WASHINGTON – As the Obama administration opens up diplomatic relations with Cuba after a half-century, concern is looming over whether the United States similarly will extend diplomatic recognition to Iran and restore connections severed in 1979 when the Islamic revolution brought conservative clerics to power following the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Unlike Cuba, however, Iran today is a major Shiite power that is battling for influence in the Middle East against Sunni Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally. Its military is estimated to be more powerful than all the Sunni Arab countries’ militaries combined.
But its interests have aligned lately with the U.S. Like America, it similarly seeks the defeat of the radical Sunni Islamic State, or ISIS.
The two diverge over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, which Washington regards as a prelude to developing nuclear weapons, but the administration realizes it can only curtail, not eliminate, it.
The concern is that President Barack Obama will reprise his December Cuba surprise by re-opening diplomatic ties with the Islamic clerics in Tehran.
WND sought comment on this prospect from the State Department but, to date, there has been no response.
In fact, there appears to be efforts under way to curtail such a possibility.
Middle East expert Andres Cala tells Consortiumnews.com that those efforts could occur even at the expense of furthering American interests.
Former assistant secretary of State for Latin America and Middle East expert Elliott Abrams raised this concern in a recent article in the Weekly Standard.
“Imagine for a moment that you are a Saudi, Emirati, Jordanian, or Israeli,” Abrams said. “Your main national security worry these days is Iran – Iran’s rise, its nuclear program, its troops fighting in Iraq and Syria, its growing influence from Yemen through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Your main ally against Iran for the past decades has been the United States. Naturally, you worry about American policy.
“And now, you turn on the TV and see the announcement about the change in American policy in Cuba,” he said. “Re-establishment of diplomatic relations. Lots of changes in the embargo that will mean plenty more cash for the Castros. A change in the whole American official position vis-à-vis Cuba. … As to real changes in the regime – changes in its foreign or domestic policies – none. Zero. Zip. So, you conclude that in the long struggle between the United States and the Castro regime since 1959, the Americans have finally blinked.”
Cala points out that the reaction to opening of relations with Cuba generally was “mild to positive,” suggesting to Obama that any fallout from a nuclear agreement with Iran might also be manageable.
While such an agreement is within reach, the administration without hesitation agreed to an extension of talks to March 2015.
Cala said that such a deal could have been reached at the November meeting but Obama balked, believing that the timing wasn’t quite right.
“Possibly he didn’t want to complicate the politically easier Cuba opening,” Cala said. “(Obama) does seem to favor a methodical approach toward taking on challenges, first one, then another, rather than bunching them into a package.
“Both Israeli and Saudi officials have complained about the alleged threat from the Shiite crescent stretching from Tehran through Damascus to Beirut,” Cala said. “And (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that the possibility Iran might eventually produce a nuclear bomb is an ‘existential threat’ to Israel, though Israel has a large undeclared nuclear arsenal of its own.”
Cala believes, however, that Obama’s delay could give those against opening up to Iran more time to consolidate their opposition, especially now that both Houses of Congress will be under Republican control, which tends to show more favor to Israel’s position.
“Along with Israel and the Sunni Arab countries, U.S. hardliners are pushing to expand the war in Syria to have the U.S. military join in attacking the Iranian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad,” Cala said.
On the other hand, Cala sees U.S. strategic interests aligning with those of Iran, especially over the fight against ISIS and the need to bolster the embattled Iraqi military. Iran is providing support to Iraqi and Kurdish forces, as is the U.S.
Cala also believes the strained U.S. relationship with Israel and Saudi Arabia will make Obama unwilling “to carry water for them in their rivalry with Shiite Iran.”
“If Obama finally decides to complete the deal with Iran,” Cala said, “he can expect a difficult time with not just Republicans but even Democrats in Congress, where the Israel lobby remains one of the most powerful and effective. Indeed, the likely congressional pressure would be toward increasing sanctions on Iran, not removing them.”
Unless a nuclear deal can be reached, Cala sees Iran moving strategically closer to Russia.
“Iran and Russia broadened economic ties only days after the failure to sign the nuclear deal in November,” Cala said. “Though the two countries have historically had tense relations, they also have been stepping up their strategic cooperation around shared objectives in Syria and the Caucasus. But both now have something else in common, sanctions from the West.”
Moscow has agreed to build two more nuclear plants in Iran and also has offered to supply nuclear fuel for them.
At the same time, Cala sees Russia using Iran as a bargaining chip against further Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis. And that relationship could only deepen if no nuclear deal is struck between Iran and the West.
“From the view of some U.S. diplomats,” Cala said, “Russian-Iranian cooperation could even unlock the stalemate in Syria by brokering Assad’s departure and his replacement with a leader who could gain more support from the Sunni population.
“Iran and Russia have signaled they would accept Assad stepping down and the inclusion of Assad’s opposition, as long as the status quo is otherwise maintained and the Alawites, Shiites, Christians and other minorities are protected,” he said.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration is concerned about upsetting Turkey and Saudi Arabia which want Assad removed by force.
In addition, the Ukraine crisis has made it more complicated for the administration to work with Russia in resolving the Syrian civil war.
For the Obama administration, Cala said, more could be lost if a deal with Iran over its nuclear program isn’t struck.
“Obama can judge a deal as too risky and close the diplomatic window with Iran,” Cala said. “That, however, could lead to worsening Middle Eastern instability and feed a new Cold War with Russia. Iran has explicitly said it will bolster its ties with Russia and China if negotiations break off. It has also said it will not extend negotiations again.”