SPEAKING at the Atlantic Festival in the US in September-end, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan listed the Joe Biden administration’s achievements in West Asia. A truce was holding in Yemen, the Iranian attacks against the US forces had stopped, the American presence in Iraq had stabilised and West Asia was quieter than ever in the last two decades, he said. The deceptive and brutal attacks by Hamas on October 7 on Israel, which resulted in 1,400 Israeli fatalities and more than 200 taken hostage, showed how far removed the Biden administration and the Netanyahu government were from the ground reality. They had no information about the subterranean activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in support of Hamas.
In recent years, Iran has emerged as an important X factor in West Asian politics with its export of a clergy-led model of political governance to other nations to establish a ‘Shiite crescent’ of power from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. The Sunni Ba’athist party government in Iraq was an effective bulwark against the spread of the Iranian influence till its leader Saddam Hussein was executed in December 2006. For a long time, the US followed a dual-track policy of penalising Iran for its destabilising behaviour in the region with the imposition of sanctions on the export of oil coupled with its readiness to hold a dialogue on important issues, such as its nuclear weapon capability. This policy worked well till the US was able to exercise significant pressure on Iran with the help of Russia and China, and Iran had an incentive to improve relations with the US to get relief from sanctions.
The Ukraine war, which deepened the US-Russia rivalry, and the accelerating ‘Cold War’ between the US and China in recent years have significantly weakened the ability of the US to mount effective pressure on Iran as the latter was able to export oil to China by defeating the US sanctions after 2018. Russia itself needed to buy drones and missiles from Iran for its war in Ukraine. Both Russia and China had no interest in putting checks on Iran’s nuclear programme or alter its behaviour towards the other states (mostly US allies) in West Asia.
In a speech in November 2020, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei exuberantly declared that the “USA is not the world’s dominant power, it is melting away. Asia will become the centre of economics, political and military power. We are in Asia.” In another speech, he said the Iranians should not expect any foreign assistance or changed policies from the Western governments: “Our officials should improve Iran’s capability to face hardships on its own. Future talks with the West should be limited to the nuclear issue.” He described Iran’s missile programme and other military efforts (supporting its foreign proxies, such as Hezbollah) as ‘defensive’, aimed at deterring its enemies.
That Iran would look at China as its future political, economic, energy and security partner became clear when the two countries signed a 25-year strategic partnership agreement in March 2021; it provides for deeper cooperation in the export of crude oil, civilian nuclear energy, the use of national currencies for trade as well as cooperation in science & technology and security. China has facilitated Iran’s induction into the SCO and BRICS. China brokered an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March this year to restore diplomatic ties and de-escalate tensions.
The US sanctions on the export of oil by Iran, while hitting its economy, have failed to dampen its revolutionary fervour or extension of support to Shiite groups in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other countries. The clergy has been able to regroup the hardliners, marginalise the liberals and buttress the IRGC and other groups of its liking to stay in power. It has bred a number of militant proxies, such as the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, some with the ability to make ballistic missiles and carry out drone attacks to balance its adversaries’ superiority in conventional weapons.
Iran was able to endure an eight-year war (1980-88) with Iraq when the West and almost all Arab states supported the Saddam Hussein regime; it managed to protect its allies in Syria and the Houthis in Yemen in recent conflicts and become a nuisance to US-backed Saudi Arabia.
It has revived the sidelined Palestinian issue by supporting Hamas, created complications for the extension of the Abraham Accords between Israel and Saudi Arabia and bred a new spectre of instability and escalating war in the region.
After the failure of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, the Biden administration has tried to improve relations with Iran by making quiet deals through Qatar. One of these involved allowing Iran to export oil by relaxing the imposition of sanctions in the expectation that Iran would either delay or stall its uranium enrichment programme for a bomb. Another deal was for the release of five American hostages by Iran in return for billions of dollars held by South Korea for the import of oil.
As per Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, the US responded militarily only four times against Iran or its proxies, while the latter launched 83 attacks on the Americans since Biden assumed office. The latest attack by Hamas against Israel clearly indicate that Iran has no intention to abide by the above deal. Iran holds most of the cards to ensure that the current war in Gaza does not widen as its entry would compel the US to intervene directly, with adverse regional and global consequences.
An important message for India and others is that they should not be deterred from strengthening their relations with Iran, given its importance in the emerging geopolitics of the region, since the US itself is not hesitant about deal-making with Iran.
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