Syria issue has failed to steal the spotlight from the geopolitical situation related to Iran’s nuclear program. On the contrary, direction in which leading countries of the world should build their relations with Tehran became an urgent issue. Now, there is a heated debate on this subject among experts and analysts. Various scenarios are being considered. Time will show the actual developments but for the moment there are some pressing issues to be highlighted.
Washington-Tehran: exhilaration grows
Change of Iran’s geopolitical status in the region is apparent. According to experts’ estimates, Iran adds new undertones to its relations with all the neighbors, supplementing its ties with such geopolitical powers as the U.S., Russia, and the European Union with some new content. It is fascinating to see Iran acting asymmetrically. Namely, certain elements thought to be traditionally pertaining to its foreign policy are changing.
First, it is U.S.-Iran relations that must be underscored. President Hassan Rouhani concisely described envisaged policy as follows; “We wish to turn 30-year long animosity into friendship” (see: Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. West’s 30-year vendetta with Iran is buried in Davos / “The Telegraph”, 23 January 2014). Tehran is taking practical steps to back its rhetoric. Two points were clarified for the West. First, “There is no room for nuclear weapons in Iran’s security strategy” and second, the likes of BP, ENI, TOTAL and STATOIL were invited to the country (see: Х.Рухани: Иранская экономика войдет в десятку крупнейших / РБК, 23 January 2014).
Interestingly, political and business circles of the West were ecstatic about Rouhani’s ideas. Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, said Rouhani was the first Iranian leader to deliver such remarks since the Islamic Revolution in Iran. His assessment of the speech was, “He spoke like Gorbachev”. Last president of the USSR is well-known for his input in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Rouhani is a radical reformist. Is it the motive behind such a comparison?
In the meantime, Western analysts are cautiously optimistic about Tehran’s actions. George Friedman, for example, particularly emphasizes threats on pursuing enhancement of relations between the two countries (see: George Friedman. U.S. and Iranian Realities / “Geopolitical Weekly”, 1 October 2013).
First threat emanates from the domestic situation in both countries. Some, within both societies, regard direct talks as treason. Iran is suffering serious economic problems. Public opinion in America is rejecting the war scenario. These are the factors to impede America-Iran rapprochement.
Second threat is external. And Israel is what comes to mind first. This state views nuclear armed Iran as a threat and remains defiant on this issue. Nevertheless, Israel was not in the position to wage war against Iran and Tel-Aviv failed to persuade the U.S to that end. Therefore, the Israelis are resorting to alternative means of impacting the process and aim to dictate their conditions. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is figuratively speaking “shocked” by the U.S.-Iran talks. Riyadh is doing its utmost to thwart the rapprochement. And finally for Russia, losing Iran means “strategic defeat” (see: previous source).
Deriving from Friedman’s arguments (indeed, they appear convincing) caution needs to be exercised while evaluating America-Iran relations. These countries may even form some sort of alliance in the future. G. Friedman is mindful of such a scenario too but current realities suggest that “the road will be bumpy” (see: same source).
Iran’s influence on geopolitical balance
In any event, the world accepts new substance of relations between America and Iran, which leads to a question of direction in which Iran is going to pursue its relations with Russia, Europe and the regional countries. According to Turkish analysts, “For Iran, Syria crisis caused problems with…Turkey” (see: Arif Keskin. Iran Neden ABD’ye Yakinlasmak Istiyor? / Ortadogu Stratejik Arasdirmalar Merkezi (OSRAM), 23 September 2013).
Some notable aspects are evident, if America-Iran rapprochement is viewed in the context of shift of geopolitical balance of forces in the Middle East. Specifically, Tehran and Ankara would benefit from cooperation under the circumstances of changing geopolitical dynamics. Analysts believe that Turkey could gain from development of Washington-Tehran ties, because it would provide an impetus to growth of economic-trade cooperation between the two nations.
Expert named M. Yegin argues, “Prevention of production of nuclear weapons by Iran is a development in Turkey’s favor. Besides, this deal will lift the barriers in bolstering trade relations between the two countries” (see: Mehmet Yegin. ABD-Iran yakinlasmasi ve Orta Dogu’da deyisen dengeler / Uluslararasi Stratejik Arastirmalar Kurumu (USAK), 27 November 2013). It was not incidental that Turkish PM Erdogan saw the warmest of welcomes during his visit to Tehran.
Certain adjustments to the policy on the South Caucasus states are possible on the backdrop of these processes. Azerbaijan’s relations with this country are progressing normally. Although some experts are suggesting that process of rapprochement between Washington and Russia will impair Azerbaijan’s energy policy, this assumption is inaccurate. Baku’s energy policy is not targeting any country or a group of nations. Its actions are independent and consistent with the national interests. Therefore, negative impact of U.S.-Iran energy cooperation on Azerbaijan is out of the question.
Official Yerevan is already raising the alarm and recognizes the new content of U.S.-Iran, Russia-Iran relations as a threat to its existence. Solutions are considered in this context. Armenia is particularly cautious about Moscow-Tehran standoff over the region. Yerevan realizes that there are no prospects for its inconstant policy pursued over the years (see: Игорь Мурадян. Новые приоритеты Ирана на Кавказе / “Lragir.am”, 12 December 2013).
Moscow is surely not going to discard its historical cooperation with Tehran. In the meantime, substance of relations between the two may change under the new geopolitical circumstances. Thus, Moscow cannot remain indifferent to new priorities defined by Tehran in the South Caucasus. Especially, Russia would not be happy about the Caucasus falling into Iran’s sphere of influence from the religious point of view. Iran in turn, is not satisfied with Armenia completely dominated by Russia. Official Tehran is also zealous about Russia securing immediate access to its borders.
This is a testament to changing geopolitical influence of Iran in such regions as the Middle East and the Caucasus. Tehran is aiming to ameliorate its ties with the West by boosting its prominence. Apparently, Iranians acknowledge the inability of their country to pursue an active multi-pronged policy. Moreover, it sees quite strong competition in the region and confronting these competitors alone may prove to be catastrophic.
Therefore, Iran is trying to put an end to 30-year old confrontation with the U.S. or at least to ease the tensions on this front. By streamlining its ties with Washington Tehran sends out a message of cooperation to Europe. It was from the very outset that Brussels defended Iran on some issues. Now Germany and France are revisiting their relations with this country. However, Tehran cannot simply dismiss the America factor and for that reason, dynamics of relations with the European Union will largely be coupled with the U.S. factor.
Cooperation with leading nations in the Middle East is undoubtedly of great significance for Iran. In view of Saudi Arabia issue Tehran is likely to attach particular importance to its ties with Ankara. Presumably, the outcome of Syrian crisis will impact the extent of cooperation to be pursued by the two states.
In any case, Iran has been given a green light in the process of reengagement on some vast geopolitical space. Both progress and stalemate can be a potential outcome – something completely dependent upon Tehran’s choice of geopolitical course. Time for ostensible maneuvers is over.