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Iran Marks a Watershed in the Middle East

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Yes, it is tentative, temporary, and reversible, as the White House cautions us after unveiling its breakthrough understanding with Iran. The agreement could yet collapse as entrenched conservatives on both sides, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, condemn it. All these forces fear the ground is shifting beneath them--and it is. If the dialog continues to inch forward in the coming months, the longer range implications are huge.

First, it marks a signal step away from the obsessive centrality of Iran in US Middle East policies-a hostile confrontation of thirty-five crippling years. The Iran optic distorted everything else. Syria was more about Iran than about Syria. The Iraq war was as much about Iran as about Iraq. Lebanon is mostly about Iran and its Hizballah allies. Washington and Tehran could not explore many shared goals in Afghanistan. Eurasian pipeline routes required fanciful rerouting to foreclose any benefit to Iran. Riyadh sought to enlist Washington in its virulent and destructive anti-Shi'ite campaign. Iran came to cloud our vision, rob us of flexibility, and limit our ability to assess individual regional problems on their own merits.

If we can now liberate our geopolitical imaginations a bit, we might perceive the outlines of a new Middle East emerging. It touches what we do with Russia, China, Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Turkey, Israel, the Arab world, Pakistan, India, and East Asian energy.

It's far too early to count our chickens, but dialog with Iran can help defuse Iraq's struggles. Iran could be part of the solution in Syria, rather than target of a proxy war. In Afghanistan Iran has a greater stake in stability than the US does. Iran is a sworn enemy of Shi'ite-loathing al-Qaeda. Truth be told, the Iranian "threat" has been more about spread of Iran's popular revolutionary ideology to overthrow kings and US clients than it was about "Shi'ism," or even a bomb. The Gulf states fear their own Shi'ite minorities and prefer repression to accommodation. US rapprochement with Iran leaves the Gulf more isolated, without an all-purpose Iranian enemy to justify their resistance to political change.

The new ideological polarity in the Middle East may no longer be between Iran and everybody else. It is now more about looking backward or forward in shaping future governance. In fact, the major new polarity may now be between two erstwhile US allies--Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Turkey in its own way poses a growing ideological "threat" to the defensive, reactionary, counter-revolutionary Saudi kingdom and its constellation of emirates. Turkey, without any oil, runs a booming economy. It possesses a dynamic, mobile and multicultural society; a world-class image (with a few warts); a functioning democratic order. It is now addressing its Kurdish issue foursquare in complex, delicate but advancing negotiations. Turkey is a NATO member, possesses a strong military, seeks admission to the European Union, while simultaneously demonstrating interest in and identification with the Muslim world and beyond to Asia. It is the first state that has "solved" the question of integrating political Islam into the political order. It has good ties with the Muslim Brotherhood around the region while publicly championing the secular state as "no threat to Islam." Turkey has long maintained correct relations with Iran and will assuredly seek closer ties with Iran's reemergence. Most Middle Eastern states would eat their heart out over such a package of accomplishments.

But to states whose policies are founded in reaction this formula indeed represents a threat. Riyadh rejects the Turkish vision and will work to subvert it, as it feels increasingly isolated and under siege. Saudi Arabia does not want popular government, multiculturalism or democratic process; it does not want a secular framework of governance. It fears and loathes the Muslim Brotherhood, not because it is Islamist but because the Brotherhood is a rival for Islamic legitimacy and sees the future not in monarchy but in still-evolving Islamic democratic practice. The Brotherhood has a more moderate vision of Islam than the Saudis' inflexible and scowling form of fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam. Saudi Arabia promotes polarization between Sunni and Shi'ite to sow fear; Ankara seeks a Muslim world that rises above sectarianism. The two states joined hands temporarily in the ill-fated effort to overthrow the Syrian regime, but Ankara is now backing away; significant economic ties remain Ankara's main glue with Riyadh.

With the gradual new emergence of Iran as a new, less threatened and more acceptable player in the region the calculus for the Kingdom changes. It is not far-fetched to imagine that Iran itself will soon bid to be the next Turkey in strengthening its quasi-democratic institutions and acknowledging public demand for a more relaxed environment. Iran has a history of popular movements and democratic experience of its own unrivalled by any Arab state. It has a spectrum of self-sufficient industry. Turkey and Iran have more in common than meets the eye, and both conduct highly independent foreign policies. In contrast, Egypt, with its restored praetorian guard back in power, has now lost its bid for political and ideological leadership in the region. No other major Arab state is in much of a position to lead anything, except backwards. Iran has often taken Turkey as a model of change for much of the last century; it may now be freer to grope its own way, gradually, along the same path as Turkey. The barriers are many but the groundwork for independent national development is firmer than in any Arab state. This may be the shape of a "new" Middle East down the road.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of "A World Without Islam," "Three Truths and a Lie," and the forthcoming "Turkey and the Arab Spring."