What U.S.-Iran Talks Mean for the Rest of the World

What U.S.-Iran Talks Mean for the Rest of the World

November 12, 2013 | 0141 GMT
Though U.S.-Iranian negotiations in Geneva may have failed to produce decisive results, it seems clear that one of the Cold War’s last rivalries will soon end. Countries typically do not cooperate with one another unless they stand to benefit from cooperation, and for Iran and the United States, the immediate benefits are clear. Iran needs a reprieve from the economic sanctions levied against it by the West, and Washington needs more leverage in its Middle Eastern affairs. But less directly, improved ties will also reshape relations among some ancillary parties, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Russia and China, and for countries even further removed from the negotiations.
Israel’s position is clear. Without a close military relationship with the United States, Israel risks being rapidly outgunned in a dangerous geopolitical neighborhood. Israel’s defense needs are too large for its military, industrial and demographic base to satisfy, and preferential access to U.S. military hardware and the U.S. industrial base is necessary for Israel to maintain its borders. But ultimately, Israel’s value lies in its ability to bring balance to the Middle East. Despite Israel’s highly touted lobbying power in Washington, the United States has distanced itself markedly from Israel over the past several years as strategic considerations have altered the superpower’s position in the Middle East.
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Saudi Arabia’s situation is similar to Israel’s. Saudi Arabia has a limited industrial base with which to build the military it needs to manage internal divisions and regional rivalries, including with Iran. As a result, the country relies on U.S. military sales, contractor support and collaboration for domestic control and for confronting its regional rival, Iran. After the 9/11 attacks, the subsequent invasion of Iraq and the spread of instability into the kingdom, the two partnered up out of necessity. But the United States has pulled out of Iraq, is drawing down in Afghanistan and now needs to position itself to serve a balancing role in the region.
Saudi Arabia and Israel benefited from the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan; they gave both countries the chance to be the U.S. ally and to enlist U.S. aid in facing down regional threats. And while the United States stands little chance of vacating a position of power in the Middle East entirely, Washington would prefer to rely on allies to maintain a regional balance of power rather than intervene directly.
Russia benefited from U.S. distraction, but for entirely different reasons. Coming out of the political and economic chaos of the 1990s, Russian President Vladimir Putin consolidated power as Washington largely ignored the changes underway in Europe. Russia has routinely used its active nuclear cooperation with Iran and the threat of supplying Iran with strategic air defenses to obtain political concessions from the United States. Without Iran as a lever, Moscow may find the United States much more involved in Russian domestic affairs (in which Washington meddles through pro-democracy groups). Moreover, Russia’s southern borderlands — ranging from Turkey to the Caucasus and Central Asia — have acted as a buffer between Russia and Iran throughout history, so changes in Iran will have direct implications for Russia’s periphery.
But all of these details pale in comparison to the importance of the ongoing U.S. repositioning that already affects geopolitical relationships around the world.
A true rapprochement with Iran could, and probably will, take years. Seven years passed before the United States officially recognized China after Richard Nixon’s historic visit in 1972. And it was also in 1979 that relations degraded between Iran and the United States. Since then, the frozen relationship has been a focal point in international relations. Were Iran and the United States to normalize ties completely, Washington’s only vestiges of the Cold War would be hostility with Cuba and with North Korea (and there is reason to believe ties with Cuba will normalize sooner rather than later).
In this context, improved ties with Iran seem natural, if not inevitable. Without the constraint of frozen relations with Iran, the United States has a great deal more room to maneuver in the Middle East, and it will no longer be tied to the allies of old. This corresponds with a larger U.S. strategy of relying on regional allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia as a counterpoise to China in East Asia. Indeed, the so-called “Pivot to Asia” strategy that is still evolving may exemplify how the United States will treat other regions in the future. This raises major questions for countries such as Pakistan, which faces a dilemma similar to that of Israel and Saudi Arabia as the United States pulls out of Afghanistan.
The challenge for regional powers is not that the United States has a specific intent to threaten one country’s interests over another. Rather, the challenge in this period of U.S. introversion and obviation of Cold War relationships is that the world’s largest economic and military power is creating room to maneuver. The emergence of an unencumbered United States in a truly post-Cold War era heralds a period of historic change and spells unpredictability for lesser powers the world over.