When describing the significance of the Geneva understandings between Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany), the Arab world is not only concerned with sanctions and centrifuges. Articles in the Arab press caution that as a result of the agreement, their countries have reached a “historic turning point” in the Middle East in which their vital interests will be sacrificed as Iran acquires a free hand in the region. This will become possible, in their view, because Geneva represents no less than the beginning of an overall diplomatic rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran.
A “rapprochement” in international relations involves a general relaxation of tensions between two countries that were previously adversaries. Taken from French, it means to bring two parties together. Among the leaders in the Arab states, talk about a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement conjures up a troubling image of a “grand bargain” between the two sides, involving a set of understandings over a broad set of Middle Eastern issues. The pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat proposed that as a result of the breakthrough in the relations between the U.S. and Iran, the “political map of the Middle East as a whole” might change.
Commentators in the region come to such a far-reaching conclusion for multiple reasons. Some write that the U.S. decision to refrain from attacking Syria, after Bashar Assad’s massive use of chemical weapons, was the first sign of this new relationship between Washington and Tehran. Last week, Kuwaiti newspapers even reported that the U.S. was in contact with Hezbollah through British diplomats. Hezbollah did not deny the rumor. The actual evidence of this shift in U.S. policy may have been thin, but it undoubtedly raised eyebrows in the Arab world, where rumors of this sort can obtain enormous mileage even if they are not well substantiated.
Hezbollah was never just a Lebanese organization but rather an arm of the Iranian security services; in recent years it has had a regional role, tipping the balance against the Sunni forces in the Syrian civil war and training Shiite militias in Iraq. The rumors of the Western dialogue with Hezbollah undoubtedly fed the sense that a major realignment of regional politics may be underway, in which Iran and its Shiite allies in the Arab world will be on the ascendancy.
Some analysts in the Arab world are undoubtedly influenced by the rhetoric about the Geneva understandings in the American press. The director of the Brookings Institution branch in Doha, Qatar, Salman Sheikh, complained in an interview in the Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat that he was hearing Western scholars talking about the Geneva understandings as though they represent a “great transformation” comparable to end of the Cold War. There have also been comparisons between the meetings in Geneva and then-President Richard Nixon’s famous visit to China. All of this hyperbole undoubtedly influences suspicions in the Arab world that something bigger is cooking between the U.S. and Iran.
A central question raised by all the talk about a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement is whether such a dramatic shift in their relations would be warranted at this stage, if it was at all being contemplated by anyone. Looking at the rapprochement between the U.S. and the Soviet Union as a model, there were important developments that occurred before Washington was prepared to declare in 1991 that the Cold War was over.
It wasn’t the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev or his reforms, known as perestroika, that caused the West to rethink its approach to Moscow, but rather the modification of the Soviet Union’s external behavior that made the difference — starting, in particular, with the withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan in 1988. Soviet adventurism in places like Angola, the Horn of Africa, and Central America was finished and Soviet forces even stopped intervening against the anti-Communist revolts that were began in Eastern Europe.
The change in China involved not only the termination of the extreme radicalism of the Cultural Revolution but also a growing split between China and the Soviet Union and the outbreak of border tensions between them in 1969. China could no longer be considered to be part of a Soviet-led Communist bloc. These policy changes preceded Nixon’s trip to China in 1972 and justified in the minds of U.S. officials at the time the efforts to secure a rapprochement between Washington and Beijing, which accelerated the deterioration of China’s relations with North Vietnam, with which the U.S. was still at war.
Looking at the Iranian case today, there is no sign that Tehran is fundamentally changing its footprint in the Middle East as a result of President Hassan Rouhani’s election or the more recent Geneva understandings. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are on the ground in Syria, not only helping as advisors, but actually taking part in combat operations against the Sunni Arab population and in the bloodbath they have created.
Tehran is also making sure that its Hezbollah proxy remains in Syria and does not withdraw back to Lebanon. Moreover, Iran remains active in a number of Middle Eastern battlefields from Yemen to Iraq. Lately, Hamas has been seeking to rebuild its ties with Iran. As noted above, the Soviet Union set the stage for the end of the Cold War by withdrawing from Afghanistan, but Iran shows no sign of withdrawing its direct involvement in a host of Middle Eastern wars.
Yet Iran has a strong interest in portraying the Geneva understandings as a full rapprochement with the U.S. and the other western powers. Recently two former secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, warned in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that “if the impression takes hold that the U.S. has already decided to reorient its Middle East policy toward rapprochement with Iran” then the risk will increase that the sanctions will more quickly collapse. Kissinger and Shultz know what they are talking about when they write about rapprochement: They were each architects of earlier American rapprochements with Beijing and Moscow respectively.
As the U.S. and its P5+1 partners contemplate their next steps with Iran, it is imperative that they insist in parallel on very specific changes in Iranian behavior. How can commentators in the West herald a new era in relations between Washington and Tehran, when Iran is still backing what the U.N. has characterized just this week as “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” by Assad’s forces in Syria? At a minimum, Iran must withdraw from Syria. It also must halt all support for recognized international terrorist organizations, from Hamas and Hezbollah to the Taliban.
It is untenable that new agreements with Tehran will follow, while Iranian governmental bodies still call for death to America or death to Israel. What continuing Iranian involvement in all these activities indicates is the fact that its hostile intent remains unchanged. Under such conditions, any nuclear understandings will not represent a rapprochement between former adversaries, as is being presented in Western capitals, but only a brief cease-fire that won’t last in the struggle that Iran will continue to wage.