Deal or No Deal, Iran's Stock Keeps Rising

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The recent high-drama nuclear negotiations in Geneva were riveting, to be sure. Old foes shuttled between conference rooms, chatted amiably in corridors, colluded to guard the sensitive details of their discussions from an eager global media.

Every utterance from officials, every smile, grimace and gesture made its way onto the twitter feeds of foreign policy wonks and commentators, mostly frustrated by the lack of substance to report.

When a deal did not materialize between Iran and the P5+1, off went the pundits to dig up further minutiae. Who scuttled the agreement? What were the terms of the agreement on the table? Why are the Saudis, Israelis, Congress and the French being such spoilsports?

Hang. On. One. Minute.

For any dedicated critic of western policies in the Middle East, this last bit was just mind-boggling. For a change, nobody was blaming the Iranians for anything much. Instead, an atypical set of people and parties were being held accountable as “spoilers.”

Really, in that moment, the world turned a fraction faster. Brought us into the future, it did.

Because here’s the actual deal: deal or no deal at the negotiating table in Geneva, we have entered a new era in the Middle East. Iran is the center of all things important to all the parties that count. Today, nothing of consequence can be done in any of the major military and political theaters in the region without the cooperation of the Islamic Republic.

Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Bahrain… If Washington is keen to exit from its myriad of Mideast entanglements without leaving behind more chaos, it will need an able local intermediary with the clout to promote stability. None of its allies can do this job – not its economically distressed western partners, not a war-wary NATO, not an isolated Israel, not a sectarian Saudi Arabia, not a politically diminished Turkey, and not an Egypt in turmoil.

Deal or no deal, phase 1 in Geneva was already a success. It set the scene for what-comes-next quite effectively. Whether you noticed it or not, your view of good-guys and bad-guys in the Middle East changed in a Swiss conference room. Your perceptions shifted while you were cheering on a historical agreement with Iran, while you watched world-class foreign ministers sweep into town in deference to the importance of this moment, while you rolled your eyes at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s protestations and suspected France of trading “peace” for Saudi cash.

And nobody corrected you much on this perception shift in the days to follow.

No Deal in Geneva

On the sidelines of the Iran nuclear negotiations early this month, the talk was already about Syria and other regional matters. These weren’t distractions – they are the real goals of this Geneva made-for-television showcase.

Washington and Tehran – the two main poles in this 30+ year standoff – have already figured out that they will both have to put enough on the table to satisfy each other’s most difficult constituencies and walk away with a few victories.

If there are spoilers – and there are plenty out there with interest in undermining a historic rapprochement – a deal may not get done, but a new set of understandings will nevertheless exist between the US and Iran that will allow them to move ahead and tackle regional dangers critical to both.

Iran can live with sanctions for a while longer. International tolerance for unilateral sanctions has plateaued anyway, with courts turning back some, and Iran’s trading partners finding innovative ways to bypass others. If there’s no Geneva deal, the US Department of Treasury can also soft-peddle its responses to sanctions violations at the will of the White House – even if Congress remains belligerent.

Washington can live with Iran’s nuclear program for a while longer too. The Geneva talks spawned a measure of public confidence in Iranian goodwill - and Iran seized this momentum by striking further agreements with the IAEA on nuclear transparencies.

The US and Iran have bigger fish to fry. Deal or no deal, the attention has shifted to new arenas.

Fixing some big problems

As hesitant as the US has been over direct military engagement in Syria for the duration of that country’s 32-month conflict, it played the “strike” card in September – and lost.

Washington blinked because it couldn’t predict the “outcome” of military strikes. The only option left after that escalation was an “exit” which was quickly pursued with the Russian-brokered proposal to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

But in the works was a much more important strategic shift in regional priorities and alliances:

Despite a decade-long “war on terror,” there has never been a greater threat of extremism than in the Middle East today. Arab uprisings produced power vacuums that were rapidly filled by aggressively competing interests – and increasingly, by the kinds of Islamist militants who thrive in chaos.

There are jihadists in every state touched by uprisings, and they are crossing borders to destabilize neighbors with impunity. While a certain amount of “controlled instability” has always been a favored western lever to keep client states and adversaries in check, the regional landscape has suddenly moved into an “uncontrolled” and highly unpredictable zone.

And the US’s traditional regional partners are in no position to help reverse that trend. Israel views itself as a beneficiary of Arab instability – it believes that conflict will weaken and divide its neighbors, leaving Arabs unable to challenge Israel’s political and economic hegemony in the region.

Saudi Arabia is a primary financier and promoter of the Salafist extremist groups and networks engaged in terror and destabilization activities. The Saudis have aggressively sought to militarize various conflicts in the region to roll back revolts against friendly regimes and unseat unfriendly ones. And they are pursuing these policies with a single-mindedness that Washington has been unable to impact or reverse.

To the US’s endless frustration, the Israelis and Saudis have also sought to draw Washington into fronting their Mideast agendas at a time when Americans are keen to exit the region and focus on matters closer to home.

But who in the region shares these new Washington priorities? Which country in the Mideast is willing and able to take on militant jihadists, to promote stability, to provide a security blanket in the strategic Levant and Persian Gulf areas?

Bordering Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and the Gulf states, Iran straddles the danger zone and extends its influence into Syria and Lebanon, two other hot spots. Arguably one of the more advanced and stable democracies in the region, many US analysts point to the Iranian leadership as pragmatic, opportunistic, rational and shrewd in their political calculations. In the past two years, Iran has also come under the protective umbrella of Russia, China and other BRICS states, the former two states also proactively concerned about the rise in influence and presence of Salafi terror networks in their own regions.

Together with its newest regional ally Iraq, Iran is set to become the Mideast's main energy hub, which is already of paramount strategic interest to countries emerging as the next-generation global economic powerhouses.

Hostilities aside, Washington and Tehran have cooperated in Afghanistan and even in Iraq when interests occasionally converged. The US is also intimately familiar with the disasterous consequences of going up against the Islamic Republic in those arenas. But today, Iran can help the US exit landlocked-Afghanistan by its 2014 year-end target date - and can play a role in maintaining stability on borders and in pockets within the country. In Iraq, where the Islamic Republic wields significant influence, Iran can be an able partner in defusing sectarian tensions, tackling political violence and mediating disputes.

The Iranians are also capable of brokering political solutions inside Syria and Lebanon, leveraging Turkish clout when “Sunni” solutions are required, thwarting the rogue behaviors of an increasingly belligerent Saudi Arabia, checking Qatari delusions of grandeur, mediating with and for the Kurds, de-escalating the battle in Yemen, guaranteeing the security of the Persian Gulf, and wielding a necessary “stick” to deter's Israel's regional aggressions.

In short, there is simply no other Mideast state as well positioned as Iran to troubleshoot, mediate, cajole and push its neighbors into action – to lead the way, as it were.

And Washington is out of "useful" allies right now. Like it or not, its primary regional adversary Iran is its only solution to a wide range of problems.

Not out of the woods yet

Last week, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah warned that the region could head to war if a US-Iran deal is not struck. If that sounds too dramatic, think again. The Mideast is a tinderbox at this moment – any constellation of events could set off a conflagration in multiple countries, and there are parties now gunning for this outcome.

We had a taste of this in Beirut on Tuesday - on the eve of Iran nuclear talks in Geneva - when a massive suicide bombing attack outside the Iranian embassy threatened to raise the temperature in the Levant/Persian Gulf yet again.

The US is uncomfortably aware that its closest regional allies Israel and Saudi Arabia would like nothing better than a last-ditch war to try to turn the tide back in their favor. Both nations eagerly pushed Washington to the brink in Syria two months ago.

The fact is that even if phase 1 of the Geneva deal goes through, there’s a good six months in which spoilers can try to sabotage a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. And let’s not kid ourselves here: the west and Iran have little in common after decades of hostilities - just a few urgent mutual interests and much room to exploit differences.

In the meantime, the clock is ticking on regional dangers – and the US, Russians and Iranians want to get down to business to thwart these.

Yes, an agreement over the Iranian nuclear file will help smooth the way, but the new priorities and tentative alliances have already been cast far away from Swiss conference rooms. The verdict? Iran is a necessary partner in the Middle East today. At the next round of talks in Geneva this week - deal or no deal - that reality will define the way forward.

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.

Comments

This is an excellent article. There is no doubt that Iran's stock keeps rising. 6 foreign ministers from the 5+1 travelled to Geneva twice in two weeks for the nuclear deal and this alone shows the extreme importance of Iran.

Israel is worse than apartheid South Africa and racists are not human.

Does this mouthpiece ever write anything that doesn't fetishize Iran, Hezbollah, or Russia?

Aaaaww! You wanted yet another financed article praising the Israelis to be as the divine angels of the region destined to rule the Mid-East with uncle Sam's big arms and once upon a period deep pockets! I'm sorry for the mouthpiece's piece did not agree with your trolling's character and misconstrued reality!

So let me get this straight. The choice is either betweem fetishizing Iran, Hezb, and Russia or fetishizing zionism and the US.... no middle ground huh? You seem to love extremes. You and the mouthpiece have some very sore lips.

"Agence France Presse reported this: "Vallaud-Belkacem ... was referring to Khamenei's references to arch-foe Israel earlier Wednesday as being "doomed to collapse", "the rabid dog" of the Middle East, and with leaders "not worthy" of being called "human".".."

MEMRI's translation I presume? Khameini just does not think that way.

There's something slightly odd about this analysis. If we posit that 'Israel' effectively controls the USA, rather than positing Israel and the USA as being at loggerheads, things make more sense. As to how exactly this control is exercised, I think we ought to permit ourselves to say more than merely that it happens via Jewish ownership and control of US mass media, or via Jewish strategic funding of politicians' campaigns. I think we ought to grasp the nettle finally and admit that it is Jewish currency control that is at the root of the matter. Although it is no longer taboo to draw attention to Jewish media control, 'Jewish bankers' remain unmentionable as such. This is why analyses such as Sharmine's fail quite to do justice to the true constellation of forces. 'Israel' cannot be detached from world Jewry, nor can world Jewry be detached from the Jewish elite, which controls it. I can say these things because the UK is (relatively) tolerant of divergent views on this topic, at least from nonentities like myself.

Brilliant as usual. Just hoping that Iran would not become a US asset in the region just like it was under the Pahlavi regime, at a time when US assets are increasingly isolated and have effectively lost their strategic and political clout. I hope that Iran does not pursue a deal just to have one that would allow it the privilege of sharing the pie that is the gold adorned corpse of the Arab world.

Many states share common interests in some areas, but are widely divergent on others. The Iran that has matured under the Islamic Republic seeks to preserve its independence and the ability to act in its self-interest. I do not foresee Iran becoming a servile "asset" to any global power. The primary mutual concern of both the US and Iran right now appears to be stemming the jihadi problem and establishing stability in key regional states. That has not always been the desire of either country - particularly the US - but today it is an urgent priority. Hence the sudden burst of "energy" on the nuclear issue at the international level. Having spent the better part of the last decade trying to isolate Iran, the US finds itself trapped by its own fear-mongering language. Phase-one is to undo that discourse by reaching mutual understanding on the nuclear file (or at least appearing to do so); phase-two is getting down to business with Iran, Russia and others who also share the goal of regional stabilization.

Besides, Washington is in no position to dominate states any longer - at best, it can only hope to share some influence. Even the Saudis, Egyptians and Israelis are looking to broaden their horizons in this new multilateral world. Lots of back-and-forth between these nations and Moscow right now. Like Iran, they are seeking leverage to be able to act opportunistically and in their own interests.

Great reporting but a tad optimistic I'm afraid. The active portrayal of the situation was this: "Last week, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah warned that the region could head to war if a US-Iran deal is not struck."

Agence France Presse reported this: "Vallaud-Belkacem ... was referring to Khamenei's references to arch-foe Israel earlier Wednesday as being "doomed to collapse", "the rabid dog" of the Middle East, and with leaders "not worthy" of being called "human"."

If this is true Khamenei is gambling with the lives of tens of millions of people. The Israelis and the war mongers in the US are going to have a field day with these remarks. Does Khamenei want a regional or world war?

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