The interim agreement between Iran and the P5 +1 world powers (the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China and Germany) in Geneva on November 24 last year, which saw restrictions imposed on its nuclear programme in exchange for a slight easing of sanctions, was a surprise and shock to observers, not least to America's main allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Was this the United States re-defining its alliances and roles in the Middle East? It looked like it, with more rumours about Washington's gradual withdrawal from the region, due to strategic exhaustion after more than a decade of wars that have sapped its economy and drained its capabilities. Such a move would free the US to deal with the most important challenge that threatens its status as a top global economic force, after the growth of China in the Asian-Pacific region.
So what was America's rationale for turning to Iran? To understand this we need to look at the background to the US rapprochement with Tehran.
It is worth noting that Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in late 2008 on a programme in which he vowed to put an end to US military adventures that marked-out his predecessor, George W. Bush, and plunged the country into debt. Under Obama, we were told, US foreign policy sought to decrease militarisation and lean more towards international cooperation rather than unilateral action.
The America inherited by Obama in 2009 was different from that which Bush inherited from Clinton in 2001, both in terms of prestige and strategic international reputation, and in terms of its economy and internal unity. Furthermore, Obama inherited a depleted America in two main conflict zones, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as an ill-defined "war on terrorism". Meanwhile, there was barely any time for decision makers to deal with the real strategic challenges facing the United States.
This was acknowledged by Obama in two speeches at the West Point US Military Academy in December 2009 and May 2010. The gist was that America cannot get involved in any conflicts beyond its capabilities, responsibilities and interests, as it is unable to maintain wide-scale intervention in the world without disastrous repercussions for its economy and well-being.
This is supported by the US administration's announcement in March 2012 of the "new American defence strategy", putting its geo-strategic focus on the "Asia -Pacific" region, which is very important to America's economy and its future. This is all part of the effort to contain the growing strength of China economically and militarily at a time when the United States finds itself forced to cut its defence expenditure due to the economic crisis.
Despite keeping the Middle East within the framework of vital American interests by continuing to prevent the emergence of any rival for control of the region (specifically Iran), the US defence strategy has reduced its desire for direct involvement in regional wars and affairs.
All of this helps us to understand some of the reasons for the shift in US foreign policy, which also has to consider costs at home and abroad. The rapprochement with Iran has to be seen in this context, but what does it mean for the Middle East?
Ever since 1979 the US has been hostile towards Iran and made efforts to contain and change the Islamic revolutionary regime. As part of the so-called "axis of evil", Iran was seen as a threat to US domination over the region; the George W Bush administration used Iran's nuclear programme as an excuse to press for severe sanctions against it.
Moreover, America's involvement in Iraq has weakened it economically, militarily and strategically. Instead of Iraq acting as a lever for the US to reshape the Middle East, it has been a drain on its global capabilities. Iran was next on the neo-cons' list as a desirable recruit to the US cause, especially when, for sectarian reasons, it embraced the US invasion of Iraq. This has to be considered along with America's blunders such as the "war on terror", Afghanistan and the economic downturn as well as the rise of regional powers in Latin America and international forces like China and Russia. All are taking advantage of America's preoccupation with its crazy military ventures. Thus there has been a marked decline in America's ability to impose itself internationally.
This has coincided with the so-called Arab Spring revolutions which affected countries allied to and independent of the US. It was at that point that America realised how limited its influence in the Middle East really is; its gradual withdrawal from the region in favour of "Asia and the Pacific" was disrupted.
Thus, the Middle East continued to pose a dilemma for US strategists: it was neither here nor there; unable to enjoy the influence it once had but not yet out of it completely. America couldn't just ignore the revolutions or distance itself from them in case the geopolitical map was redrawn without its input. Although America had no final say on issues in the region, they sapped its energy and resources nonetheless.
Then along came Syria and, with it, Iran's increased importance, putting it at the heart of the new US strategy in the Middle East. The Assad regime in Syria survives with Iranian and Russian support, as well as China's, turning the conflict into an international war by proxy.
At the same time, US sanctions against Iran had failed to put an end to Tehran's nuclear programme. Obama's advisers urged caution as the pressure came from Israel to launch an attack to destroy Iran's nuclear reactors. The president knew that America could not afford yet another costly war with such uncertain outcomes. He must also have borne in mind George W Bush's rejection of an Iranian offer to negotiate over the nuclear issue in 2003, based on the false premise that the government in Tehran had only two options: surrender or collapse.
In 2003, Iran had 164 centrifuges; today it has 19,000. Observers believe that if it wasn't for the Geneva agreement, Iran would have continued to develop its nuclear programme in spite of the sanctions; as it has for more than a decade, Iran would continue to work around them.
Nevertheless, ordinary Iranians have suffered from the effects of the sanctions. The government had to do something to ease conditions for its citizens or face a revolt which could threaten the regime. It is said that President Hassan Rouhani was allowed to run for office by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, in an attempt to break away from the extremism of ex-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Here we must acknowledge the recent revelations regarding secret US-Iranian meetings in Oman since last March, when Ahmadinejad was still president, which facilitated the swift agreement reached in Geneva.
If this means anything at all it is that the decision to negotiate with America was taken by the administration in Tehran, not the president. However, this does not mean that the election of Rouhani, who is considered to be "relatively moderate" by the West, made it easy for Washington to pick up the pace of negotiations with Iran.
As such, the US and Iran must have overcome serious ideological differences in the conflict between them, as, according to American predictions, the Iranian regime won't fold easily, nor is Iran able to overlook the impact of the sanctions imposed on it. Moreover, the United States realised that it cannot rearrange the region and calm it down without the participation of Iran, especially in the cases of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
Meanwhile, Iran learnt the hard way that maintaining its traditional areas of influence without coordinating with the Americans would cost it dearly. The United States was not about to withdraw from the Middle East and make way for Iranian domination of the region.
This leads us to the claims of some observers and experts regarding the American calculations in the Middle East. There are some who believe that the US ability to impose what it wants in the region has declined so it is looking to create some balance between Iran, Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to ensure that none of these important actors can pull regional strings without consideration for American interests. In other words, the US wants to create competition between these countries that does not allow any one of them to fill the void left by its gradual withdrawal from regional affairs.
That leaves one other aspect we haven't mentioned, which is associated with Obama's presidential legacy. In his most recent speech at the United Nations, he stated that the priority of his administration's diplomacy in the short-term will be finding a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue (without excluding a military option as a last resort), as well as reaching an agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis. It is clear that he is looking for a foreign policy legacy in the issues that exhausted his predecessors.
When Obama took action regarding the Iranian nuclear issue, he was under great pressure; he was very aware that the history books might record the decline of American domination over the Middle East on his shift and that Iran got a nuclear bomb as a result of his "naiveté". This could explain why he took a personal interest, as the White House claimed, in the agreement with Iran.
According to Radio Israel, Obama's reluctance to launch a military strike against Syria arose at about the same time that the secret talks with Iran were taking place. It is easier now to understand the resentment felt by Israel and Saudi Arabia, both long-time foes of Iran and allies of the US. It could also be the case, claims Reuters, that the Geneva II Conference may not lead to the removal of the Assad regime in Syria; the president and the Alawite minority look set to stay in power. This is all a spin-off, it seems, from the US-Iran rapprochement; US pressure on the Israelis and Palestinians to reach an agreement framework by April has to be viewed in the light of these changes across the region.
It is clear that the Middle East is on the verge of major changes which will see improved US relations with both Russia and Iran although Israel is likely to maintain its regional hegemony as America's most reliable ally.
Absent from all of this change are the Arabs, even though some played their part and aborted revolutionary moves, especially in Egypt. They are out of the equation, for the time being at least.
However, this does not mean that the US-Iran deal is inevitable, as there are still many details that need to be agreed upon. Israel's allies in the US Congress may yet thwart Obama's plans, although he has public support for better relations between Washington and Tehran. Opponents of the rapprochement exist in Tehran as well, and opposition from America's allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, cannot be ruled out. Turbulent times indeed.
The author is a Palestinian writer based in the US. This is a translation from the Arabic text which appeared in Al Jazeera Net 19 January, 2014
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.