It is no more than an interim arrangement and designed only to buy time to see if a lasting deal can be reached. There is no guarantee it will hold – and if it does not, the risk of a new conflict in the Middle East will be greater than ever. Yet not since Richard Nixon went to China in 1972 has a single twist of US foreign policy set the cat among the diplomatic pigeons as has November’s agreement for a temporary freeze on Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme.
Technically, the deal was struck between the Islamic Republic and the P5 + 1 – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany. Far more importantly, however, it represented the first formal agreement between the US and Iran in three-and-a-half decades – the first real thaw in an icy enmity stretching back to the 1979 overthrow of the Shah and the hostage crisis that followed.
And, not least, it is the most dramatic proof yet of President Barack Obama’s preference for diplomacy over brute force, to tackle the complex problems of the most volatile and dangerous region on earth. It has even led to musing over what has long been an idealist’s misty dream: could the semi-derelict building on Washington’s Embassy Row that before 1979 housed Iran’s diplomatic mission to the US soon be open for business again?
The new approach was evident from the first days of the new administration, when Mr Obama raised the possibility of talks with the Iranian leadership without precondition as part of a grand plan to end his predecessor George W Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and rebuild America’s relations with the Islamic world. That promise of conciliation on its own was enough to help win Mr Obama, absurdly prematurely, the Nobel Peace prize that year. In fits and starts, that policy has proceeded. The last US troops left Iraq in 2011, and only a handful are likely to remain in Afghanistan after December 2014. Ostensibly it was Nato, not Washington, that led the West’s intervention in Libya to topple Muammar Gaddafi, and this year Mr Obama refused to take America to war against the Assad regime in Syria.
There have of course been some less-than-glorious moments along the way: the uncertain response to the 2011 Arab Spring; the fickle US response to the revolution in Egypt that managed both to alienate reformers and the military that seized back power last summer; the abrupt change of heart over attacking Syria.
Having dithered for two years over supplying arms to the rebels, Mr Obama made clear that the regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens had crossed a “red line”. Then he called the whole thing off, endorsing a Russian proposal for Syria’s chemical stockpile to be destroyed, ahead of UN-sponsored peace talks.
In his handling of the crisis, Mr Obama came across as feckless, vacillating and weak – a verdict symbolically sealed by Forbes magazine, which declared Vladimir Putin had leap-frogged the US President to earn the title of the World’s Most Powerful Person for 2013. Yet the end result of US policy was exactly what the country wanted.
As striking as Mr Obama’s foreign policy is a recent survey by the Pew Research Centre. Americans, it found, were more dubious of their country’s global influence than at any time since the end of the Vietnam War, while a majority of respondents – 52 per cent – declared that the US should “mind its own business” internationally and focus on problems at home.
The reasons are obvious: the cost of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and their manifest failure to deliver the promised stability and democracy; the souring of the Arab Spring; the financial crash of 2008-9 and silence on the part of the neocons who cheer-led Bush’s wars.
In fact, the missteps over Syria did not produce a change of heart by the administration, but the opposite. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has been logging air miles at an even faster rate to support a new bid for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, a triumph of hope over experience.
Nelson Mandela’s funeral offered an even more improbable spectacle, a handshake between an American president and Raul Castro of Cuba. The greeting was not pre-planned. But might it too be seen one day as the gesture signifying the beginning of the end of 55 years of conflict between the neighbours?
None of these developments, however, matched the impact of the interim deal with Iran – not just the agreement itself, but the revelation of the earlier series of secret bilateral meetings that made it possible. And nowhere was the impact greater than on America’s traditional partners in the region, most conspicuously Israel and Saudi Arabia. The former regards a nuclear Iran as a mortal threat to its existence, the latter is Tehran’s main rival for supremacy in the Gulf; both see the alliance with the US as their ultimate security guarantee.
But now – to judge by the reaction of their leaders – America was turning its back on them in the interests of an accommodation with their arch-enemy, in an agreement that appears to acknowledge Iran’s right to enrich uranium and become a nuclear power.
The assumptions that have long underpinned these alliances are changing. The US is not going to abandon Israel but no longer will it automatically subordinate its policy interests to those of Israel. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the alliance rested on a bargain: Saudi oil in return for a US promise of protection.
But, thanks to fracking and massive discoveries of natural gas which saw American oil exports exceed imports last autumn for the first time in 20 years, that bargain is no longer so pressing. In two decades America, according to some projections, may even be self-sufficient in energy. The implications for US Middle East policy are self-evident.
And if the US shied away from war in Syria, it is even less keen on full-scale war with Syria’s most important regional supporter. “Tough talk and bluster may be the easy thing to do politically,” Mr Obama has said in defence of the deal with Iran, “but not the right thing for our security.” That message may not go down so well in Riyadh and Jerusalem, but if Pew is right, the country feels the same way.
Whether the strategy will succeed however, is another matter. The potential prize is huge: détente with Iran, whereby the US accepts the Iranian revolution and Tehran accepts the Middle Eastern status quo, including the existence of Israel. This in turn could help return stability to Iraq and Syria, and reduce the risk of full-scale sectarian conflict across the region between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
The obstacles and pitfalls however are equally obvious. Iran might simply cheat on the deal. The US Congress, where Israel has overwhelming support, might derail it. As for Israeli-Palestinian peace, not just the last 65 years of history but now Israel’s dislike of the Iran deal stand in the way. And other perils grow, not least the resurgence of al-Qa’ida and its militant affiliates in Syria and elsewhere.
However unwillingly, the US could yet be drawn into what it most opposes, another war on Arab or Islamic soil. Mr Obama’s goal is to develop relations with the world’s new economic boiler-room in Asia, and the emerging superpower of China. But history has often taught that nothing can thwart the future like the past.
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