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The meaning of western-Iranian rapprochement

There are signs that Iran’s relations with western countries, particularly the United States, are experiencing fundamental changes. Iran has begun new rounds of negotiations on its nuclear programme. There are economic, financial and technical reasons that are pushing Iran to accept the international conditions. The USA, meanwhile, seeks to avoid a military confrontation with Iran. If the parties reach a final and lasting solution on the nuclear issue, the improvement of Iranian-western relations will reflect on the regional balance, especially in light of regional disagreements on Egypt and the aggravation of the Syrian crisis.

1 November 2013

From the end of September to the middle of October 2013, it seemed that Iran’s relations with the western world were witnessing monumental changes. On 16 October, the EU representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, praised two days of talks that had just taken place in Geneva between 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 they ‘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, this was the first time such language was used since the topic of Iranian nuclear capability became an international agenda item in 2002.

However, this new tone did not begin in Geneva. It began in New York, at the United Nations headquarters, where both the US president, Barack Obama, and the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, spoke on 24 September at the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. Rouhani’s speech sparked 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 possible solution, the Americans did not hide their hope for a new form of engagement. After arrangements for their handshake in the UN corridors had failed, Obama phoned Rouhani, an unprecedented step in the relations between the two countries since 1979.

But what do these gestures amount to? Specifically, is the Iranian nuclear issue now moving towards a negotiated solution? And to what extent will a purported solution affect the regional balance of power in the Middle East?

Nuclear issue: The terms of settlement

Rouhani’s victory as the presidential candidate was just the thing that Iran required at that juncture in the international stage. Iran needed a new beginning, especially after the serious damage to its economy as a result of UN and Euro-American sanctions. During the past year, Iranian oil production fell by half, and the country’s economy shrank by more than five per cent. Further economic decline can translate into the burgeoning of the opposition camp within Iran. Despite the strength and consolidation enjoyed by the ruling regime, this is not something that it would wish to see.

In addition, reports indicate that the Iranian nuclear programme is facing serious difficulties. And, in the face of a precarious economic situation, it is no longer feasible to resolve the problems related to the development of nuclear power. These factors forced Iran to adopt a new negotiation policy with western powers in order to resolve the nuclear issue and lift the sanctions imposed upon Iran.

But Iran was not the only roleplayer that wanted a fresh start. The USA is trying to extricate itself from the Middle East, in a way that protects its and its allies’ interests. 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 gaining control over the Middle East. Within this framework, it would not be in Washington’s interests if Iran were to experience 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 end its nuclear programme in exchange for economic and political normalisation, within a pluralistic balance of power in the Middle East.

The convergence between the Iranian desire for a new economic recovery and the American desire to avoid war is responsible for creating the hopeful air 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, and expressed 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 would not have been possible without the actual threat of using force.

On 24 September, Rouhani avoided shaking hands with Obama, since it could have caused him more trouble in Iran than serve his interests. But he obtained the approval of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to speak to Obama by telephone a few days later. In the short period he spent in New York, Rouhani mounted a public relations campaign to project a positive and attractive image of Iran. He not only changed the image associated with his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but also the stereotypical image of the Islamic Republic. Rouhani condemned the Nazi Holocaust, spoke about America’s standing in the hearts of Iranian people, and vowed that Iran would not develop nuclear weapons. More important was the undeclared communication between the Americans and the Iranians, which took place on the sidelines of the UNGA meeting, and was confirmed by US secretary of state, John Kerry.

From a western point of view, the Geneva talks were the real test for the new Iranian government, for negotiations there would show if the Iranians were serious about adopting a stance different from the ones taken during their previous meetings. According to leaks from closed sessions, negotiations began 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 would begin with confidence-building measures, to be conducted within six months, and would end with a comprehensive agreement which affirmed the right of Iran to pursue a nuclear programme for peaceful purposes. In return, Iran would allow strict international supervision, and approve the IAEA’s ‘Additional Protocol’, which gives observers the right to visit any sites suspected of nuclear activities, not just those declared as such by Iran.

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

Therefore, while there is unprecedented optimism, results are still not guaranteed. The Americans want Iran to be allowed to enrich uranium to a maximum of five per cent, to accept international supervision in accordance with the Additional Protocol, to shut down the Fordow facility, the main site of development, and to abandon plutonium separation efforts. In return, western countries will be prepared to gradually lift sanctions. It is difficult to predict whether Iran will accept such a deal. Moreover, it is clear that inside Iran, in the USA, and in the Middle East region as a whole, there are influential forces that do not want 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’. The Obama administration has repeatedly rejected such a link. But it is not improbable that an agreement on the nuclear programme could have a direct impact on the regional situation, not only because Iran influences a whole host of Middle Eastern issues, but also because of the Obama administration’s desire to foster negotiations on Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It should not be overlooked that the region 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. While a few years ago it seemed unlikely that the three countries would co-operate in this manner, the Arab uprisings created a convergence between the three countries. When the uprisings broke out in 2011, these three states were not facing any serious threat to the political or geopolitical situation. Of the three, only in Jordan was there a popular movement demanding reform. The movements for change, from Tunisia and Libya to Egypt and Yemen, were not particularly hostile toward any of the other Arab countries, particularly the Gulf states. However, fearful as they are of the changes that have swept across the region, especially the resurgence of political Islam and democracy, they rushed towards finding common ground and formed an active and effective political axis. The three countries have financial abundance, security expertise and political influence that brought them together to collaborate during the Libyan uprising, and they have continued to do so since. They almost succeeded in getting their preferred candidate to win the Libyan presidency. They also worked, to varying extents, with Qatar and Turkey to support the Syrian rebels. In the past few months, they supported the overthrow of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, and a senior UAE official has declared that they were working on regime change in Tunisia.

A quick look at the Arab political map suggests that the tripartite coalition achieved a number of 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 again redraw the map.

The three countries built their approach to the Syrian issue on the back of a solid Qatari-Turkish initiative, and also increasing western – particularly American – involvement. When the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons elicited the western-American declarations of swift retribution, it seemed that the Saudi-UAE-Jordanian coalition – with its strong influence in the US Senate and House of Representatives and Israeli support – was close to achieving a significant change in the balance of forces on the ground in Syria.

Therefore, the Obama administration’s preference for negotiations, in order to strip the Damascus regime of its chemical weapons arsenal, disappointed the three states. They did not anticipate a significant US withdrawal from the Middle East or the Syrian crisis, nor Washington’s suggestion that strikes against the Syrian regime, if they were to proceed at all, would be small and limited. The problem was the exaggerated perception of the tripartite coalition about its relationship with USA, and its ability to use Washington to serve its regional interests, even if Washington did not view them as American interests.

Similarly, the coalition, as well as Israel, did not foresee the determined effort of the Obama administration to avoid war with Iran, nor its constant search for a negotiated settlement for the Iranian nuclear issue. Since the early 2000s, the three countries considered Iran as a major threat, after Iran had benefited from the power vacuum caused by the Bush administration’s short-sighted war policy adopted by the. Even before the domestic Lebanese crisis worsened, and the Syrian revolution transformed into a regional and international crisis, the growing Iranian influence in Iraq was already a source of great concern for the Gulf Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia. After all, any continuing Iranian influence 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 that Iran’s regional foes cannot hope for a US strike that could weaken Tehran militarily and politically. The settlement of the nuclear issue will confirm that neither Israel’s Netanyahu, nor the tripartite coalition of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, can dissuade the Obama administration’s preference for negotiations. But the contradictory interests between these three states 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 depends only on 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 in the past few years, one that supports rapprochement with Turkey, and prepares for a new regional balance of power in which Turkey acts as a regional counterweight to Iran. Now, after the policy of the tripartite coalition towards the countries experiencing the uprisings has caused a deep lack of confidence with Ankara, Turkey seems to be reconsidering its regional policy, including its relationship with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Jordan. 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 will accept such a settlement, will agree not to enrich uranium to twenty per cent, and will open its nuclear facilities to strict international supervision. If Iran cannot accept the conditions put forward by western countries, and, instead, proposes a solution that does not meet 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 will include the nuclear issue and the overall regional situation in the Gulf and the Middle East, as Iran had proposed years ago when the nuclear crisis began. But resolving the nuclear crisis will see Iran and the United States talking about a number of other issues, including Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and the Gulf. Such a possibility raises serious concerns in neighbouring countries, especially in Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies. This is especially so since it is accompanied by the failure of the USA to strike against the Asad regime, the increasing regional disagreements on Egypt, the possibility of a split between regional allies in Syria, and the varying stances of regional powers on Iran.

Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC)
Briefing No. 14/2013
31 OCTOBER 2013