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Iranians hope to fill vacuum as US lowers its Mideast profile

By ROY GUTMAN | McClatchy Washington Bureau (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 29, 2015

TEHRAN, Iran (Tribune News Service) — Iran’s agreement to curb its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief by world powers was welcomed at every level of society here, but nowhere more warmly than in the foreign policy community, which foresees a big boost for the Islamic Republic’s regional role, especially as the U.S. lowers its profile.

There is even gloating about what many expect to be the major spinoff from the accord — a U.S. loss of interest in the Middle East and its many conflicts, opening the way for Iran to play a leading role in the region.

“The nuclear deal is a turning point,” said Kayhan Barzegar, chairman of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran. “The main change is in the regional context, and Iran’s place in it. To be honest, I think Iran has an upper hand on the regional issues.”

He referred to President Barack Obama’s statements that the U.S. will not take the lead role in crises such as Syria’s devastating civil war and will seek regional solutions to regional problems.

“Having no policy is a good policy — good for Iran, no doubt,” Barzegar said.

“The logic of regional cooperation is to get rid of the United States, the biggest firepower in the region, the only one that can really harm Iran,” Barzegar said, and “not giving the excuse for foreign actors to come back again into the region.”

But Iranians may be in for a disappointment. Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress that the U.S. has “extensive plans” to turn up the pressure on Iran’s “unacceptable” behavior.

“There isn’t a challenge in the entire region that we won’t push back against if Iran is involved in it,” he said in testimony July 23 to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He referred to Iran’s “other activities,” its support for terrorism and its “contributions to sectarian violence in the Middle East.”

Iran will remain isolated “for its support of terrorism, for its support of weapons trading,” for backing Houthi rebels in Yemen and for supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, Kerry told Ashark al-Awsat, a London-based Arabic daily. “As long as they continue to support it, there will be push-back,” he declared.

Kerry’s remarks went directly to the question of “regional cooperation,” for Iran cannot play the role it seeks unless the United States opens the way.

Today, the two countries don’t have diplomatic relations or ambassadors in each other’s capital, and it’s not clear how quickly ties can improve in view of the historic baggage both sides bring to the relationship.

For the U.S. it began in November 1979 with the seizure by militants of 52 American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran after the Iranian revolution began, who weren’t released for 444 days. Iranian operatives are alleged to have blown up a barracks housing U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983, killing 241 U.S. servicemen, and the Khobar towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia in 1996, killing 19 American servicemen. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran armed and trained Shiite militias that attacked U.S. military positions.

Iran also has deep grievances, dating to the CIA-orchestrated overthrow in 1953 of the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. The U.S. and its Arab allies backed Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war that lasted from 1980 to 1988, with the U.S. even providing intelligence as the Iraqi leader bombed Iranian targets.

In the 1990s, the Clinton administration practiced a policy of “duel containment” against Iraq and Iran, and early in 2002, just months after the attacks of 9/11, the Bush administration labeled Iraq part of an “axis of evil,” along with Iraq and North Korea.

Iran’s sectarian responses to the eruption of popular unrest across the Arab world in 2011, known as the Arab Spring, have left it in isolation.

Even as it supported a revolt of the Shiite majority in nearby Bahrain, where a Saudi-backed Sunni regime carried out mass repression, Iran threw its support behind the Alawite minority regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad against the Sunni majority.

It provided oil, enormous financial aid, arms and ammunition to Assad. It also sent hundreds of military advisers and deployed the Hezbollah militia from Lebanon and facilitated the insertion of thousands of Shiite volunteers, first Iraqis and more recently Afghan Hazaras.

“Nowadays we find that our neighbors are ganged up against Iran. They would be very happy for Iran to have a catastrophe,” said Davood Hermidas Bavand, a retired veteran diplomat. “We find loneliness in the crowd.”

Long term, Iran’s star may be on the rise, but it isn’t there yet.

“Iran is being considered a potential good partner for the United States,” said Seyed Jalal Sadatian, a former Iranian ambassador to Britain. “The U.S. is looking for a strong regional ally to become the policeman of the region.”

But the key to such a shift is the acquiescence of America’s key Gulf allies. And that is up to Washington, said think tank director Barzegar.

“The duty and burden is on America to convince the Saudis that Iran is not a threat for them, which it is not. How can you imagine Iran attacking Saudi Arabia? This is ridiculous.” He added: “The U.S. needs to change that picture.”

Veteran diplomat Davood put it more diplomatically. “When we have a good relationship with the United States, our neighbors will try to get closer to Iran,” he said. “But when there is hostility and animosity, they take a different, subjective view of Iran and entertain unfriendly visions.”

But Washington may not be forthcoming so long as Iran backs Hezbollah and the Houthis. If the administration carries out Kerry’s commitment to Congress, it is possible that Washington, not Tehran, will have the upper hand in regional issues.

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©2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com

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