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The Daily Star - November 27, 2013

by Rami G. Khouri

The most striking implication of the agreement signed in Geneva last weekend to ensure that Iran’s nuclear industry does not develop nuclear weapons while gradually removing the sanctions on the country is more about Iran than it is about Iran’s nuclear industry. The important new dynamic that has been set in motion is likely to profoundly impact almost every significant political situation around the Middle East and the world, including both domestic conditions within countries and diplomatic relations among countries.This agreement breaks the long spell of estrangement and hostility between the U.S. and Iran, and signals important new diplomatic behavior by both countries, which augurs well for the entire region. It is also likely to trigger the resumption of the suspended domestic political and cultural evolution of Iran, which also will spur new developments across the Middle East.

Perhaps we can see the changes starting to occur in Iran as similar to the developments in Poland in the early 1980s, when the bold political thrust of the Solidarity movement that enjoyed popular support broke the Soviet Union’s hold on Polish political life, and a decade later led to the collapse of the entire Soviet Empire. The resumption of political evolution inside Iran will probably move rapidly in the years ahead, as renewed economic growth, more personal freedoms, and more satisfying interactions with the region and the world expand and strengthen the relatively “liberal” forces around Rouhani, Rafsanjani, Khatami and others; this should slowly temper, then redefine and reposition, the Islamic revolutionary autocrats who have controlled the power structure for decades but whose hard-line controls are increasingly alien to the sentiments of ordinary Iranians.

These domestic and regional reconfigurations will occur slowly, comprising the situations in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Gulf Cooperation Council states led by Saudi Arabia. The critical link remains a healthy, normal, nonhostile relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which I suspect will start to come about in the months ahead, as both grasp the exaggerated nature of their competition for influence in the region and learn to behave like normal countries. They will learn to compete on the basis of their soft power among a region of half a billion people who increasingly feel and behave like citizens who have the right to choose how they live, rather than to be dictated to and herded like cattle.

Should a more normal Iran-Saudi relationship occur, as I expect, this will trigger major adjustments across the entire region, starting in Syria and Lebanon where the proxies of both countries face off in cruel and senseless confrontations. The Geneva II conference in January to explore a peaceful transition in Syria will be the first place to look for signs of an emerging new order in the region that will be shaped by a healthier Iranian-Saudi relationship.

The reason that Iran will be able to impact conditions around the region so significantly stems from what I believe is the most significant underlying lesson of the Iran sanctions/nuclear agreement: It reflects the fact that Iran steadfastly resisted and boldly defied American-Israeli-led sanctions, assassinations, industrial sabotage and explicit military threats for over a decade, and finally caused the U.S. and allies to accept the two long-standing principal demands from Tehran – to accept the enrichment of uranium in Iran for peaceful purposes, and to drop the threats of changing the regime in Tehran through military force. In this dangerous game of diplomatic chicken that nearly brought the region to a deadly war, the Americans blinked first, and then they sensibly engaged Iran in serious negotiations that have achieved an initial success.

This is coupled with a parallel historic development inside the United States, which is the successful determination of the Obama administration to stare down Israel and its powerful lobby in Washington and complete the agreement with Iran. In fact, the Obama administration has now done this twice in a row – first by going against the Israeli government’s strong advocacy for an American military attack against Syria a few months ago, and now in completing the Iran agreement which Israel’s lobby institutes and proxies in Washington worked hard to stop. Obama showed that a policy that is in the best interest of the U.S. and has the support of the American public will always prevail against even the most intense lobbying efforts by Israel and its American surrogates. This has profound and positive implications for future U.S. policy-making in the Middle East, which will benefit all concerned, including Israel.

These breakthroughs reflect the fact that both the American and Iranian leaderships conducted policies that reflected the sensible, nonviolent preferences of their own people. They should both be congratulated, and let us hope that other leaders in the region follow suit.

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