24 Nov 2013

Iran’s nuclear deal reshuffles allegiances in the Middle East

Damascus is an interesting vantage point from which to view the Iran nuclear deal in Geneva.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad knows that an agreement bringing together its main regional sponsor, Iran, and its most powerful enemy, the USA, will have consequences.

Now Washington is talking to Tehran, Iran is likely to be invited to peace talks on Syria, dubbed Geneva 2.

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That would add another voice sympathetic to the Syrian government round the table. No wonder the regime here welcomed the deal and called it “historic”.

The Syrians used the opportunity to trumpet their own surrender of chemical weapons (no matter that the government had used the weapons, and was forced to give them up) and make a dig at Israel, which refuses to disclose its nuclear arsenal.

“The agreement paves the way for international efforts to free the Middle East of all weapons of mass destruction, particularly after Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention,” reported the state news agency,┬áSana.

“Israel remains the only obstacle preventing this objective from being achieved.”

The deal may only be for six months, and it may yet collapse or lead nowhere, but in the Middle East it’s already being seen as a historic shift.

The primary rift in this region is no longer the Arab/Israeli conflict – maybe that’s why Benjamin Netenyahu is shouting so loudly and no one is listening.

The big divide is between the main Sunni Muslim power, Saudi Arabia, and Shi’a Iran.

Israel apart, the US has long regarded Saudi as its most important regional ally, but maybe not for much longer.

America no longer needs Saudi oil because fracking means it can produce its own, and it worries that the strict Saudi branch of Islam, Wahhabism, is the ideological fuel driving al-Qaeda.

That’s not to say that the Saudi government backs al-Qaeda – it doesn’t. But the Americans worry that the ageing aristocrats in Riyadh are failing to curb the clerics and other Saudis who sympathise with the jihadis.

This deal tilts the US away from Saudi and towards Iran, its enemy since the Islamic Revolution brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979, held US diplomats hostage and dubbed America ‘The Great Satan’.

The Saudis have said nothing today, but indicated earlier that they would be furious if the deal went through.

The Saudis are the biggest backers of the rebels fighting to overthrow President Assad. They provide arms and money, and are thought to be behind the new Islamic Army, uniting six Islamist rebel forces, announced on Friday.

So that’s why the government in Damascus is happy. Diplomats may do deals over coffee in Geneva, but – as Saudi Arabia and Iran vie for regional supremacy – the real battleground is here in Syria.

The Americans are increasingly worried that jihadi and al-Qaeda linked factions are gaining ground over the secular rebel forces they had fondly hoped would prevail in Syria.

They’re beginning to think that – despite human rights abuses, chemical weapons and a ruthless determination to stay in power – President Assad may be the least worst option.

At least he’s not al-Qaeda. By positioning itself nearer Iran and further from Saudi Arabia the US may be signalling a shift in its allegiance.

The nuclear deal is just a start of what could become a major shift in alliances in the Middle East.

What happened in Geneva may have huge ramifications in Damascus and beyond.

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