US should look towards a deal with Iran

Opinion: ‘Grand bargain’ dismissed by Bush administration in the euphoria of the invasion

Supporters of outgoing Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki carry his pictures during a demonstration in central Baghdad, this week. Photograph: Ali Abbas/EPA

Supporters of outgoing Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki carry his pictures during a demonstration in central Baghdad, this week. Photograph: Ali Abbas/EPA


It was highly significant that this week Iran joined the United States and Saudi Arabia in backing Haidar al-Abadi as the designated new prime minister of Iraq. Behind the battles for control of Iraq lies a reconfiguring of geopolitics in the Middle East region, with global consequences.

How this crisis plays out will affect Europe too, as it faces a fateful standoff between the US, the EU and Russia. The assertive US role in that crisis so evident since a civil society uprising forced the flight of Viktor Yanukovych from office in February mirrors its ineffectiveness in Syria and Iraq.

In a developing debate, US neoconservatives are arguing the case for a more forceful foreign policy, despite the latest events, which demonstrate the complete failure of their previous interventionist programme in Iraq.

The outgoing Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has ruled with Iranian support since 2006, having taken office after the US purge of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-based state apparatus. This was one of the great unintended consequences of the 2003 US-led invasion, which was certainly not aimed at empowering its arch-rival Iran.

Nor was it intended that the invasion would result in the victory this year of Islamic State (Isis) jihadists’ – an even more extreme group than al- Qaeda.

Grand bargain

It is worth recalling that more far-seeing Iranians offered the US a grand bargain in 2003-4. The offer came from Hassan Rouhini, then its chief nuclear negotiator and now president of Iran. It included a nuclear deal, enhanced security, mutual respect and access to technology in return for Iranian recognition of Israel and a two-state settlement, helping stabilise Iraq, halting aid to Hamas in Gaza and a changed Iranian relationship with Hizbullah in Lebanon.

It was dismissed by the Bush administration in the euphoria of the invasion and neo-con enthusiasm for regime change in the “axis of evil”, including Iran. But something like it could be resurrected in the wake of Maliki’s departure.

His sectarianism so comprehensively alienated the Sunni population that many of them have welcomed the Islamic State jihadists as an alternative. The assumption that moderate or secular Sunnis would take control of this insurrection after its military successes now looks naive.

And it may be too late for Abadi to keep Iraq together by a more accommodating and pluralist approach because of the collapse of trust. A division into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish fragments looks more likely.

That outcome poses great problems for neighbouring and regional states and for large powers too. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are indirect sponsors of Isis arising from their support for the Islamic resistance to Assad’s regime in Syria. But having come out so forcefully against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere for fear of a potential challenge to their own absolute monarchies, they must look at Isis with alarm.

Regional politics

Their sworn enemy Iran supports Assad, for reasons of regional politics more than sectarian commitment; and his campaign for survival looks more plausible in the light of Isis’s success. Iran is quite capable of pragmatism to serve its interests if it secures a nuclear deal. It no longer supports Hamas directly; would it be willing to support a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiation after Gaza’s wreckage? That could be a real incentive for Obama – and a nightmare for Israel’s coalition, unless it too can read the changing balance of forces creatively.

Russia could be a spoiler of any such scenario. Putin feels threatened politically by an independent Europeanising Ukraine and is determined to prevent it happening. His response to US and EU sanctions is to canvass deeper economic and political relations with rising powers, including China.

Having demonstrated a canny nose for Middle East politics and last year over Syria’s chemical weapons he has an interest in stoking up distracting problems for the US there.

This task is made easier by current US policy on Ukraine. Victoria Nuland, the US assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, has been most assertive about the need to support its westernising thrust rather than seeking enabling an accommodation with Russia. Notoriously, she said “F**k the EU” during negotiations over sanctions in February, complaining about differing European priorities and slower procedures.

Her husband Robert Kagan is one of the most prominent and unrelenting neo-conservatives. His recent essay “Superpowers don’t get to retire” advocates a more forceful US foreign policy and is believed to have influenced Hilary Clinton’s criticisms of Obama on Syria. A grand bargain with Iran may tempt Obama, but is he too cautious to take the opportunity? If he can’t, the EU should.

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