While Republicans search for a way to undermine the new U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal, Secretary of State Kerry speaks publicly about talking to Moscow about including Iran in a refurbished anti-ISIS coalition. Given Turkish double-dealing, Washington does indeed need a refurbished strategy, and the whole diplomatic world can see that the nuclear deal opens the door to one including Iran.
The GOP of course has a shot at taking over the White House, but its gambit of undercutting a major U.S. foreign policy success may just make the GOP irrelevant by Election Day: the world is moving right along despite GOP-Israeli opposition to turn that opened door into a new reality. Tehran logically is trying to exploit Washington’s polite, if still none too friendly, invitation to participate in world affairs. Of course, Tehran would love to have global support for its desire to station troops in Syria! But the fact that Tehran is asking for approval in advance is Point #1 in support of the argument that a new phase is developing in Mideast affairs. Point #2 is that Moscow is defining the nuclear accord as confirmation that Iran can now participate in Mideast decision-making, which is the fundamental goal that Tehran has always had and precisely what Washington, intimidated by Israel’s warmonger-in-chief Netanyahu the Great, has always opposed. (Challenging Netanyahu were 340 U.S. rabbis who signed a letter to Congress endorsing the nuclear accord.) Point #3 is that Tehran is lobbying, with some success, Sunni states for their support!
Iran’s friendly overtures to Sunnis (“putting all us Sunni and Shi’i peace-lovers in one camp and global Sunni jihadis in another”) is brilliant diplomacy. What the fundamentalist Sunni regime in Riyadh is going to make of this…well, some of those folks are going to be tying themselves in knots, given recent ISIS terror strikes inside the jihadi homeland. Egypt, with its own ISIS problems prompting it to return to regional affairs after three years of focusing on domestic issues, seems suddenly eager to work with Iran.
Brilliant diplomacy or not, Tehran’s initiative to Sunnis is not likely to persuade Riyadh unless Tehran’s actions on the ground move in step with its new words. Tehran would be wise not to call too loudly for Iranian troops in Syria and to mumble something about “all leaders eventually having to step aside.” Here is the relevance of a fourth element suggesting that the old U.S. War Party – Likudnik – Saudi Coalition against Iran and any other politically active reformist Muslim movement: Point #4 is that Iran is apparently now promoting, as a replacement for Assad’s dictatorship, the Lebanese model! It is, admittedly, rather difficult to imagine that Tehran decision-makers are united in support of a Syrian confederacy that would eviscerate Assad’s and, more, the Alawites’ power, leaving Assad as an elected figurehead at best in a multi-sect gathering of autonomous local statelets. That is the Lebanese model, and its literal application to Syria will be contentious. Nonetheless, for Tehran to give public backing to such an idea would represent a big step away from its formerly implacable support for Assad. No wonder Tehran wants the legitimization of militias! But that would risk returning Syria to precisely where it is at the moment—a land ravaged by militias. Tehran needs to find another way to project influence, as, indeed, do all the other powers interfering in the Syrian civil war.
Whether such steps would make an impression in Riyadh is one thing; another is Moscow’s reaction. Moscow, long ago run out of the Mideast by Washington, is now being courted by all sides, including Riyadh. The desperately outdated Iranian military needs Russian arms, not so much to use, for they would hardly defend Iran against the Israeli threat, but as a sign of Iranian diplomatic legitimacy. If those S-300 defensive missiles ever arrive and come with lots of Russian soldiers to “install and maintain,” that would give Iran a significant shield against Israeli aggression: less the ability to shoot down Israeli bombers than the risk of killing Russian troops. This is not the time for Iran to be giving anyone evidence that, as certain Saudis and Israelis claim, Tehran is intent upon reestablishing the Persian Empire. (The unveiling of a new surface-to-surface missile by Iran is, by the way, exactly the kind of provocative move that harms its interests; Iran can be its own worst enemy.) In fact, this is not the time for a new Ottoman empire, a new Caliphate, or a Zionist empire either.
Tehran has until November 2016 to establish itself as the new moderate in a region overflowing with extremists…and thereby relegate to history the GOP-Saudi-Likudnik regime-change threat. Can Tehran reinvent itself that fast?