A rare opportunity
That turbulent times create opportunities for creative political diplomacy has rarely been illustrated so well as by current events in the wider Middle East region. The most important constructive signals are being sent by the presidents of the United States and Iran this week at the United Nations in New York. If they are effectively followed up there is a real prospect of making political progress not only on Iran’s nuclear programme, but on the stalemated Syrian civil war, Afghanistan and conceivably on the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict too. Strongly supportive public opinion in both states is behind the efforts to resolve these conflicts peaceably, giving a real mandate for political leaders.
Iran’s role in the region as a non-Arab, oil-rich and Shia Islamic power gives it a leverage cutting across competing Arab states like Saudi Arabia. Iran benefited strategically from the botched US invasion and occupation of Iraq and then took the side of the Syrian regime and its allies in the confrontation with Israel. All this created fully understandable fears that were its nuclear development programme to culminate in nuclear weapons the whole edifice of power in the region would be upset and radicalised. Those fears persist and must now be addressed in the forthcoming negotiations.
President Hassan Rouhani has signalled clearly his desire to negotiate a comprehensive resolution of the nuclear issue. He claims to have a complete mandate from his recent election and the support of Iran’s leadership. The country’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Ali Khamenei, in a highly significant move, has warned Iran’s Revolutionary Guards against any further involvement in politics or any act to impede political progress. Sanctions against Iran have bitten deeply, affecting its internal politics. Its leaders are able to read the changing regional picture and are anxious to take up the opportunities it offers.
President Barack Obama has his own good reasons to pursue a parallel diplomacy. It offers him a genuine way out of the trap a military intervention in Syria or further confrontation with Iran would represent, both with his Republican political opponents and the associated Israeli demand for a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear capacity. He has also read the clear signals from US voters and congress opposing another war in the Middle East. His references to the US role in the 1953 Iran coup, to Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s war and his respect for the rights of the Iranian people were calculated and effective gestures.
Hence the forthcoming talks on these issues offer a rare opportunity to recast the balance of power and influence constructively in this dangerously unstable region. It must be done one step at a time, carefully and scrupulously, but always with the wider picture in view.