The positive American response to Iranian overtures promoting an enhanced bilateral relationship reflects a determination by the Obama Administration to direct its global relationships away from the Middle East, where it has had little but grief, and toward East Asia, the Pacific and an increasingly powerful China. The United States appears to have had enough with two failed wars (Iraq and Afghanistan), a quagmire in Syria and the collapse of the Arab Spring in Egypt.
This is the reality, despite Secretary of State John Kerry's seeming determination to resolve the Palestinian question. But if an Iranian-American rapprochement is successful, the face of the region will change dramatically.
There will be multifold challenges to any Washington-Tehran rapprochement: the need for convincing Iranian restraint on nuclear development, the strength of Republican opposition in Congress to easing sanctions, the determination of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states to deflect reconciliation, the resistance of Iranian rejectionists who will seize on less-than-maximal U.S. concessions to sabotage reconciliation.
Iran stands to gain a great deal by abandoning its weapons program. Economic isolation will be reduced – if not initially by Washington because of Congressional checks, then by less-constrained Europeans. The Americans will accept an Iranian sphere of interest in the region extending from Afghanistan to Iraq and beyond, with Bashar al-Assad remaining in power in Syria.
An interconnected Iranian-dominated Shia block will face the region's Sunni majority in their time-honoured rivalry for power and influence. The prospect of an American-Iranian rapprochement alarms the Sunni-dominated Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, who feel they will be the victims of equivocal U.S. support. The Saudis see Iran as a direct threat to their already fragile internal cohesion, encouraging their own Shia minority to destabilize the Kingdom. King Abdullah has long called for Washington to "cut the snake's head." That now seems like a distant memory. Washington will not abandon its Arabian allies but the unequivocal American support Riyadh and the others have relied upon has been shaken.
Israelis are no less worried. Those on the right and in government are concerned, seeing Iranian détente as a tactic disguising an anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic world view which will lead to an existential nuclear-based threat. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees it, Iran is buying time until it possesses a nuclear breakout capability. This is possible within weeks, he says. There have been long and angry calls between President Obama and Mr. Netanyahu. American commitments to Israel's welfare and defense suddenly seem less credible to those who sit in government in Israel.
Israel has been developing strategic ties with the Saudis and the Gulf states based on what both see as shared threats. There is ongoing strategic co-operation and although relations do not formally exist, there is a daily dialogue where diplomatic representations, under whatever rubric, work much the way formal embassies would.
There is a realization in Washington that although the United States remains pre-eminent internationally, it will have to share space with other powers, not just Russia and China but also regional players, very much including Iran in a multipolar world. The United States cannot fill every void. This means Washington must revert to achieving a balance of interests between contending parties. It does not, however, mean walking away from challenges where there is no substitute for American involvement.
And the only possible interlocutor in the "struggle for Palestine" by history, inclination, power and commitment is the United States. Both Israelis and Palestinians recognize there is no alternative. The Israelis would not want anyone else. The Palestinians realize that despite their hope for European or other involvement, no one else can pull it off. Sadly neither side believes their minimal terms can be met. The Israelis insist on retaining the settlement blocks in the West Bank, privileged control over water sources there, control over the main transportation links and a long-term presence in the Jordan valley. Conditions they maintain are necessary for their security. The Palestinians reject such terms, arguing that no agreement is better than one which disempowers them.
How then does Mr. Kerry's commitment to a fair-minded solution tie in with Washington's regional disengagement? This may be Washington's last shot at an Israeli-Palestinian deal. If successful, American influence is enhanced globally. If negotiations fail, the administration can conclude that it has made every possible effort, leaving the issue simply to fester, recognizing the heart has gone out of pan-Arab opposition to what Arabs have called "Zionist expansionism" because they are faced with an overriding Sunni-Shia struggle for dominance in an Islamic world where internecine identity wars go to the core of their own identity if not survival.
Michael Bell is the Paul Martin Senior Scholar in International Relations at the University of Windsor. He has served as Canada's ambassador to Jordan, to Egypt and to Israel.