The Diplomatic Opportunity in Iran’s Dashed Hopes for the ‘Arab Spring’

My latest piece at Tehran Bureau (PBS): Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s recent visit to Iran to attend the 120-member gathering of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) represents monumental shifts rooted in the Arab uprisings that have significant ramifications for Egypt and Iran. For Egypt, it marks a more independent foreign policy, while for Iran it highlights the nightmare of the “Arab Spring” for its regional interests. These shifts also provide the United States with a rare opportunity to break the stalemate with Iran over its nuclear program. In fact, diplomacy has a better chance of success now than at any other time since President Barack Obama took office, even as the looming threat of war brings ever greater urgency to the situation.

The Arab press has hailed Morsi’s visit as marking a new chapter in Egypt’s independence. The American insistence that he avoid the summit fits into its wider strategy of isolating Iran. Despite the objections of Egypt’s most important ally and the world’s sole remaining superpower, he participated in the gathering and met with Iran’s top brass. His presence in Tehran, however, does not translate into a foreign policy that is pro-Iranian. Indeed, he spoke in no uncertain terms of Egyptians’ support for the uprising in Syria, Iran’s most important and long-standing regional ally:

“Our solidarity with the plight of the Syrian people against a repressive regime that has lost its legitimacy is not only a moral duty but one of political and strategic necessity…. We should declare our full support for the struggle of those brave men and women seeking freedom and justice in Syria.”

When Tunisian citizens ignited the inferno of revolution in North Africa and the Middle East in early 2011, the Iranian government not only welcomed it, but hailed it as an “Islamic Awakening” inspired by Iran’s own revolutionary past and ideology. As pro-American dictators fell in Tunisia and Egypt, Iran’s government could not have been happier. As the contagion spread to Yemen and Bahrain, Iran was ecstatic.

But Iran’s dream of an Arab Spring yielding Middle Eastern regimes that are less inclined to toe the American line has morphed into a nightmare. First, the joint Saudi-UAE military forces shored up the stringently anti-Iranian regime in Bahrain as it cracked down ruthlessly on its own nonviolent struggle. Second, and far worse from the Islamic Republic’s perspective, the torch of revolution was passed to Syria.

Under Hafez al-Assad, Syria was the only country in the region that sided with Iran during the ruinous eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s — a war in which most of the region and the West, including the United States, sided with Saddam Hussein’s regime, sending billions in aid and advanced weaponry to Iraq, along with satellite information on Iranian troop movements and other logistical support. Since then, the relationship between Iran and Syria has deepened economically, militarily, and politically. Furthermore, Syria serves as the main conduit by which Iran supports Lebanon’s Hezbollah, arguably one of the world’s most powerful militant organizations and a central focus of Iranian foreign policy.

Iran’s military budget is a fraction of the United States’, yet it maximizes its strength through its transnational security network. The Iranian strategy has always been that if there is an American or Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities, they would respond by wreaking havoc on America’s and its allies’ interests in the region. So vital is Syria to that strategy that Iran has sacrificed its decades-long tailor-made image of defender of revolution in order to back President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Iran hoped that Morsi’s visit would serve as a step in the direction of reconciliation between the two governments, which haven’t had relations since Iran’s 1979 Revolution. This may still be a long-term possibility, but in the short term, Morsi’s speech in solidarity with the rebellion in Syria underscores the nightmare of the Arab Spring for Iran.

As the Syrian conflict spirals out of control and Iran’s regional clout is increasingly threatened, the United States has an opportunity to break the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy. Indeed, there is precedent for seeing such an opportunity while extraordinary events grip the rest of the region.

In 2003, the Iranian leadership was shaken to its core in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of neighboring Iraq, which achieved in three weeks (granted, after more than a decade of crippling sanctions) what the Iranians couldn’t in eight years of war — the overthrow of Saddam’s dictatorship.

The Bush administration, flushed with hubris from what seemed a quick victory, intensified its rhetoric against Iraq’s neighbors Syria and Iran. The aggressive U.S. posturing and the threat of war were so alarming that Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya threw the doors to its controversial weapons program wide open to inspectors.

Iran too moved into action, sending a secret document to the Bush administration via the Swiss ambassador that laid out terms for what is now referred to as the “Grand Bargain.” The Iranians agreed to enter into what amounted to treaty negotiations with the United States and discuss all matters of contention between the two countries. Iran “put everything on the table,” ranging from its support for militant groups like Hezbollah to its nuclear program, and required in return security guarantees, an end to sanctions, and a pledge to never pursue “regime change” in Iran. Needless to say, the Bush administration ignored the proposal.

Iran is in a situation reminiscent of the one that provoked such vulnerability in 2003. And although it has a different president since it offered the Grand Bargain, it has the same Supreme Leader at the helm, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who endorsed the proposal and is the country’s final voice in matters of foreign policy.

The Egyptian president’s statements at the NAM summit highlight how the Arab Spring has changed the political landscape of the Middle East in a way that has left Iran more isolated and vulnerable. These changes afford the Obama administration the opportunity to finally give diplomacy a chance to succeed in solving the nuclear crisis with Iran.

Until now, there has been no real diplomatic effort to engage Iran and end the impasse. According to Vali Nasr, a former senior adviser to the State Department, “I don’t believe the Obama administration, contrary to common perception, has ever been serious about negotiations.” If Obama has any aspirations to live up to the promise of his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, now is the time to give diplomacy a serious try.

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