The changing balance of power in the Gulf

By Amin Saikal

The oil-rich Gulf region is in the throes of some major geostrategic power shifts, unseen since the Iranian revolution of 1978/79 that resulted in the transformation of Iran from a pro-Western monarchy to an Islamic republic, with an anti-American posture.

The old correlation of forces that featured in the region for most of the Cold War period and its aftermath is in the process of potentially profound metamorphosis.

As the US predominance has declined in the Middle East, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have competitively stepped up to fill the gap.

Whilst claiming the leadership of the sectarian minority Shia and majority Sunni Islam respectively, the two have sought to widen their foreign policy options and strategic alliances vis-à-vis one another.

In addition to its already close ties with Russia, China and India, Iran is positioning itself for improved relations with the West, the United States in particular.

After more than thirty years of hostility, both Tehran and Washington have found it opportune to smooth out some of their fundamental differences. Iran is badly in need of ending international, US-led, economic sanctions, which have caused widespread hardship for its people.

This was a catalyst in the election of moderate cleric, Hassan Rouhani, to Iran's presidency nearly a year ago.

Certain promising signs of a thaw in US-Iranian relations have already emerged.

An issue that defined the two sides' relations is the dispute over Iran's controversial nuclear program.

After a historic telephone conversation with President Obama in late 2013, Rouhani's efforts resulted in an interim nuclear deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany.

Further negotiations could possibly see the US regain ties with an important oil-rich state, which has been missing in the US regional calculations for more than three decades.

With Iran's strong leverage in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the US could enlist Tehran's help to stabilise Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, to play a more constructive role in the Syrian conflict, and to ward off the growing Russian and Chinese influence in the region. Similarly, Iran could reap enormous economic and technological benefits from improved relations with the US.