Middle East politics: End of an era

It feels like 1979 all over again, with Iran, under a new president, playing a central role.

Resuming relations with Iran is complicated by Egypt's reliance on Saudi economic support [Reuters]
Resuming relations with Iran is complicated by Egypt's reliance on Saudi economic support [Reuters]

The recent appeal by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Arab Gulf states to “overcome their differences” and work together for regional stability is likely to fall on deaf ears. It, however, raises questions about the new regional order and Iran’s place in it following its historic nuclear accord with the West.

When viewed through the prism of Middle Eastern regional politics, the four-page joint Plan of Action, signed in Geneva on November 24  between Iran and the six world powers, should be assessed with caution. It’s not final, and its critics in the US Congress, Israel and Saudi Arabia, will do their best to sabotage a permanent agreement that would ostensibly end 30 years of enmity in the region. But the magnitude of its political possibilities overpowers its volatility.

Indeed the Geneva plan was also signed by France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia, but we now know that it materialised only because of secret Iranian-American meetings since March, which, driven by political will on both sides, went a long way before arriving in Switzerland. For long, regional alliances and politics have been largely shaped by mutual hostility between Tehran and Washington

The new 1979?

This changed the dynamics of the post-1979 era, defined by two major turning points in that year: The Islamic revolution in Iran, which toppled the US-backed Shah, and the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, better known in the Arab political lexicon as Camp David. By breaking ranks with the Arabs – united for three decades of conflict with Israel  – Egypt first emerged isolated and stigmatised, but as it was swiftly pacified, the rest eventually toed the line.

US President Barack Obama’s administration wants to move forward in its strategic pivot from the Middle East to East Asia, while still maintaining US interests in the region.

What followed rewrote the political map of the region: Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980, and the subsequent 8 years of war which saw US, Egyptian and Arab support for Saddam Hussein’s regime; the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 by army officers in retaliation to Camp David Accords; Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which prompted the creation of the Iran-backed Shia resistance movement in Lebanon, Hezbollah, in 1985.

In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait in an attempt to address the economic crisis of its war with Iran, from which it emerged defeated. A broad coalition force of 34 countries allied against Iraq in the first Gulf War, culminating most importantly in the shape of the new Arab order – with Saudi Arabia and Egypt as leading contributors alongside the US.

Right after this war, an established, but weakened, Arab front began talks with Israel in Madrid, paving the way for the 1993 Oslo process between Tel Aviv and the Palestinians which, despite its spectacular failure, continues to this day. And in the next decade, the US invaded Iraq as Arab governments, by now practically led by Riyadh, watched as events unfolded. The legacy of the rhetoric that marked this era – George W Bush’s “axis of evil”, the post 9/11 “war on terror”, and Jordanian King Abdullah’s  “Shia crescent” (in reference to Iran’s growing influence from Damascus to Tehran) – still resonates in the Middle East.

Pax Americana and Asia pivot

As the regional ancien regime still struggles with the ongoing impact of the Arab revolutions, the political foundations that shaped it over three decades are additionally being challenged with the Iran deal. In line with the regional balance of power calculations, this was the year Washington was supposed to bring down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime through military intervention, and strike Iran, triggering a new regional war.

Instead US President Barack Obama’s administration wants to move forward in its strategic pivot from the Middle East to East Asia, while still maintaining US interests in the region. Now with the Iran detente, Washington is focused on Asia again, as US Vice President Joe Biden visits the continent to prepare the ground for Obama’s visit next spring.

It’s not entirely coincidental that Pax Americana is waning in a region undergoing turbulent changes against US-backed regimes starting with the Tunisian revolution in 2011. It is, however, ironic that Egypt’s revolution and the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, which garnered so much hope for grand changes and a revival of Cairo’s leading role, has eventually withered to complete peripherality almost three year later, while Tehran rises as a regional force to be reckoned with.

Save for Riyadh, every Gulf country, in addition to Jordan, has officially welcomed the Geneva deal.

Mubarak’s legacy and Riyadh

Egypt, which under Mubarak willingly waived its regional role to Saudi Arabia, but remained hostile to Tehran, has reacted to the interim deal with a diplomatic nod – which few have noticed. Flooded in its explosive domestic woes, Cairo can only offer so much, although it had its small chance to normalise relations with Tehran after Mubarak’s ouster. An attempt under former President Mohamed Morsi to resume direct flights to Iran, was halted for unclear reasons, then cancelled in October. This speaks volumes about Mubarak’s legacy which still dominates the powers that be, specifically within the security and intelligence sectors.

The fleeting moment of symbolic Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement when Morsi visited Tehran in August 2012, which his counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad returned in February by visiting Cairo, demonstrated, if only briefly, the many political possibilities such a detente could bring. The calculations that thwarted this were exacerbated because of the military-backed regime’s economic dependence on Riyadh.

So even if diplomatic Cairo believes that it is in Egypt’s interest to restore ties with Iran, especially now, post-Geneva, it is overpowered by the Saudi factor. At the same time, its wrong to assume that Tehran will accept the status quo and not pursue efforts with Cairo now that it has a different, less provocative, leadership under President Hassan Rouhani.

Save for Riyadh, every Gulf country, in addition to Jordan, has officially welcomed the Geneva deal. The United Arab Emirates, Riyadh’s key regional ally which, since 1974, is in a territorial dispute with Iran over three islands in the Gulf, was quick to send its minister of foreign affairs to Tehran four days after the Geneva agreement, where he met with Rouhani and inaugurated a new embassy building. That’s not to say the Gulf monarchies are not perturbed by the ripple effects of a rehabilitated Iran on their Shia population. 

Such is the regional order almost three years into the Arab Spring, plus one historic deal with Iran. All the axioms are threatened and a new order will only have to take shape when the harbingers of change settle. Iran’s Islamic Republic which thrived under “death to America” slogans and unconditional support for the Palestinian question, is at risk, similar to 1979 Egypt, of being pacified. There are no ready answers for Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, or the settlement Tehran seeks for Syria. And despite Israel’s outburst over the Iran deal, it makes Tehran less of a threat whether Tel Aviv’s politicians are willing to admit this or not.

This, rather than Israel’s war on Lebanon in the summer of 2006, carries the birth pangs of a new Middle East. What direction it will take remains to be seen.

Amira Howeidy is Deputy Editor-In-Chief of Cairo-based Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper

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