Iran: Toward a Regional Realignment
STRATFOR, Dec 13, 2007
Iran's president will soon perform the Hajj at Saudi Arabia's invitation. Meanwhile, Iran and Egypt have made reciprocal high-level diplomatic visits for the first time since 1979. The moves are part of a major geopolitical realignment in the region, one that serves both U.S. and Iranian interests.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is to perform the Hajj in Saudi Arabia on invitation from King Abdullah, Ahmadinejad's senior adviser Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, said Dec. 13. Meanwhile, high-level Egyptian and Iranian diplomats have made visits to each other’s countries for the first time since the Iranian Revolution.
These moves are part of a wider geopolitical realignment. They also are occurring with U.S. approval as Washington and Tehran pursue their respective interests.
Ali Akbar Javanfekr, media adviser of the Iranian president, Dec. 12 described Ahmadinejad's trip to Saudi Arabia as an important event in the relations between the two countries because it marks the first time a Saudi monarch has invited an Iranian head of state to perform the Hajj. The Dec. 18 visit will be Ahmadinejad's third to the kingdom since taking office in 2005.
Given the ethnic, sectarian and geopolitical tensions between the two nations, a Saudi monarch inviting an Iranian head of state to make the Hajj is a major development. The current context of the Iraq conflict, in which moves toward an international settlement are being made, increases the invitation's significance. Since the Saudis are conferring an honor upon the Iranians that would not have happened unless the two sides had reached -- or are close to reaching -- a modus vivendi on Iraq and other issues, Ahmadinejad's trip represents a sort of political Hajj.
Elsewhere in the region, the Egyptians are warming up to the Iranians. Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister for Asian Affairs Hussein Derar visited Iran in the first such trip since diplomatic ties between Egypt and Iran were severed in 1979. Iranian Majlis Speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel also will be going to Cairo, in late January 2008. In an unprecedented development earlier in December, Ahmadinejad attended the Gulf Cooperation Council summit meeting in the Qatari capital, Doha.
Neither the Saudis nor the Egyptians can engage in such diplomacy with the Iranians without taking the United States into confidence. The Arab states have wanted to reach a diplomatic arrangement with the Iranians, but have not wanted to do so without U.S. involvement, which they see as a security guarantee. For its part, the United States is engaged in gestures to Iran, the most obvious example of which is the release of the National Intelligence Estimate stating that the Iranians halted their pursuit of nuclear weapons in 2003. Progress on the U.S.-Iranian track has allowed the Arabs to conduct their own negotiations with the Iranians.
A major geopolitical realignment is in the works, under which Iran is being integrated into the regional security system. This is because leaving Iran out of any such arrangement in post-Baathist Iraq is dangerous for the security of the Arab states and damaging to U.S. interests. Realignment with Iran is the only way Washington can balance its need to deal with Iran on the Iraq question while preventing Tehran from threatening the Arabs. By working with the Arab states to have them seek closer relations with Iran, the United States has found a way to get around criticism from its Arab allies that Washington has not involved them in the Iraq talks.
The Iranians have two strategic aims in all this: First, they want to emerge from their status as a pariah state without having to follow the route of the Libyans. Second, Iran seeks to become a regional powerhouse.
The Saudi and Egyptian overtures facilitate Tehran's first goal, since Iran can be reintegrated into the international arena without appearing to have completely caved in to international pressure. As to the second objective, the Iranians know that without an acknowledgment from the Arabs and the United States, any Iranian attempt to behave as a regional player will be seen as a hostile act that could lead to war. By gaining space in the regional power configuration, Tehran has made progress toward international player status.
U.S.-Iranian dealings on Iraq have facilitated Arab-Iranian diplomatic engagement. Whether this process will lead toward normalization of U.S.-Iranian bilateral relations remains to be seen.