The process of transformation in the Middle East appears to be speeding up. If the western powers do reach an accord with Iran, it will come with tremendous risks and opportunities for both the region and the West. An agreement will represent a turning point in the West’s relations with the Islamic world, and perhaps in the long term, a move away from the Arab centric to Turkish and Iran oriented policies.
The traditional balance of power of the Middle East first got disturbed in Iraq. The environment of the Arab world has also been altering as a result of the war against extremists and Arab Spring; both have played havoc with the equilibrium of secular, conservative and religious forces of the region. How will the normalization of ties between Iran and the West impact these forces is a critical consideration. However, the first step is to understand what may have forced the West to engage with Iran.
Middle East Peace Process
The last attempt to push through a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict failed during the Clinton era. Subsequently, the death of Arafat, now thought to have been poisoned, was followed by a period of stalemate. During the Bush term, no serious effort was made to revive the Middle East peace process, and besides, US got busy with Al Qaeda after 9/11.
There was a growing realization in the West that a fresh approach was needed towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if the two-state solution was to ever materialize. The new approach likely assessed the role played by the Arab autocrats during the previous peace efforts. And it must have quickly become clear that the monarchies were now more of a liability than an asset.
Due to challenges of credibility, they usually clung to the West and US for support. However, to remain relevant on the Arab street, they also had to take a strong position on the issue of Palestine. The arrival of the war on terror further complicated the dilemma of Arab authoritarian rulers. It increased their dependency on the West for survival while they compromised further on their traditional stances against Israel.
This was most evident when the Gaza Blockade started in 2007; Hosni Mubarak supported the Israeli moves while the Gulf States remained oblivious. The Arabs, especially the Gulf States, did not recognize at the time their inertness was causing Iran and Turkey to gain. The first visible sign of this shift came during the Mavi Marma incident in 2010. The Turks was seen as standing up to the Israeli injustices, while the Arab states came across as accomplices.
While the Arabs were mostly engaged in rhetoric, it was Iran doing the heavy lifting in Iraq, and for the Palestinian cause, using Hezbollah and even assisting Sunni Hamas in Gaza. The Arab States interpreted Turkish, Iranian, and Qatar’s support for Hamas in Gaza as attempts to sabotage the two-state solution.
Nonetheless, this dynamics further proved that in order to have a lasting solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran and Turkey were the key, and less so the Arab states. Ironically, as these developments were transpiring, the issue was identified less and less as a matter between the Arabs and Israelis and more and more as Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
How to Deal with Iran?
This led to the next question of how then to deal with Iran: through a military solution or a political one. As this argument was taking place, pretty much the same debate was occurring on how to tackle Taliban in the AfPak region. In 2009, President Obama presented a new strategy for Afghanistan. Engaging Iran politically was not only beneficial for the western policy in the Middle East but also for dealing with Afghanistan and Al Qaeda.
Throughout George W. Bush’s two terms, and especially after the invasion of Iraq, the debate on the best course for Iran came up for consideration on several occasions. Each time the route of negotiations was pushed back due to strong resistance from within the American system and from Israel. From the Israeli perspective, once Iran’s nuclear program matured enough to produce a nuclear weapon, it would be too late and therefore it persistently threatened a unilateral strike. On the other hand, every time a military option was explored its limitation also came to the fore, and even the American military advised against it due to the risk of a wider regional conflagration.
The Syrian Opportunity
Then another opportunity presented itself about three years ago with the arrival of Arab Spring in Syria, a strong ally of Iran. If Assad’s regime could be removed, and in addition to economic sanctions, Iran could be pressured to change course on its nuclear ambition. The Saudis and Qataris went full fledge in supporting the rebels in Syria.
This option ran into trouble when Russia, and China, resisted strongly against any Libya style military intervention. The West was not about to start a world war over Syria, and a political opportunity was presented when Assad offered to dismantle the chemical weapons. In addition, Iran’s new regime took a more moderate stance resulting in the restart of the negotiations on it nuclear programs.
The question now is if a nuclear deal with Iran is reached, how will the Arab world, particularly the Gulf States, respond to this sea change? Egypt and Saudi Arabia are already probing Russia, which seems willing to reciprocate. War on terror has caused tremendous damage to the repute of US and NATO in the Islamic world and China and Russia are well positioned to gain from this. On the other hand, Pakistan has been drifting ever closer to China. Even Turkey, a member of NATO, is flirting with the prospect of joining SCO.
Then there are ties between Islamic states themselves. With the easing of sanctions on Iran, the South and Central Asia can benefit tremendously economically. However, Pakistan ties with Gulf region are likely to be tested in case of normalization of Iran’s relations with the West. The gravest challenge, however, would be to prevent a confrontation between the resurgent Sunni extremist forces with Shia groups, which are likely to be energized by Iran’s emerging regional and global stature.