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

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.