation, it is no longer feasible to wait longer to resolve the problems related to the development of nuclear power.

This is what forced Iran to adopt a new negotiation policy with western powers to reach a solution to the nuclear issue and to lift the economic and financial sanctions imposed on it.

But Iran was not the only one that wanted a deal. The United States, for its part, is trying to extricate itself from the Middle East, in a way that protects its interests, and the interests of its allies. Given its changing international priorities, the Obama administration is working to avoid any significant involvement in the Middle East, including an armed conflict with Iran. The US policy originally worked on preventing any single regional power from having control over the Middle East. Within this framework, it is not in the interests of Washington that Iran experiences an economic collapse, or be subjected to a crippling, full-scale military strike. At the same time, the Obama administration cannot tolerate Iran’s nuclear ambitions, not because Iran’s nuclear capabilities could threaten the security of America or its interests, but because a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to nuclear chaos in the Middle East. In other words, US policy towards Iran can be summed up by the need to put an end to its nuclear programme in exchange for economic and political normalisation, within a pluralistic balance of power in the Middle East.

The common ground between the Iranian desire for a new economic recovery, and the American desire to avoid war, is what is creating the optimistic atmosphere since September around the nuclear issue. This is what made Obama’s speech at the UN General Assembly both cautious and welcoming. The American president praised the positive signs from Iran, but demanded that their actions must speak louder than words, expressing some doubt about the seriousness of Iranian signals. In a reminder of what he sees as effective policy, Obama said the deal on the Syrian chemical weapons disarmament had not been not possible without the actual threat of using force.

On 24 September, Rouhani avoided shaking hands with Obama, who could cause him more trouble in Iran than serving his interests. But he obtained the approval of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to speak to Obama by telephone, after a few days. In the short period he spent in New York, Rouhani fulfilled all requirements of a public relations campaign to represent Iran in an attractive image, to change not only the image associated with his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but also the stereotyped image of the Islamic Republic. Rouhani condemned the Nazi Holocaust, spoke about America’s standing in the hearts of the Iranian people, and vowed that Iran would not develop nuclear weapons. More important was the undeclared communications between the Americans and the Iranians, which took place on the side-lines of the UNGA meeting, and was confirmed by US secretary of state, John Kerry.

From a western point of view, the Geneva talks are the real test for the new Iranian authority to see if the latter will take a different stance from the previous sessions of the negotiations, in the past few years. But the nominated negotiations were few, in spite of optimistic statements coming from both sides. According to leaks from closed sessions, negotiations started with a statement from the Iranian foreign minister under the title ‘Ending an unnecessary crisis: Opening new horizons’. Western officials said Zarif’s statement included a vision for a solution, which included confidence-building measures, to be conducted within six months, ending with a comprehensive agreement which affirmed the right of Iran to pursue a nuclear programme for peaceful purposes. In return Iran will allow strict international supervision, and approve the IAEA’s ‘Additional Protocol’, which will give observers the right to visit any sites suspected to have nuclear activities, not only those declared by Iran.

At the end of this round of negotiations, the parties agreed to hold the next round on 7 November 2013, before that, there will be meetings between experts – both nuclear and sanctions experts.

This is the first time that Iranian and western officials have talked with such optimism; but the results are not guaranteed. The Americans want Iran to be allowed to enrich uranium to only up to five per cent, to accept international supervision in accordance with the Additional Protocol, to shut down the Fordow facility, which is the main site of development in the Iranian programme, and to abandon efforts for plutonium separation. In return, western countries will be prepared to gradually lift sanctions against Iran. Is it possible that Iran might accept such a deal? This is not an easy question to answer. What is clear is that inside Iran, in the USA, and in the eastern region as a whole, there are influential forces that do not the Iranian nuclear issue to be resolved through negotiations.

Potential geopolitical effects

In recent years, Iran has tried to link nuclear negotiations with its regional interests, hoping for a so-called ‘Big Deal’. Thus far, the Obama administration has rejected such a link. But it is not improbable that an agreement on the nuclear programme can have a direct impact on the regional situation, not only because Iran is an integral part of a large number of issues in the Middle East, but also because of the Obama administration’s desire to foster negotiations in the region on Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian-Israeli question. However, it should not be overlooked that the Arabic-Islamic Mashriq (East) has already started witnessing initial geopolitical interactions, engendered by an atmosphere of optimism surrounding the nuclear issue, and it seems that Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates will be the first to be affected.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan form an effective political coalition in the Arabic-Islamic Mashriq. A few years ago, it seemed unlikely that the three countries would form such a coalition, but transitions associated with the Arab uprisings in 2011 created a convergence between the three countries, engendered by fears of a wave of change that had swept across a number of Arab countries, including Jordan and Morocco, and fear of the rise of political Islam in countries that had undergone changes. The three countries have financial abundance, security expertise and political influence, and collaborated during the Libyan revolution and its complications after the fall of the Gaddafi regime. They almost succeeded in helping their preferred candidate win the Libyan presidency. They also worked, in varying degrees, with Qatar and Turkey to support the Syrian rebels, after they were convinced by the spring of 2012 that it was necessary to overthrow the Assad regime. In the past few months, the three countries supported the overthrow of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, and a senior UAE official declared that they were working on regime change in Tunisia.

When the Arab uprisings broke out in 2011, the three countries were not all in a difficult political or geopolitical situation. Only Jordan saw a popular movement demanding reform. The movements for change and the Arab revolution, from Tunisia and Libya to Egypt and Yemen, were not particularly hostile toward any of the other Arab countries, particularly the Gulf States. But that did not free the three countries from the fear of change; fear of democracy; and the fear of political Islam. Thus they rushed towards finding common ground, and formed an active and effective political axis. A quick look at the Arab political map suggests that the tripartite coalition achieved a number of successive victories, and that they are working on drawing this map in their own image. But the new US approach to the Middle East, regional disagreements on Egypt, and Iran’s attempt to get out of the tight grip of the international embargo, are about to redraw the map again.

The three countries built their approach to the Syrian issue on the basis of solid Qatari-Turkish participation, and increasing western – particularly American – involvement. The western-American involvement was about to be achieved when the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in Damascus in August. Thus, Britain and France, followed by the USA, declared their intention to punish the regime. For a moment, it seemed that the Saudi-UAE-Jordanian coalition, with its strong influence in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and with declared Israeli support, was close to achieving a significant change in the balance of forces on the ground in Syria through the force of the anticipated American strike.

The three countries did not foresee a significant U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East at the beginning of Obama’s first term, nor did they predict Washington’s tenacious effort to avoid involvement in the Syrian crisis since its beginning, nor Washington’s confirmation that the planned strike on the Syrian regime, if it happened, would be small and limited. Therefore, the Obama administration’s option for negotiations, on the basis of stripping the Damascus regime of its chemical weapons arsenal, disappointed the three states. The problem was the exaggerated perception of the tripartite coalition about the nature of its relationship with the USA, and the possibility of pressuring or using the latter to serve their regional interests, even when Washington did not view it in its interest.

Similarly, the tripartite coalition countries, as well as Israel, did not foresee the determined effort of the Obama administration to avoid war with Iran, or its constant search for a negotiated settlement for the Iranian nuclear issue. Since the early 2000s, these three countries considered Iran as a major threat, after Iran benefited from the power vacuum caused by the short-sighted war policy adopted by the Bush administration. Even before the domestic Lebanese crisis has worsened, and the Syrian revolution broke out and transformed into a regional and international crisis, the growing Iranian influence in Iraq was a source of great concern for the Gulf Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia. Continuing Iranian influence, from Basra to the Mediterranean coast, would allow Tehran to control the northern belt of the Arabian Peninsula.

Iranian-western negotiations are still at their initial stages, of course, but concluding them with a permanent settlement would mean the end of hope by Iran’s regional foes in a US strike that could weaken Iran militarily and politically. The settlement of the nuclear issue will confirm that neither Israel’s Netanyahu, nor the tripartite coalition countries – which reject the Obama administration’s negotiations approach to – can play a disabling role in this path. But the contradicting interests between the tripartite coalition countries and the USA in their stance on Iran are not related to Washington and Tehran reaching an agreement, since it is clear that any failure to reach a negotiated solution relates only to the failure of one, or both, to sacrifice some of their prior conditions.

On the other hand, an Arabic-Gulf approach has been taking shape during the past few years for rapprochement with Turkey, and making way for a new regional balance of power in which Turkey plays the role of regional counterweight to Iran. Now, after the policy of the tripartite coalition countries in the countries of the Arab uprising has caused a deep lack of confidence with Ankara, Turkey seems to be reconsidering its regional policy, including its relationship with the tripartite coalition countries. If a Turkish-Iranian convergence were to take place, the Gulf States would stand alone in the face of Iranian pressure, and the complexities of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon would be exacerbated by Obama’s policies.


The Iranian nuclear crisis is going through a critical moment that could end in a negotiated agreement. Iran would accept such a settlement, agreeing not to enrich uranium to twenty per cent, and would open its nuclear facilities to strict international supervision. If Iran cannot accept the conditions put forward by the group of western countries, and, instead, puts forward a vision of a solution that does not live up to the demands of western countries – the USA in particular – the crisis will again face a number of negative possibilities, including military escalation. But reaching a final agreement will be the beginning of a gradual improvement in Iran’s western relations.

There is no indication yet that the United States has agreed to negotiate a ‘big deal’ that would include the nuclear issue and the overall regional situation in the Gulf and the Middle East, as proposed by Iran when the nuclear crisis began years ago. But resolving the nuclear crisis necessarily means that Iran and the United States will talk about a number of other issues, including Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and the Gulf. Such a possibility raises serious concerns in neighbouring countries, especially for Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies. This is especially so since it is accompanied by the failure of the USA to strike against the Assad regime, the increasing regional disagreements on the situation in Egypt, the possibility of a split between regional allies in Syria, and the varying stances of regional powers on Iran.