After the Attack on Saudi Oil Facilities, Whither US-Iran Relations?

Dnyanesh Kamat

AFP Photo: Pavel Golovkin

In the run-up to the UN General Assembly later this month, there is a high possibility of a limited détente between the US and Iran. This might not be current received opinion, especially after the weekend attacks on Saudi oil facilities, but there are several indications that conditions appear conducive to just such a breakthrough. A big caveat to this possibility, however, is significant escalation by forces on either side that are opposed to a rapprochement.

The strongest sign that the White House might be amenable to a revised deal with Iran is President Donald Trump’s recent firing of John Bolton, his erstwhile national security advisor, on the grounds that Trump disagreed strongly with many of Bolton’s policy suggestions. Bolton has been a strong proponent of regime change in Iran, while Trump has repeatedly stated that regime change is not what his administration seeks. Instead, Trump – ever the deal-maker and committed to extricating America from military involvement overseas – is most likely to settle for a deal with Iran rather than a military conflict. Bolton’s departure makes that possibility even stronger. Indeed, shortly after Bolton was fired, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani signaled his support of Trump’s decision in a statement asking Washington to “abandon war-mongers.”

The cancellation of US-Taliban peace talks in Afghanistan will also play a role in facilitating talks between the US and Iran, as the US seeks Iran’s cooperation in warding off an impending Taliban blitzkrieg. Iran has, in recent years, maintained contacts with the Taliban, its erstwhile sworn enemy, and even supplied it with weapons to keep American forces in Afghanistan off balance. However, Tehran will not welcome an Afghanistan entirely dominated by the Taliban either. Having achieved victory in Syria, Iran can re-deploy the Fatemiyoun militia, composed entirely of Afghan Shia Hazara, to preserve its core interests in eastern and central Afghanistan.

Indeed, Iran is the only regional player the US can turn to as it seeks to preserve the government of its ally Ashraf Ghani in Kabul. Russia and China have long maintained separate communication channels with the Taliban because they need its cooperation to prevent ISIS from spreading out into Central Asia and Xinjiang, the autonomous region of northwest China that is home to the Muslim Uighurs. That more pressing (for them) issue means neither Russia nor China is likely to assist the US in confronting the Taliban.

Pakistan, whose intelligence agencies are considered to be close to the Taliban, is also unlikely to help the US in Afghanistan, especially after America’s recent acquiescence to India’s moves in Kashmir. Despite Trump’s public exhortations, India has been loath to deploy its military in Afghanistan, preferring instead to provide development assistance through the Ghani government in Kabul.

With victory in Syria assured for the Iran-allied Assad regime, Iran will be more willing to cooperate with the US in confronting the threat of a resurgent ISIS threat in the country, as outlined in a recent Pentagon report. The US will also seek to preserve influence in Damascus to protect the interests of its Syrian Kurdish allies and to prevent renewed instability in Syria from threatening its allies in Israel and Iraq.

The recent release, in the face of American protests, of an Iranian oil tanker by British authorities in Gibraltar points to a lack of trans-Atlantic support for America’s containment policy toward Iran. Similarly, the surprise meeting between French president Emmanuel Macron and Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, on the sidelines of the G-7 summit shows that the Europeans are keen to preserve the nuclear deal with Iran. Even in the Gulf, discussions on maritime issues between the UAE and Iran in July point to a desire on both sides to reduce tensions.

In terms of political calendars, Trump needs a major foreign policy triumph as America enters a crucial electoral cycle leading up to the presidentialelection next year. Iran’s President Rouhani, too, would benefit from an arrangement with the US that essentially tinkers with the nuclear deal but allows both sides to claim a political victory. If this comes to fruition, political factions allied to Rouhani would benefit enormously in next year’s parliamentary elections. The conclusion of Israel’s general election on September 17 also means Trump will be free to negotiate with Iran without embarrassing his political ally, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has resorted to strident anti-Iran messaging during his re-election campaign.

An agreement between Iran and the US is likely to incorporate the key desirables of both countries. For Washington, that means a reconfigured nuclear deal that assuages its concerns regarding Iranian ballistic missile tests and support to regional proxies. For Tehran, it must include the lifting of economic sanctions.

It is worth noting that Washington has not ruled out France’s recent offer of a $15 billion line of credit to Iran, for which American approval is necessary. This, coupled with Bolton’s dismissal, could very well be the first step toward an eventual suspension of sanctions against Iran before any potential meeting between Rouhani and Trump. While Trump has indicated his willingness to meet Rouhani at the UN later this month, the latter has been more circumspect, but this is at least in part due to Iran’s more complex political system with its multiple power centers.

Indeed, hardliners in Iran led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps remain obstinately opposed to any negotiations with the US. The US is blaming Iran for the attack on September 14 on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, which knocked out half its oil supply (and 5 percent of the global total). If this is true, this could only have been accomplished by the IRGC and with the approval of the Supreme Leader. Coming so close to the UN General Assembly and the possibility of Trump-Rouhani talks, it is no mystery as to what the attacks aimed to achieve. But if Tehran and Washington can get past this, the prospects for a breakthrough in Iran-US relations still remain brighter now than at any point in the recent past.

Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst on the Middle East and South Asia. He also advises governments on policies and strategic initiatives to foster growth in the creative industries such as media, entertainment and culture.