By Mahir Zeynalov
30 September 2013
Iran's most formidable adversaries in Middle East politics are Sunni Muslim states, including Turkey, but not Israel and definitely not the US.
It was Saudi money and the Sunni Iraqi army that fought against Iran for eight bloody years shortly after the revolution in 1979. It was also Iran that offered help to the US to fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. It is Sunni terrorist groups in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon that threaten core Iranian interests and try to undermine Tehran-backed governments. There are strong, compelling reasons as to why Iran should fear Sunni radicals and Arab states sponsoring them more than Israel and the US.
The honeymoon between the US and Iran is not about the moderate character of newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani or crippling sanctions that eat away at Iran's economy. It is all about geopolitics and the balance of power in the region.
To this date, Iran has formulated its foreign policy around a single goal: regime survival. To preserve its theocracy, Iran has exploited the Palestinian cause, aligned with ultra-secular and ultra-religious forces and developed a controversial nuclear program as a bargaining chip with major powers. But this situation has started to shift to an entire different direction. The US has abandoned a policy of regime change in Iran.
“You feel sometimes when you hear analysts and knowledgeable people talking about Iran that they fear so much about the survival of the regime, because deep down it's not a legitimate regime, it doesn't represent the will of the people, it's kind of morphed into kind of a military theocracy,” then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last year. These remarks clearly highlight the view of politicians in Washington of the regime in Tehran last year. More than a year later, US President Barack Obama said from the UN podium: We are not seeking regime change, and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy.
The US change in its Iran policy comes at a time when Sunni Islamist militants have increased the pursuit of their bloody terrorist war all across the world, from Africa to the Middle East.
In the past, to shield itself from the menace of the Sunni world, Iran exploited the Palestinian cause and put itself forward as a leader of the resistance against the West. The goal was to increase its popularity among Arabs and make it more difficult for Sunni monarchs to threaten Iran as well as to consolidate support for the regime at home. According to a Zogby Research Centre poll conducted in 2006, Iran's popularity was much higher even among the Sunni population across the region because of its support for Hezbollah's fight against Israel. And it was this anti-Western stance of Iran that pushed Turkey to defend Tehran from US-led UN sanctions in 2010.
When Arabs and Turks recently started to realize that Iran is supporting Syria's Assad and Hezbollah, Iran's popularity significantly plunged. With Hamas turning away from Iran and Fatah aligning with the West, there was not chance much left for Iran to exploit the Palestinian cause to garner Arab support. Iran had only a single choice: aligning with Washington.
The enmity between the US and Iran, very close allies until the 1979 revolution, has always been an artificial one. In his seminal work, “Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future,” Stephen Kinzer described Iran and the US as “logical partners.” Tehran shares two fundamental US concerns in the region: energy security and the rise of Sunni extremists.
With Egypt falling into the hands of rich Gulf monarchs and Turkey slowly aligning against Iran, Tehran will have no choice but to get on the bandwagon with the US to protect itself from the threat it perceives from the Sunni world. The biggest obstacle in rapprochement between the US and Iran was Washington's intention to get rid of the regime in Tehran -- something Obama made clear is not on his administration's agenda.
Iran's alliance with Russia and China was largely motivated by the two countries' shared interest in containing rising Sunni radicals and extremists. Iran will start slowly drifting away from these nations toward Washington. The turning point was when Obama decided to contain al-Qaeda affiliates fighting to oust Syria's embattled President Bashar al-Assad and avoid bombing the regime in Damascus, pulling Iran and the US much closer together.
With its irresponsible adventures in the Middle East in the past decade, Washington only helped these Sunni radical groups flourish. Decimating al-Qaeda's core leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan caused affiliates of the terrorist group to spread across the Middle East, from Yemen, Iraq, and Syria to Somalia, Mali and Libya. As the number of attacks by radicals from Africa to Asia rises significantly, the US and Iran have a common goal to achieve.
Invading nations is much more difficult today than in the past because of the most powerful ideology called "nationalism." Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have consumed too much of US energy, blood and money; it is almost impossible for the US to engage in a full-scale war abroad in the near future. Iran understands that the US will not invade any country in its neighborhood in the near future and that it doesn't seek a regime change in Tehran. These and other reassurances will also help solve the nuclear standoff soon.