Does the US seek an Arab-Iranian “equilibrium?”

American policy in the Middle East has plainly been evolving, but in what direction has been less clear. Analysts have therefore been dutifully reading between the lines of what the risk-averse Obama administration has been doing and saying to try to tease out the new American strategic vision for the region.

Both the administration and the country at large seem ready to reduce the American footprint in the Middle East in favor of other priorities. However, the extent of that drawdown and, more importantly, what is intended to replace it, have been entirely unclear.

These questions became pressing following the American disengagement with Syrian rebels and embrace of the chemical weapons elimination program. When the US led the international community into an interim agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, they became even more so. Yet these moves only hinted at where American strategy might be headed, and raised more questions than they answered.

President Barack Obama, in his own words, has begun to explain what his administration sees as new American strategic policy goals and postures. And they will not please everyone.

In a sweeping overview of the current state of the Obama presidency, David Remnick has provided one of the first pieces of clear explication of where US grand strategy in the region may be headed, or at least where the administration wants to go.

Remnick quotes Obama as saying, bluntly, “If we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion… you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”

This vision isn’t going to mollify the suspicions of those concerned about Arab Gulf security.

In December, I speculated that a “plausible, but still from an Arab point of view alarming, scenario is that the US is seeking to create a balance of power between what amount to Sunni and Shiite regional alliances. Such an equilibrium, this logic holds, would allow the US to start to draw down its own posture in the region and concentrate on the long-ballyhooed ‘pivot to Asia.’”

Some have suggested that the US is toying with a “concert of powers” to ensure Gulf security. Others have speculated that without a major American force in the Gulf region, for the meanwhile only Iran can protect vital shipping lanes and this explains the potential Washington-Tehran rapprochement.

Obama’s emphasis, however, on a regional “equilibrium” – precisely the term I employed to describe a potential formula through which the US might seek to pull back its own role while avoiding broader chaos – is highly suggestive. Obama doesn’t directly say the US is seeking such an equilibrium, but could be seen as implying it.

Moreover, Obama’s notion that the goal is to get Iran “to operate in a responsible fashion” suggests not only an end to bad behavior by Tehran, but also that Iran could then potentially be entrusted with key responsibilities.

This doesn’t mean that the United States sees Iran as a potential ally or a new partner as some have predicted. But it does seem to suggest that if Iran were to modify its behavior regarding nuclear weapons and funding terrorist organizations it could, and perhaps even should, be regarded as a legitimate regional actor with a major role to play in security based on a Sunni-Shiite “equilibrium.”

It’s hard not to extrapolate from this a vision of an Iranian foreign policy that is at ease, rather than at odds, with the regional status quo. And for that, Tehran would surely require its own tacitly-recognized sphere of influence: a so-called “Shiite crescent” beginning in southern Afghanistan and sweeping all the way through to southern Lebanon.

And, of course, the centerpiece of such an axis would be Syria, if not under precisely the present regime, at least under a general Iranian hegemony. Hence, the idea of not only a rapprochement with Iran, but also the development of a regional sectarian “equilibrium,” might also help to explain an otherwise increasingly passive and self-contradictory American approach to Syria.

Those of us who have worried that US policymakers have come to see Syria-related issues as a subset of the Iran file will be concerned by the potential implications of Obama’s comments to Remnick.

But none of this should be overstated. Obama’s comments may have been off-the-cuff or taken out of context, and are so brief and cursory as to be easily open to misinterpretation.

But since this is the first serious attempt that I am aware of by a senior administration official to explain, in public, what the emerging US vision of a new regional order in the Middle East might be, some additional clarification and reassurances would be both wise and welcome.