A curious ennui surrounds one of the most dramatic spectacles in modern political theatre. Though the intense E3+3 negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme in Geneva this past weekend were inconclusive, and another meeting will follow on 20 November, the images of US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif sitting across from each other at the negotiating table have a surreal quality. The unparalleled degree of contact and discussion and the hope of an initial agreement were enough for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to tweet, “Our negotiators are children of the revolution” and for Israel and Saudi Arabia to launch into synchronised hysteria.
Saudi Arabia in particular has been volubly aggrieved of late. Having failed to convince the United States to intervene militarily in Syria – a country that its foreign minister declared occupied by Iran – it took the unprecedented step of rejecting its seat at the United Nations Security Council last month, declaring that the body had failed in its responsibilities. It has moreover escalated its military assistance to armed opposition groups operating throughout Syria, and the disdain for negotiations in Moscow and Damascus that delayed the Geneva II conference echoes through Riyadh as well.
Syria, a peaceful uprising turned into a playground for proxy war, is the latest crucible of conflict in a region caught on a long-standing political fault line – the decades-long rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The rift, consolidated by Western political and economic isolation of the latter, has also shaped the strange but (until recently) untroubled alliance between Western European states, the US, and the Gulf monarchies. Indeed, the embrace of stable autocracies as a bulwark against an Iranian government hostile to the West has for so long been a sine qua non of regional policy that the escalation of diplomatic contact with the Islamic Republic cannot be read as anything another than a seismic shift.
ECFR’s latest issue of Gulf Analysis explores the political and strategic competition that has had a profoundly destructive influence on the wider region, and the most problematic of these has been the cultivation and manipulation of sectarian agendas. In their domestic and foreign policies, the tenor of regional governments has become decidedly more antagonistic. For many authoritarian regimes, deploying sectarian tropes against minority communities, whether Sunni or Shia, has been a convenient means of justifying discrimination. While such intolerance is hardly surprising when political pluralism is in short supply, its blowback is perilous and devastating when sectarianism elides with other drivers of conflict. Iraq and Lebanon still carry open wounds of sectarian conflict, and in Syria, fresh ones are opened daily. When any group feels it has suffered violence because of their ethnic or religions affiliations, restoring trust between communities and the state becomes a fractious enterprise.
What does all this have to do with enrichment levels and nuclear centrifuges in Fordow? Simply put, if over the coming months the E3+3 and Iran conclude and implement a settlement, it will mark the beginning of a shift from Iran as pariah state to an accepted member of the regional order and the international community as a whole. The prospect is neither foregone nor untroubled, and there are open questions as to whether the West is trampling over the bodies of dead Syrians on the road to rapprochement with Iran – it is difficult to believe that Iran, having invested so much capital, real and political, into sustaining the Assad regime for fear of another hostile government emerging in its immediate neighbourhood, will step back from its alliance. But concerns that if given a freer hand Iran will try to perpetuate the Shia revolution in the wider region are also overblown – the appetite for archaic Islamist politics in the region are in decline.
More importantly, Western influence and interest in the region are also in slow but genuine decline. The Gulf states outspend European and American donors in investment and aid to the wider Middle East and North Africa, and this trend is not likely to reverse. The security umbrella afforded to the Gulf on the basis of their alliances with the United States and Europe will not collapse overnight, but the ever-growing volumes of arms sales to states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar belie an uneasy consciousness that yesterday’s allies may not be tomorrow’s.
Such awareness is not inherently destructive – if Gulf states are less confident that their antagonism towards Tehran no longer carries the weight of Western military backing, the need for new regional security arrangements becomes more feasible and attractive if Iran too wishes to rebuild its relationships with its wider neighbourhood in any credible way. Without any concrete plan for ending the international standoff with Iran over its nuclear programme, it is far too soon for anyone to declare a strategic victory. The political brinksmanship and fallout from the catastrophe unfolding in Syria will also make new regional diplomacy harder in coming months and years. But insofar as European governments and the US are moving toward an attitude of constructive engagement with the Islamic Republic and can manage the injured tones of somewhat bitter allies, the Geneva meetings may prove to be the beginning of the end to the region’s most troublesome conflict.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.