An anti-Saudi Arabia protester outside the embassy in Tehran. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty
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In Iran today the Great Satan is no longer the United States: it's Saudi Arabia

When I talked to Iranian policymakers last year, they told me US hegemony in the Middle East and global affairs is giving way to a multipolar order - and with it come new enemies.

It is over three decades since Iranian students stormed the US embassy in Tehran crying, “Death to America!” The embassy complex still stands, but it now serves as a training complex for the Revolutionary Guard. Next to memorials to Ayatollah Khomeini and the “martyrs of the revolution” is the “Den of Spies” museum. One highlight on display there is the “glassy room” – a room US diplomats would go to for top-secret conversations. It is a suspended box made of Plexiglas, with transparent walls, floors and ceiling that make it impossible to conceal bugs. The hope of the great powers is that the historic deal struck with Iran on 13 July will make the country’s nuclear programme as transparent and as contained as this.

If the agreement is ratified by the US Congress – given Republican hostility, this cannot be taken for granted – it will, it is hoped, stop Iran from covertly developing nuclear weapons and avert a bombing raid by Washington or Tel Aviv. However, even if the deal is passed, there will be little hope for peace in a region that is already in flames: witness Libya, Syria and Yemen. How will a nuclear deal affect this instability?

The nightmare scenario is one of “Tehran unbound”: a situation where all constraints are lifted and an emboldened Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard are allowed to wreak havoc in the region with impunity. The question is whether the EU and the US – which have successfully negotiated the deal that lifts sanctions on Iran but places strict limits on its nuclear programme – can influence Iran’s regional policies more effectively with engagement than they have done with containment. Or could Iran eventually even play a constructive role in the region?

It is an open question. Visitors to Tehran are always struck by the dizzying complexity of Iranian politics and society. The paradox of 1979’s religious revolution is that it has given birth to the most secular society in the region. More than 70 per cent of Iranians were not even born when the revolution took place, and they are self-consciously more pragmatic, moderate and open to the west than any of their peers in the Middle East. But in terms of its role within the region, Iran is one of the leaders of a violent sectarian conflict; and its leaders are enjoying the new space that has been accorded to them by the toppling of Saddam, the Taliban, and by western mistakes in the region.

George W Bush’s war on terror set off a chain of events that is now putting irresistible pressure on the states created after the First World War. Borders that the US has guaranteed in the post-colonial era are now dissolving and new units – such as Kurdistan and Islamic State – are emerging from the ruins. If you want to find out about the decline of US power in the Middle East, go to Tehran. Few chant “Death to America” these days, and when such chants are heard they come across as more of a nostalgic echo than a rallying cry for Iran’s future.

When I talked to Iranian policymakers last year, they told me US hegemony in the Middle East and global affairs is giving way to a multipolar order. The Great Satan for them is no longer the United States – it is Saudi Arabia. Iranians complain about the Saudis drilling more to reduce oil prices and weaken Tehran; they are concerned about the enhanced military co-operation between members of the Gulf Co-operation Council, oriented against Iran; and about Saudi Arabia challenging them in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

In Riyadh I find an exact mirror image of those suspicions. Saudis are obsessed with Iranian activism in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. The geopolitical tussle between these two nations is emblematic of a new Middle East where emancipated local powers are battling it out. Order is no longer defined and defended by Washington. Instead, the US is seen as a resource that Tehran and Riyadh can manipulate in their struggle against one another.

So, what role can the US and EU hope to play in this new Middle East? For the US, the challenge of getting the deal through Congress will demand that Obama go to great lengths to reassure Riyadh and Tel Aviv it is not abandoning them in its links to Tehran or its pivot to Asia. It can continue to co-ordinate its strikes against Isis with Tehran but will be wary about being seen to be getting too cosy with Ayatollah Khamenei.

But Europe, for which the stakes are even higher than for the US, is less constrained in its ability to reach out to different players. As Ellie Geranmayeh argues in an interesting policy paper, Engaging With Iran: a European Agenda, there is a unique chance to construct a regional strategy on the foundations of the Iran nuclear deal.

The EU high representative Federica Mogherini has an opportunity to build on the nuclear talks by quickly opening an EU embassy in Tehran and exploring how economic links could lead to a bilateral détente. More importantly, she should explore whether the “E3+1” grouping – of France, Germany, the UK and the EU – could be reconfigured from having a nuclear focus to one pushing for regional peace. The agenda should be to try, over time, to find ways of reducing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This could involve confidence-building on Yemen, co-ordination of the anti-Isis campaign in Iraq and Syria, and discussing other thorny issues such as Hezbollah’s role, or even relations with Israel.

There are limits to what can be achieved in the short term. Both Tehran and Riyadh are enjoying their moment in the sun and for both sides the rewards outweigh the risks. However, the successful conclusion of the Iranian nuclear deal showed the power of strategic patience. The challenge now will be to show the same level of diplomatic creativity in a quest for peace. For Europe and the US – as well as for the regional powers locked in a conflict that neither side can win – the hope must be to contain the conflict before the whole region gets sucked into a Thirty Years War.

Mark Leonard is the co-founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.