The times they are a-changin’
From 1945-79, Iran was the linchpin of America’s Anti-Soviet strategy. The Iranian Revolution was a disaster from America’s standpoint (and also the standpoint of anyone in Iran who gave two shits about political freedom), but at least they didn’t go Red and threaten the whole Middle East. Still, they were assholes.
Many neo-cons would have loved a dose of regime change, but the swamps that Iraq and Afghanistan became prevented such a thing. After Baghdad fell in 2003 and the insurgency took hold, few wanted a third war in the Middle East. So the strategy changed.
For a long time, America wanted some kind of counter-revolution. 2009 was almost that, but the Iranians have been revolution-proofing their state for a long time and managed to head the damned thing off. With a counter-revolution out, there was only one option – find a way to accept Iran. The Islamists were going nowhere anytime soon and there was nothing America could or would do about it.
And thus the ingredients for a grand bargain were born
The crippling sanctions weren’t designed for regime change, really. They were designed to bring the Iranians to the table and get them to talk on some limited terms. That seems to have worked. With the Islamic Republic reeling, the ayotollahs had little choice but to come to terms. For the first time in their history, their oil jugular was being strangled – and they could only hold on for so long.
Thus they allowed Hassan Rouhani take power last June. That was a clear signal that it was time to change the way things were done.
There’s room for one more, though it won’t fit comfortably
Saudi Arabia despises all of this because they’re about to lose Most Favored Nation status in the region. During the Cold War, the U.S. held the Middle Eastern line with Israel, Iran, and Turkey – Saudi Arabia was too far back to be of much importance against the Soviet threat. After 1979, the line shifted southwards to the Persian Gulf, making Saudi Arabia suddenly valuable in a way it hadn’t been before. When the Soviets vanished, because Iran was a new, third-tier threat rather than a communist one, that line stayed stable.
But now they’re talking about erasing that line entirely. Except the world’s not so clean as capitalist vs. communist anymore.
Sunni vs. Shi’a is the new power game
Saudi Arabia’s government sees itself as the protector of the true version of Islam. So does Iran’s. America could give a fuck about that; it just wants everyone to shut up and deliver the oil. Alas, like two squabbling children trying to grab the same car seat, this relatively pointless argument is very much America’s problem.
Hence the fit over the invitation
Saudi Arabia wants to see Iran excluded until it buckles and breaks and opens the doors for its Islamic scholars to flood the country and convert the people. That’s the ideal scenario from Riyadh’s point of view. But America, a secular nation-state, doesn’t see things the same way. Alas for Saudi Arabia, they won’t be listened to – though they’ll certainly complain.
Best case scenario – the end of sectarianism in the Middle East
Though that’s unlikely. Both sides have double downed on their religious identity like never before. If America wants stability, the next great diplomatic struggle will be figuring out how to get these two to sit down and shut up and learn to tolerate one another. That should keep them occupied until the 2050s.