Ky. Voices: Talks with Iran could reshape Mideast politics

Robert Olson 
of Lexington is a Middle East analyst and author of The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism.
Robert Olson of Lexington is a Middle East analyst and author of The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism.

After President Hassan Rouhani's early October appearance at the United Nations and preliminary talks with top Obama administration officials, including a short telephone conversation between Rouhani and President Barack Obama, earnest negotiations were launched with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

While negotiations resuming this week in Geneva are expected to move forward slowly, preliminary prognostications suggest an agreement on Iran's nuclear program could be reached by late April 2014.

The expected agreement between the P5+1 nations — the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China, plus Germany — and renewed Washington-Tehran relations already are leading Middle East analysts to predict substantial changes in the geopolitical configuration of Middle East states.

The most significant change expected as a result of Iran's reintegration in the comity of Middle East politics is a changing relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The major reason for this is that as early as 2015 the United States is expected to be the largest oil and gas producer in the world, out-producing Saudi Arabia and Russia.

This means that the United States will become virtually independent of Arab Gulf states' oil and gas. Washington will continue to have good relations with the Arab states and continue to deploy its 5th Fleet in Bahrain and maintain a string of air and naval bases and depots of weapons along the Gulf. But it is signaling it will not be the protector of Saudi armed involvement in other countries.

To ensure the stability of the Saudi dynasty and the United Arab Emirates, the United States will continue the flow of arms. The United States sold $60 billion in arms to Saudis in 2011 and $20 billion to the UAE. Just in October, the U.S. agreed to sell an additional $10.8 billion worth to the Saudis and to the UAE.

The Saudis argue they need the arms to meet the challenges of a resurgent and economically sound Iran. But Middle East analysts think Riyadh also wants the arms to control unrest among its Shi'a population of 2.3 million to 3 million.

Saudi Arabia also hopes to be able to use the arms to fund Sunni zealots and fanatical fighters in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Washington is sending a message to Saudi Arabia that its involvement in supporting Sunni zealots against Shi'a in Arab countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Caucasus and in Central Asia will receive little support. Washington does not want Saudi shoes in the lighter footprint Washington intends to have in those countries.

The United States also needs Iran to help stabilize the Middle East after the destructive wars in Iraq and Syria, which have destabilized Lebanon and Jordan as a result of the inflow of refugees.

Iran, along with Russia, can play an important role in bringing an acceptable end to the war in Syria and the removal of the Ba'thist and Alawite al-Asad regime while preserving the Alawite Shi'a people and community.

Such developments also could bring about a lessening of Iran's support of the Shi'a Hezbollah party in Lebanon. This, in turn, it is hoped, could also result in diminishing the position of Hamas in Gaza, contributing to more earnest negotiations between the Fatah party in the West Bank and Israel.

The United States also is hopeful that a lessening of Iranian support for the above-mentioned groups will induce Israel to slow its annexation of the West Bank, the economic strangulation of the Palestinians in Gaza and their discrimination in Israel.

Israel's torpedoing of a two-state solution jeopardizes Israel's relations with the Palestinians in the West Bank (2.5 million) and Gaza (1.6 million). It also jeopardizes relations with the 1.6 million in Israel itself, along with both Israeli and U.S. relations with the 3.5 million in Jordan, 500,000 in Syria and 500,000 in Lebanon.

If Iran reaches an agreement with the P5+1 and in its bilateral relations with the United States, it also will demand that Israel sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Additional Protocol.

The latter stipulates intrusive and verifiable inspections of all countries that sign the protocol. The United States also wants a nuclear-free Middle East but is unable to advocate such a position because neo-conservatives, pro-Israel and Jewish lobbies in Congress opposed it.

However, Washington is sending a message to Israel that — with rapidly changing circumstances in the Middle East and the need to pivot to east and southeast Asia — an expanding Israel constantly at loggerheads with Middle East Arab countries, in addition to Iran and Turkey, is detrimental to U.S. strategic interests.