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Shireen T. Hunter

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The US-Iran Deal Could Lead to a More Stable Middle East and South-West Asia

Posted: 12/03/2013 4:07 pm

In all the commentary about the reasons why the U.S. and Iran succeeded in reaching an agreement, albeit interim, on Iran's nuclear program, the main reason has been ignored. This has been the state of fatigue that both Iran and the U.S. feel following decades of pursuing ideological and maximalist goals in the region.

Iran has wanted to transform the Middle East according to its version of the Islamist blueprint and to create an Islamic Middle East, and the U.S. has tried to roll back the Iranian revolution and, since 2003, to reshape the Middle East according to its liberal blueprint. In the process, both countries have fought wars, spent blood and treasure, and have ended up worse off than when they started. It seems this experience has convinced both sides that continuing on the same path could lead to even greater problems and losses for their respective countries; hence their willingness to take the first step on a more realistic path of seeking compromises and understandings on the basic concerns of both sides, while excluding the pursuit of utopian and maximalist policies.

Their both continuing on this path could have positive outcomes not only for the U.S. and Iran but also for the entire region of the Middle East and South-West Asia. Under proper conditions, it might even lead to a change of paradigm in international and regional relations and eventually to the establishment of a new security structure in these regions. The Peace of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years' War in Europe, is called by many historians the "peace of exhaustion." The Westphalia treaty resulted from the fact that, despite decades of war, none of the competing forces succeeded in achieving its maximalist goals, while leaving them all depleted and exhausted. It also led to the realization that, to avoid a repetition of such ruinous wars, a new structure for inter-state relations needed to be put in place. This led to the development of principles which laid the foundation of the modern international system which, in its essential elements, still exists.

There is now such a possibility in the Middle East and South-West Asia. The experience of the last three decades, and especially the last ten years, shows that no single regional country or creed can dominate the entire region. Iran's revolutionary ideology has lost whatever broader appeal it ever had in the region and has even begun to play itself out at home. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has failed to roll back the Shia revival in Iraq or to establish its over-lordship with other Sunni Arab countries. Turkey's dreams of a new version of the Ottoman Empire have also proved highly unrealistic. And despite efforts to use Iran as the sacrificial lamb in an Israeli-Sunni Arab bargain, Arab-Israeli peace remains as elusive as ever. But Iran has also been thwarted in its effort to "liberate" Palestine.

At the international level, the U.S. has failed to establish Pax Americana in a democratized Middle East and South-West Asia; and other powers, both old and new, have tried to challenge its global hegemony. The fundamental changes within the international system are revealed by the unfolding of the Syrian crisis and the stalemate in this conflict at both regional and international levels, especially Russian and Chinese resistance to US policies there.

This stalemate in the region and internationally offers the best opportunity to try reordering the region according to a new paradigm of avoiding maximalist goals and recognizing the principal security concerns of all countries in the region, of course including Israel. This would include Iran's ending its excessive hostility toward Israel and trying to help the Palestinians' aspirations through dialogue as well as recognizing the limits of its influence in the Sunni Arab World.

Meanwhile, this reordering would mean that Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf Arab states must accept the legitimacy of a role for Iran in the Persian Gulf and the rest of the Middle East and South-West Asia, and for both Iran and Saudi Arabia to recognize that each has natural constituencies in these regions which both should respect. Such a Saudi-Iranian understanding would go a long way toward easing sectarian tensions and fostering broader regional understandings which would contribute to regional stability.

Nor is such a Saudi-Iranian reconciliation a far-fetched idea. This happened in the past during the Rafsanjani and Khatami presidencies and it can happen again. Already, Ayatullah Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is widely respected and trusted by the Saudi leadership, especially by King Abdullah, has indicated that he is willing to undertake a process of reconciliation with the Kingdom and, for this purpose, to travel to Riyadh. But even were this reconciliation to take place, it would not mean the establishment of a Saudi-Iranian condominium in the Middle East; such a scheme would be bound to fail. But it would eliminate a major cause of tension in the Middle East and South-West Asia and make it much easier to resolve conflicts from Lebanon to Afghanistan and enhance stability.

Eventually, if such developments take place, they could prepare the ground for development of a region-wide security system. In all of this, the role of the U.S. would be vital and pivotal. None of the other powers has the resources and the acceptance and, more important, the willingness to play such a role. By making the deal with Iran, the U.S. has taken what could be the first step in this direction. Therefore, instead of being deterred by the doubts and resistance of its recalcitrant allies, America should convince them that a more reconciliatory and less maximalist approach, as reflected in the Iranian nuclear deal, is in the interest of all regional countries and that of global peace.

 
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