The US-Iran Thaw

Posted on 11/2/13
By Arif Ansar | Via Pakistan Today

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We are living in interesting times indeed. Many of the international relations global norms and systems that have come to be accepted as the bedrock of stability are in a state of flux. Consider this for example. The Security Council (UNSC) in particular is being blamed for its inability to deal with the existing and emerging conflicts. President Obama himself criticized the body for its paralysis in tackling contemporary challenges, which are mostly intra-state, not inter-state, and involve non-state actors.

On the other hand, the principle of state sovereignty and integrity are increasingly in the limelight, especially as they relate to the war on terror. Pakistan itself has taken the matter of drone strikes to the United Nations, and the issue was discussed in the recent meeting between Nawaz Sharif and Obama.

Disgruntled at the sudden turn of events in Syria, and the surprising US-Iran thaw, Saudi Arabia has blamed the UNSC for being dysfunctional and practicing double standards, citing principally the issue of Palestine.

The just-concluded European Union summit raised serious concerns and resentment on US spying on its leaders. France and Germany have gone as far as to comment that the special EU-US ties are at stake as a result. The two countries, including Brazil, are hinting at taking the matter to the UN in efforts to establish new laws on spying and intelligence sharing.

Various implications of the transformation underway in the Middle East, as they relate to Arab Spring, war on terror, and the balance of Shiite and Sunni forces, have been discussed in this space previously. As a result of the recent understanding between Russia and the US, the risk of a wider war over Syria has been averted for the time being, and direct contact between the Iranian and American leadership was also established during the recent UN general assembly session.

While it’s too early to tell if Iran will join the Genève II peace talks, slated to take place in late November, and in efforts to find a political solution for the civil war in Syria. Nonetheless, John Kerry has stated that if Iran did, it would have to accept a transitional government in Syria. Or in other words, Iran would have to agree that Assad has to go. The US-Iran thaw, and the prospect of Iran joining the political talks over Syria, has greatly unnerved the Gulf States, so much so that the Saudis have refused to accept the coveted non-permanent rotating seat on the Security Council. The Saudis are now posturing to take the hard line and using its leverages, including oil, to protect its interests.

In this respect, Pakistan stands at an interesting crossroad. The country has played a delicate balancing act in managing the Iranian and Saudi tussles playing out in the wider region. In light of the recent shift in positions, the scenario to ponder over is how the US-Iran thaw will impact Pakistan’s approach towards Afghanistan, India, and Central Asia? Will Pakistan’s reaction be similar to the Saudis, at the prospect of Iran getting involved in the Afghan reconciliation? The stiffest resistance in this regard has usually come from the US.

Moreover, what will the betterment in US-Iran relations do to the Pakistan-Saudi ties? While one hopes Saudi Arabia does not take the shift in the US position in a zero-sum context, early indications do not look positive. To them, the change in the US position confirms its worse kept fears. The scare was first triggered when the US pulled its support from Hosni Mubarak and then backed the Morsi government, albeit reluctantly. The Saudis now seem to have confirmed the broad western strategy is actually about removing autocratic rulers in the Arab world.

While it’s too early to say how quickly and how far the US-Iran détente progresses, the Saudis could pressure Pakistan, and others, to choose a side. They can always use the religious card, which supersedes any political inclinations anyone may have. The Saudis could push for its own nuclear program with the assistance of Pakistan, a matter of concern in the West. Moreover, the Saudis could speed up the process of Gulf unification and defense cooperation. Pakistan has previously helped Bahrain in putting down the uprising there.

For Pakistan, such a situation would present several opportunities. The nation may actually exploit tension in the American ties with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to prevent Iranian involvement in Afghanistan, if it so desires. Turkey’s decision to buy the Chinese long-range air and defense missile system has raised alarm bells from the NATO and the US, with both registering their protests at the move. Using its good offices, Nawaz Sharif can play an intermediary role to ease Saudi concerns, in the very same fashion the Turks did when the US-Pakistan ties had nosedived. Fearing adverse consequence, Egypt has already offered to conduct this role between the GCC and Iran.

On the other hand, and contrary to what many may think, improvement in the US-Iran ties could prove to be economically productive for Pakistan. Firstly, once the matter of rates can be tackled, the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline could finally be completed. With Iran onboard, we could see a much more stable Afghanistan emerge, which in turn would have a positive impact on regional trade. Additionally, Iran could help the rapprochement between India and Pakistan. This, however, assumes delinking the region from what transpires in the Middle East, and reverting to pre-Iranian revolution and pre-Soviet occupation of Afghanistan kind of environment. This practically is not possible now.

Some rumors suggest that the ultimate aim of Saudi being raucous on the Security Council performance has to do more with securing a permanent position for the OIC on the reformed body.

The Security Council coming under criticism from such influential voices suggests the process of reform may be about to speed up. And in this Pakistan could readily assist Saudi Arabia, worried itself about Indian efforts to secure a Security Council seat. However, for this to happen, the Shiite-Sunni tussles would have to be settled first, and that is no easy task.

Arif Ansar is chief analyst at PoliTact, a Washington-based futurist advisory firm ( He can be reached at: and Twitter at: @ArifAnsar.

This article first appeared in Pakistan Today, a leading newspaper of Pakistan.

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