US and Iran: remaking Middle East by Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi

American foreign policy works in multiple layers. US State Department takes the lead role in formulating the policy and directing these layers as well as giving it a face. Layers of US foreign policy include diplomatic corps, foreign correspondents of various publications; think tanks; multilateral organizations like UN, EU, ASEAN; and finally military might. In a typical scenario all these layers work in sync with each other. For instance, let’s consider the Syrian crisis. In that situation Secretary of State embarked on a trip to meet with counterparts in Europe and Middle East that are typical stake holders as well as Russia and China. At the same time journalists started reporting the humanitarian crisis emanating from the armed civil war to prepare soft corner for US policy. This also helped in creating sympathy for rebels. Sanctions were proposed in multilateral organizations to isolate Assad regime. Think Tanks started producing special reports on various scenarios to inform other countries how their interests could be aligned with US interests. Naval ships were diverted towards Mediterranean to increase pressure on the regime and increase the urgency of the situation to send a message to diplomats. But all this came to naught because of three major players that were not influenced by all this US activity i.e. Russia, China and Iran. The end result is a stalemate that will simmer for a long time. One outcome of this will be continued pressure on Turkey to lick her wounds rather than try to play a dominant regional role.

Another important feature of US Foreign Policy is that it is not influenced by presence of a particular individual at the helm of another country. That factor plays only a smart part. But media does use this as a propaganda tool to help steer public view. For example, there have been media reports that US is becoming softer on Iran because of the election of moderate Hassan Rouhani. That is far from reality as being a dominant factor. I remember clearly that during the eight years tenure of former President Ahmadinejad, he sent numerous letters to American President but they never responded favorably. Dexter Filkins in his recent report on Qassem Sulaiman stated that after 911 Ryan Crocker, a career diplomat who served as Ambassador in Pakistan, Afghanistan & Iraq, would go on a clandestine trip to a European country to meet with Iranian diplomats. Iran offered help to Americans to fight Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. But while Iran was offering help, US President George Bush called her member of Axis of evil along with Iraq and North Korea. Sounds illogical right? To give you food for thought, here is one question that they might have had to consider. Who is more beneficial for us to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq i.e. Saudi Arabia or Iran? I think the answer to this question helped them form list of axis of evil speech.

So the question then is that if it is not the moderate Hassan Rouhani then why is US now reaching out to Iran? The answer to this question is quite complex and require detailed historic perspective. But I will try to provide a short answer. US foreign policy is driven by strategic interest. The nature of US society is such that taking a complete U-turn in business, personal and political front is not unusual. It is part of their daily lives. Companies close down factories; people give up their homes and relationships once they feel it is not in their benefit. US has understood that Russian hand, in case of Syria, was strengthened because of Iran’s overt and covert support of Assad regime. Iran was also instrumental in pushing US out of Iraq. And Iran will play a prominent role in Afghanistan because of its long history of working with Northern Alliance, a shared border and cultural affinity. This makes Iran an important player in the region. In US calculations it is in their benefit to improve relations with Iran to safeguard its interest on all these fronts. Plus weaken the hand of Russia in Central and South Asia. I will not be surprised if Iran offers help to US for safe withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan through her Bandarabbas port. This is important for US planning since the relations with Pakistan are still near the bottom and rampant anti-American sentiments prevail in the country. For Iran improving relations with USA would mean relaxation in economic sanctions and acceptance as a stakeholder in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Central Asia. India & Iran enjoy good bilateral relations which is also a big plus. India is one of the major buyers of Iranian oil and exempt from economic sanctions to do that. US might be exploring ways to bring these two countries together to work in Afghanistan to counter the influence of Pakistan and China.

The major challenge for Iran will be to present itself as promoter of unity and democracy in Muslim countries rather than protector of Shia interest. The symbolism coming out Iran has to be changed significantly especially by reforming the ruling Shura Council to give adequate representation to Sunni Ulema. It will send a strong signal if Rouhani appoints a major Sunni figure as Vice President or give him a prominent cabinet position.

The countries that will be most affected by thaw between US and Iran are Saudi Arabia and Israel. Traditionally Saudi Arabia has been a strategic ally of America for three main reasons i.e. steady oil supply, a major market for US weapons and maintains her influence in Middle East. There have been radical changes on these fronts. America has found domestic oil sources that have reduced its dependence on Saudi oil. Saudi Arabia has become a bad boy on Arab Street by supporting coupe in Egypt and funding of extremist Wahhabi ideology in other Muslim countries. Saudi intervention in Bahrain to thwart political protests for reforms has not gone well among Muslims. The options for Saudi Arabia are quite limited because of its long history of alliance with Britain and USA. There is a possibility that UK might replace USA as her major ally.

American decision to distance herself from Saudi Arabia will have far-reaching consequences for the region. It will remove a security umbrella that has enabled these monarchies to prevent Arab spring to reach their shore. This will send a strong signal to reform movements in Middle East especially in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, UAE and Kuwait. Recent US decision to cut aid to Egypt will strengthen this perspective. So we should all be ready for an Arab Spring 2.0 to sprout in Middle East and the best candidate for that will be Bahrain, Jordan or Morocco.

What should Pakistan do in this scenario? Pakistan has adopted a good approach of reducing tension with neighbors and reaching out to regional powers i.e. China and Russia. I gave full marks to President Zardari for initiating this re-balancing of foreign policy. He never gave up despite earlier set-backs and cold shoulder treatment meted out to him by Russia and China. The May 2nd Abbottabad operation convinced military establishment to support his position and they moved around to his side. Pakistan has a vibrant civic society and deepening democratic tradition. Pakistan should reach out to Saudi Arabia to help her in political reforms as well as strengthen security ties with it. Reducing tensions with India is the right approach and should not be defined by Kashmir conflict alone. Containing extremism and terrorism will improve Pakistan’s image around the world. That will provide diplomatic capital which should be used to open new markets in Eastern Europe, South America, Middle East and Africa.

We are living in interesting times and the roller coaster that started after 911 has not completed its circle.

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