Events in Syria are tragic but have minimal implications outside the Levant. The truly dangerous West Asian faultline is the one between the United States and Iran. That there is a possibility of a high-level meeting between these two countries is a welcome sign. Iran’s aspirations to be a leader of the Arab world and the dominant player of the Persian Gulf have been well-known. Equally obvious are the attempts by Sunni Arab nations, Israel and Turkey to try and stall Iran’s re-emergence. Iran’s rhetorical hostility to Israel, its suspect nuclear programme and support for Shia militancy have meant that the US has aligned with these other countries. But Tehran’s differences with Washington itself — rather than US’ allies — are not great.
Iran seems to have recognised that its present foreign policy has done little except isolate it internationally and cripple its economy through sanctions. Its hopes to win the Arab Street died the instant it declared support for the Hafez al-Assad regime in Syria. This unpopularity undercut the reason for Tehran’s belligerence towards Israel, which was to win Arab hearts and minds. Newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, presumably with the backing of Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, is cautiously driving his country down a different path. He has sent online greetings to Jews on their new year. Iran’s ban on Twitter and Facebook was temporarily relaxed. Tehran has also sent signals to Washington that there may be grounds to have talks about Iran’s nuclear programme.
With Iranian foreign policy seeking a new, but less assertive, normal the US should be receptive to opening lines of communication. A military confrontation between the US and Iran would effectively mean the shutting down of the Persian Gulf, still the world’s largest source of oil and gas and one that India is hopelessly dependent on. It is also a conflict that would draw in many regional countries and aggravate the widening Shia-Sunni divide across the world. Syria is a sideshow. The real diplomatic success lies in what happens between the US and Iran.