It’s an open question whether or not the deal struck last weekend in Geneva between Iran and the United States, alongside five other “world powers”, will stick.
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his allies in the US Congress are determined to block this interim agreement, which is intended to be a step towards ending the conflict over Iran’s nuclear programme.
But the deal is an interesting sign of shifting power alignments.
The Islamic Republican regime in Iran was the biggest beneficiary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain.
The invasion toppled Iran’s most dangerous enemy, Saddam Hussein. Nouri al-Maliki, who finally emerged victorious from the blood and chaos of the occupation, heads a government dominated by Iraq’s Shia Muslim majority, who have very strong links with their co-religionists in Iran.
This strengthened the powerful regional axis hostile to Israel and led by Iran—Syria, Iraq, and the Shiite movement Hizbollah, the dominant force in Lebanon. Iran’s geopolitical and ideological rival, the Saudi ruling family, who claim the leadership of Sunni Islam, were alarmed by this development.
The tragedy of the Syrian revolution is that the struggle between the regime of Bashar al Assad and a people in revolt is increasingly being transformed into a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hizbollah fighters are propping up Assad, while the Saudis and other Gulf states bankroll the fighters against him, among whom Al Qaida and other Sunni jihadi forces are gaining a growing influence.
All this has, of course, been very bad news for US president Barack Obama. He is probably sincere in saying that he would if necessary go to war to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons—if only to stop a regional arms race in which, for example, the Saudis would follow suit.
But another war in the Middle East, with either Iran or Syria, is the last thing Obama wants. As George Friedman of the intelligence website Stratfor puts it, “during the 2000s, [the US] tried to deal with Sunni radicals through the direct use of force in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“The United States could not continue to commit its main force in the Islamic world when that very commitment gave other nations, such as Russia, the opportunity to manoeuvre without concern for US military force.
“The United States did have a problem with Al Qaida, but it needed a new strategy for dealing with it. Syria provided a model. The United States declined to intervene unilaterally against the al Assad regime because it did not want to empower a radical Sunni government. It preferred to allow Syria’s factions to counterbalance each other such that neither side was in control.”
An example of how Russia exploits US embroilment in the Middle East came last week. Ukraine pulled out of negotiations of a partnership agreement with the European Union after strong pressure from Moscow to join instead a single market uniting Russia with other ex-Soviet states. This was a defeat for Washington as well as Brussels.
Meanwhile, Sunni jihadis are more active throughout the Middle East—mounting sectarian bombings, for example, in Iraq and Lebanon. This is a development that is unwelcome to both the US and Iran.
Relations also have been cooling between the US and Saudi Arabia. The shale revolution means the US is now much less dependent on imported energy.
And the Saudis are angry at what they regard as Obama’s betrayal of the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. They recently refused to take up a seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Some commentators are suggesting that the US and Iran could reach a strategic understanding comparable to president Richard Nixon’s famous 1972 deal with Mao Zedong that aligned China with the US and against the Soviet Union. This helps to explain why both Israel and Saudi Arabia have denounced the deal in Geneva.
Such a realignment might permit some kind of settlement in Syria. And it could free the US to concentrate on the real challenge that China now represents. The game of imperialist rivalry may be entering a new phase.