By Mahir Zeynalov
1 December 2013
An Israeli TV channel reported on Friday that secret US backchannel discussions with Iran were key in US President Barack Obama's last-minute decision not to carry out military strikes on Syrian targets in September, despite a credible threat of an imminent strike. The report says Iran urged Damascus to give up its chemical weapons to prevent US punitive strikes.
Iran's efforts to prevent US strikes on its close ally Syria are hardly surprising. Astonishing is how Iran and the US, two countries with deep mistrust for each other, could achieve such an important diplomatic breakthrough in a matter of days. How exactly to make sense of this development in a region that is so complicated?
There is no shortage of cartoonists making fun of the relationships within the Middle East, often drawing cartoons that display the complexity of doing politics in the region. The abundance of non-state actors and their intrinsic connection to the states in the Middle East makes it a lot harder to understand who is doing what, how and why.
Things, in fact, are not that complicated. Similar to other parts of the world, the Middle East is also organized along an established pattern of alliances. On the one side of the constellation, there is Iran, its close allies and states that have hard to time defining their orientation such as Turkey. On the other side of the equilibrium is Egypt and its Gulf backers.
The United States doesn't have an everlasting ally in the region, mainly because it is interested in a rough balance among states rather than undertaking a leadership role. Washington's top goal in the Middle East is to make sure that no state dominates the Gulf region and becomes a regional hegemon.
The only possible local candidate seeking regional dominance had been Iran, since the Islamist revolution in 1979. The US had employed an enormous amount of energy to contain Iran since that period. The Iran-Iraq war, dual containment, the Bush Doctrine and the Iran sanctions regime were all attempts to stop Iran's march to regional dominance. Iran usually employs four methods to establish its influence across the region.
Tehran, however, decided to put its regional ambitions on hold after the military coup in Egypt on July 3. The change of administration in Cairo was a huge strategic shift, throwing Egypt behind Gulf nations against Iran. The pendulum was rapidly swinging against Iran and there was a possibility, for the first time in Middle Eastern history, that Gulf nations sought regional hegemony. As an offshore balancer, the US had to switch sides to preserve the balance of power.
To counter the rising Sunni Arab threat, Iran also aligned with the US. Iran's backchannel talks with the US on Syrian chemical weapons and rapid diplomatic breakthrough played out as a confidence-building measure.
The bottom line is that US-Iran secret talks fit perfectly with the recent reconciliation between Washington and Tehran. Many credit Iran's moderate president, Hasan Rohani, in this rapprochement, but he plays quite a small role in making things easier, if any. At the end of the day, it is the Supreme Leader who calls the shots in the country's important foreign policy decisions.
The US-Iran rapprochement is part of shifting alliances in the Middle East and secret talks over Syrian chemical weapons are a symptom of this new “necessary friendship.”