A money changer holds US banknotes as he waits for customers in Tehran’s business district. Photograph: Reuters
The past couple of days have been quite eventful- and interesting- for Iranians. Saturday, 16th January 2016, was a beautiful day in Iran; as crippling sanctions were finally lifted. After the IAEA Chief verified that Iran had complied with the terms of the 2015 Nuclear Deal to curb its nuclear programme, Iran was given the green light to re-enter the international community, economically. Iran can now expect a surge in its oil export, even as investors flock into Tehran. One Iranian economist even predicts a 7 to 8% economic growth increase in 2016/17. Ambitious indeed. A couple of days earlier, 10 US naval officers were captured by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, when their boats veered into Iranian waters “accidentally”. After being held for 15hours, they were released the next day in what has since been hailed as a sign of warmer relations between the United States and Iran- actually, some others see it as more of the product of a personal relationship between US Secretary of State, John Kerry; and Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif. The incident was not without propaganda display on the part of the Iranians though; as the 10 sailors were shown kneeling before their captors with their hands over their heads. Later, one of them was seen tendering an apology to the Iranians. A few days after this, 5 Americans who had previously been held in Iranian jails- unjustly- were also released. Amongst them was Pastor Saeed Abedini, and Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian. Rezaian had been held in Evin Prison for 18months on charges of espionage which have so far been unproven by the Iranians. Well, they were finally released…their families were beyond relieved to be re-united…again; this was hailed as a “triumph of diplomacy”. But taken into context, what does this all mean for the United States; and its position in the Middle East (and indeed the larger International Community)? Many have argued that the US is selling itself short, as Iran gets more out of this entire bargain. 4 of the 5 Americans were released as part of a prisoner-swap that saw the US also release 7 Iranians who had been indicted for transferring electronic components to Iran in violation of trade sanctions. As Donald Trump put it, “the USA got 4, while the Iranians got 7 and 150 billion (referring to the money expected to go into Iranian coffers with the lifting of Sanctions)”- paraphrase, mine.
People walk off a plane carrying three Iranian-Americans, who left Tehran under a prisoner swap, after it landed in Geneva, Switzerland, on Sunday. Denis Balibouse / Reuters
Jason Rezaian with his wife Yeganeh Salehi. Photograph: Vahid Salemi/AP
One of the perceived failures of the Obama administration is the fact that many believe that the US under Obama, has seen its position of prominence in the international community (especially the Mid-East), diminish. Ever since the “Syrian red line” was crossed without any consequence, it seems like the United States has taken a back-seat as occurrences unfold in the region; as Russia (and Iran) now calls the shots. The Nuclear Deal which has been hailed by President Obama has not been without controversies. And even with its enactment, the question is “how long will Iran abide by the terms of the agreement, without cutting corners, taking advantage of loopholes, and being dubious?” At the moment, Iran is a country divided into 2 factions: the moderates (amongst whom include- supposedly- President Rouhani, and Foreign Minister Zarif) who seem to favor diplomacy; and the hard-liners (including many prominent leaders, the Revolutionary Guard Council; all led by the Ayatollah Khamenei) who favor a more defiant stance towards the United States….and they (the hard-liners) are the ones who essentially rule the country. Supporters of the Iranian Deal are quick to argue that the fact that so far, the Iranians have stuck to the terms of the agreement which led to the lifting of sanctions, this shows that the moderates are gaining more traction within Iran- for now at least. But if precedents are anything to go by, the life-span of this new movement may not be very long. I mean, if the hard-liners within Iran were not still so powerful, when the 10 US sailors were found in Iranian waters, they would (and should) have been given a warning, and then escorted into international waters; instead of being captured, detained, and paraded in such an undignified manner before the whole world! Also, in late December 2015, reports emerged of the Iranian military, firing rockets close to a US warship, in the Strait of Hormuz. If anyone somehow believes that the Ayatollah and the mullah’s- who are expecting the return of the “12th Imam- the Mahdi”; and who believe that “the collapse of the US is imminent” – would give up on their quest for nuclear weaponry for Iran at some point, then I would venture to say that person is living in an alternate reality! And let us not overlook the fact that in spite of the nuclear deal, Iran still carries out ballistic missile testing, in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions. The Ayatollah- and the IRGC- calls the shots within Iran. It is no secret that they do not favor peaceful relations with the US. Yes, Rouhani and Zarif may be the “heroes of diplomacy” at the moment…and yes, they may have agreed to stick to the terms of the deal- for now- for economic purposes, but how long is this “rosy situation” expected to last? Also, Rouhani will certainly be reminded that just like Ahmadinejad found, he also cannot go against the wishes of the Supreme Leader!
America’s allies in the region (especially Saudi Arabia and Israel) have noticed all these happenings, with great worry. The Saudi’s seem to have lost a lot of faith in the US partnership, and are now looking to forge their own (mostly Sunni) alliances in the region and beyond- look out for my video this week. As the divide between Riyadh and Tehran deepens, America does not seem to be able to use its influence (whatever is left of it) to broker some sort of peace. This does not bode well for the future of Syria and Yemen- again; look out for my video this week. Israel is also watching closely. And as relations deteriorated between Tel-Aviv and Washington, Moscow seemed to be occupying more prominence within Israel, as Israeli’s decided that Vladimir Putin was their “Person of the Year, 2015”. Recently, reports have also emerged of 3 Americans kidnapped in Iraq; allegedly by Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen. Americans now seem to be abducted with impunity, and without fear of consequence!
The prospect of the United States of America losing prominence in the region is very sad, scary, and indeed worrisome. It is not something that anyone would have predicted prior to 2011. For many decades, people all over the world have looked to the United States as a “beacon of light” in a world filled with darkness. The Western values of democracy, freedom and liberty, guided by strong American leadership, have found their way into far corners…the office of the President of the United States of America, has always been the Number One political office in the entire world. Allies have felt safe…enemies have always known that there would be consequences for rash actions, and no hiding place. It doesn’t seem so, anymore. As the released prisoners flew out of Iran, and as Iranians celebrated, a bystander could easily have thought to himself, that maybe the tide was indeed turning for the better. But like an intrigued spectator at a football match, I am holding my breath. And as I watched Barack Obama at his final State of the Union address declare again that “America is still number one. Period”; I couldn’t help but ask myself, if indeed he believed that to still be true!