Geopolitical Tremors America, Nuclear Talks and the New Middle East

The US is rethinking its approach to the Middle East and has even found commonalities with erstwhile archenemy Iran. Meanwhile, relations with traditional American allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, are cooling. A nuclear deal could further the shift.
The Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland is the site where the US and Iran are hoping to reach a nuclear deal on Tuesday.

The Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland is the site where the US and Iran are hoping to reach a nuclear deal on Tuesday.

Foto: POOL/ REUTERS

Barack Obama wanted to do everything differently than his predecessor, also in the realm of foreign policy. He wanted to bring an end to America's role as global police officer and to lead from the background rather than pursue one-sided dominance. His vision was that of becoming a moderator of international politics and finding allies for new coalitions.

But he likely didn't foresee the results as they appear today. The US is currently involved in all fronts in the Middle East -- even, more recently, with countries that are antagonistic toward one-another. Last week, the situation was particularly absurd. On the one hand, the US supports the Sunni military coalition in Yemen that is bombing an Iran-supported rebel group. On the other hand, the US provided air support to a Shiite militia that is being led by an Iranian general.

What's more, US Secretary of State John Kerry hopes to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran, with Tuesday, March 31, marking the self-imposed deadline  for a framework agreement. America's traditional ally Israel is adamantly opposed to such a deal.

Political certainties are becoming hazier. Who are America's enemies and who are its allies? After decades spent as an immovable constant in American foreign policy, does Israel still enjoy its status as inalienable ally? Many of the constants that have characterized the Middle East for decades are no longer as assured.

No other country, apart from Israel, has been the recipient of as much high-tech weaponry as the arch-conservative monarchy of Saudi Arabia. Despite the brutal oppression of every opposing voice and the years spent financing Islamist terror via "charitable" organizations, Washington has continued to feel bound to the Saudis. But that may not last. Because fracking at home has reduced American dependence on oil from Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East -- to the point that the US may soon not have to import any more oil at all -- relations with Riyadh could change, or at least cool.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia, which is Sunni, and Iran, which is Shiite, are both fighting for supremacy in the Middle East -- in Syria, in Iraq and, most recently, in Yemen. But in contrast to previous years, American interests of late have sometimes overlapped to a considerable degree with those of Iran. Indeed, whereas relations between Washington and the Israeli leadership have sunk to an all-time low in recent weeks, Tehran has become a de-facto partner in the ongoing fight against Islamic State, even if neither side is willing to say as much.

Spying on the US

Reconciliation with Iran, its integration into Washington policy and its economic opening to large American companies is a high priority for President Obama. As such, his foreign policy legacy depends to a large degree on securing a nuclear deal with Tehran. To get one, the US government appears willing to go to great lengths. Israel, though, fears exactly that: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in addition to some in the opposition, is concerned that Washington will make too many concessions.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Switzerland.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Switzerland.

Foto: BRIAN SNYDER/ REUTERS

That helps explain why Netanyahu recently chastened his closest ally in public, presenting the negotiations with Iran as naïve. Furthermore, he distanced himself from previous pledges to work toward the US-supported two-state solution in the conflict with the Palestinians and took a hard turn to the right  in the final days of his ultimately successful re-election campaign.

As if that weren't enough, reports emerged that Israel's secret service had been spying on the US delegation during the nuclear negotiations with Iran in Lausanne, Switzerland and passing along details of the planned deal to members of Congress. Obama was furious. "This can't be reduced to somehow a matter of let's all hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya,'" he said a week ago of his relations with Netanyahu. He wasn't even prepared to rule out supporting a Palestinian state at the United Nations, saying only: "We're going to do that evaluation."

Obama's advisors are quietly hinting what that could mean: The US may cease blindly supporting Israel at the UN and could ignore Netanyahu's concerns and sign a nuclear pact with Tehran together with Europe, China and Russia.

How, though, could things have come this far?

The search for an explanation leads back to the Arab Spring, which held the promise of positive developments in the region. But those hopes have long since faded. In Egypt, a de facto military dictatorship is once again in power while both Libya and Yemen have descended toward "failed state" status.

Exerting Influence on Assad

Washington, though, sees the biggest danger as being that presented by Islamic State. In the battle against the radical Islamists, Obama is prepared to make painful compromises. In mid-March, Secretary of State Kerry raised the possibility that Washington may consider negotiating with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Even if he immediately backpedalled on his statement, it does appear that, in the battle against Islamic State, there is at least an indirect understanding with Assad. Indeed, the White House seems no longer to see regime change as a priority and the US president, it is said, is trying to exert influence on Assad via Iranian channels. No one, after all, has more influence over Assad than the powers that be in Iran.

Indeed, the most important strands of power in the region all seem to come together in Tehran these days, making the country look like the biggest victor of the current geopolitical shifts in the Middle East. The corner stone for the development was unwittingly laid by Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush. Following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he attacked both the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, two Sunni archenemies of Iran's. He did not, however, do much to weaken Hezbollah, the Iran-financed militia that exerts huge influence in both Syria and Lebanon. Indeed, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa in Yemen are three capital cities in the region that are largely under Iranian control.

Map: Iranian and American Influence in the Middle East

Map: Iranian and American Influence in the Middle East

Foto: DER SPIEGEL

But the most important Iranian outpost is Baghdad. In Iraq, there is no more powerful man than the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, known among Iraqis as "Supermani." Without help, and elite troops, from the Iranian military, Iraq's army would hardly have been able to push back Islamic State  and retake Tikrit, nor would it be in a position to set its sights on Mosul. Soleimani, 60, leads the al-Quds Brigades, the military arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guard and a kind of private army under the direct control of Iranian religious leader Ali Khamenei. In the past, these brigades have been involved in terror attacks. But in addition to the Iraqis, the Americans, too, are impressed by Suleimani's professionalism. Intelligence officials say that Washington coordinates its air strikes with the general and, because Obama is uninterested in sending US troops to Iraq, the Iranian elite troops have essentially become Washington's "boots on the ground."

Long-Term Shift

These primarily strategic alliances are, of course, largely the result of a pragmatic response to the issues at hand and do not represent a fundamentally new approach to Iran. The issues, in fact, are controversial within the Obama administration as well. CIA head John O. Brennen says that he doesn't see Iran as an ally in Iraq.

But there is still a chance that a long-term shift in US-Iranian relations is on the way. That, though, depends on whether or not a nuclear deal with Tehran is agreed to and signed.

The nuclear conflict between Tehran and the rest of the world has been ongoing for the last 12 years. On five separate occasions, the UN has passed sanctions against Tehran as a result of its nuclear program. Incontrovertible proof that Iran is building a nuclear weapon has never been presented, but it has been proven that deception and tricks have been part of Tehran's strategy to continue what it insists is a civilian nuclear program. Furthermore, the country has refused to comply with concrete demands and inspection requests issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN agency which oversees compliance with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The fact that Iran continues to refuse to provide information pertaining to experiments thought to have a connection to its nuclear weapons program continues to be one of the main stumbling blocks to a potential deal.

In recent weeks, the possibility of a negotiation breakthrough has repeatedly been the subject of widespread speculation and progress on specific questions has been confirmed. Both sides want success and the negotiators would like to present a political framework for a possible agreement by the end of Iran's Nowruz new year festival on Tuesday. That would be the first necessary, contractual and symbolic step. By the end of June, a more detailed treaty is to follow, which is to spell out Iran's commitments and those of the West. In recent days, though, skepticism that a deal will ever be hammered out has outweighed optimism.

Negotiators have had some success when it comes to technical questions, such as the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to operate and the degree to which it is allowed to enrich uranium. Reports indicate that the time span of a possible agreement -- around 10 years -- has largely been established. But two other, vitally important, areas are proving difficult to solve: inspections and sanctions.

Facing a Stalemate

The West wants the IAEA to have the ability to comprehensively inspect all facilities at any time and without prior notification so that Iran is given no possibility to leave the path of peaceful nuclear power. Restraints on the ability of Iranian scientists to conduct research in nuclear technologies are also foreseen. But Tehran is unwilling to accept any measures which might limit its national sovereignty and has thus far blocked such proposals.

The two sides, in fact, are facing a stalemate, with Iran unwilling to accept unlimited inspections and the US and EU unable to meet Iranian demands for an immediate lifting of all sanctions. Europe and the US want to make the lifting of the penalties dependent on Iranian goodwill and have proposed a step-by-step removal of the penalties. They point to the fact that Tehran has often sought to deceive them and they know that it would be difficult to renew sanctions once they have been removed. Still, it is hard to imagine the Iranian leadership agreeing to a prolonged timeline.

Now that he is in the second half of his second and final term, however, Obama is free to take some risks. His recent restoration of diplomatic relations with communist Cuba, a move that ruffled Republican feathers, indicates he is willing to take advantage of the freedom that term limitations grant. He cannot, however, simply revoke sanctions on Iran unilaterally, given that they were levied by Congress. The most he can do is temporarily suspend some of them -- which isn't likely to satisfy Iran.

Moderate Iranian President Hassan Rohani and his advisors, though, are concerned about something else as well. They don't want to be the victims of what they refer to behind the scenes as the "Oslo Disaster." In the early 1990s, Israelis and Palestinians led US-brokered talks in the Norwegian capital, during which PLO leader Yasser Arafat was widely praised for his willingness to compromise. But he never reaped the benefits.

'No Deal Better Than a Bad Deal'

In Tehran, of course, it isn't the government that has the last word, but the supreme religious leader Ali Khamenei. His preference would be to not sign a written framework agreement now, favoring instead a single deal at the end of June in which everything is regulated -- without latitude for varying interpretations. Thus far, though, he has supported Iran's negotiating team and in February, in a speech to the Revolutionary Guard, he even said he was prepared to "drink from the poisoned chalice."

The reference was to his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of present-day Iran, who described accepting the cease-fire that put an end to the 1980s Iran-Iraq War as "drinking from the poisoned chalice."

"Just as we proved then that we are reasonable, we are doing so today with our nuclear policy," Khamenei said, in emphasizing his willingness to make a deal. But only, he made clear, if it is a good deal. "Just like the Americans, I am of the opinion that no deal is better than a bad deal."

Of course, that, too, is a form of rapprochement.

By Nicola Abé, Dieter Bednarz, Erich Follath and Holger Stark