Handshakes in Geneva

“Everyone is happy with the interim agreement reached with Iran in Geneva on November 23 — that is, everyone who really wants to defuse the tensions over Iran’s nuclear research program…. But the hero of this story is neither an individual statesman nor a newfound will in Washington to test the two “special relationships” in the Middle East. What brought about the deal in Geneva was people power, in Iran, in the West and, somewhat paradoxically, in the Arab world….

But after the Tunisian people overthrew Zine El Abidine Ben Ali US strategists were compelled to consider the possibility that it was “stability” itself that was not so stable. The ouster of Husni Mubarak in 18 days, the spread of revolt to Bahrain, Libya and Yemen, the descent of Syria into civil war — this headlong rush of events left a sense of vertigo, a loss of balance that could not be restored by the time-honored means. The experience of “leading from behind” to get rid of Muammar Qaddafi did not calm the jangled nerves. Libya spiraled into chaos, but more to the point, it was peripheral to the areas of Washington’s deepest angst.

It took time for the disorientation to wear off. Whether riddled with dissension, paralyzed by doubt or steeped in cynicism, the Obama administration sat by and watched the Saudi-led counter-revolution in the name of “stability.” The Saudis mounted an incursion into Bahrain to quell the rebellion there. The Gulf Cooperation Council brokered a regime-saving bargain in Yemen even as salafis and jihadis backed by rogue Saudi patrons wreaked havoc. In Egypt, the Saudis quietly conspired with the deep state to discredit popular sovereignty and negate the outcome of elections. The Gulf Arab royals’ hostility toward participatory politics is matched by their enmity for Iran. So, in both Bahrain and Yemen, they are determined to brand aspirations for social justice as Iranian-inspired religious fanaticism. And so, in Syria, along with the Qataris, the Saudis handed out bags of cash to neighborhood toughs who would found militias calling for jihad, thereby fueling the war against the regime, an Iranian ally, but also sharpening many Syrians’ fear of the alternatives. Thus did the Saudis poke Iran in the eye and help to smother the genuinely pluralist, democratic voices in the Syrian opposition.

More and more, however, it sank in to US strategists’ minds that the counter-revolution cannot restore the status quo ante. To the contrary, either the counter-revolution has provoked recurrent intifada, as in Egypt, and to some degree, Bahrain, or it threatens social collapse, as in Syria. The agony of Syria is particularly worrisome, from a geopolitical vantage, because it could end in the redrawing of post-World War I borders or permanent population transfer that would shake the foundations of US-allied regimes in Jordan and Iraq. Keeping Iran out of Syria diplomacy, meanwhile, has probably prolonged the bloodshed: It has strengthened the hand of the Gulf monarchies and their jihadi proxies, while giving Iran every incentive to intercede on behalf of the regime. …

Back in Iran, the regional tumult also pushed the state toward a careful rapprochement with the West. The Islamic Republic is afraid of permanent international isolation if its closest friend, the Syrian regime, is decimated by the civil war and the highly sectarian Sunni militias in the opposition continue to flex their muscles. Saying yes at the nuclear talks in Geneva opens the door — albeit still a crack — to Iranian participation in the upcoming talks, in the same Swiss city, about a political solution that could grant the Syrian regime some respite. Iran sees equal need to be a counterweight to Sunni sectarianism in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the overstretched US, solicitous of the Maliki government in Baghdad and annoyed with the Karzai government in Kabul, may come to agree.”

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About angelajoya

Assistant Professor, Middle East Political Economy, at the University of Oregon. Currently writing on the Egyptian revolution and the Syrian crisis.
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