Future conflicts in the Middle East will not be Iran versus Arab states

March 2, 2021 at 11:01 am

For more than two decades, the United States has viewed Middle Eastern politics as a standoff between moderation and radicalism – Arabs against Iran. But during Donald Trump’s four-year presidency, he was blind to different and deeper rifts developing between the region’s three non-Arab powers: Iran, Israel, and Turkey.

For the quarter century after the Suez Crisis of 1956, Iran, Israel and Turkey joined forces to strike a balance against the Arab world with the help of the United States. But the Arab states have been sinking more and more into paralysis and chaos since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, followed by the failure of the Arab Spring, leading to new fault lines. Indeed, the competition most likely to shape the Middle East is no longer between the Arab states and Israel or between the Sunnis and the Shiites – but between the three non-Arab rivals.

The emerging competitions for power and influence became severe enough to disrupt the postwar order, when the Ottoman Empire was divided into fragments that European powers scooped up as they sought to control the region. Although fractured and under the thumb of Europe, the Arab world was the political heart of the Middle East. European domination deepened ethnic and sectarian divides and shaped the rivalries and battle lines that have survived to this day. The colonial experience also animated Arab nationalism, which swept the region after World War II and placed the Arab world at the heart of US strategy in the Middle East.

This is all about to change. The Arab moment has passed. It is now the non-Arab powers that are on the rise, and it is the Arabs who feel threatened as Iran expands its reach in the region and the United States reduces its engagement. Last year, after Iran was identified as responsible for attacks on tankers and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi cited the Iranian threat as the reason for concluding a landmark peace deal. with Israel.

But this peace agreement is as much a bulwark against Turkey as against Iran. Rather than setting the region on a new path to peace, as the Trump administration claimed, the deal signals an intensification of rivalry between Arabs, Iranians, Israelis and Turks that the previous administration did. was not taken into account. In fact, it could lead to bigger and more dangerous regional arms races and wars in which the United States neither wants nor can afford to interfere. It is therefore up to US foreign policy to try to contain rather than stir up this new regional power rivalry.

Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capability and its use of clients and proxies to influence the Arab world and attack US and Israel interests are now familiar. What is new is the emergence of Turkey as an unpredictable troublemaker of stability in a much larger region. No longer envisioning a future in the West, Turkey is now embracing its Islamic past more resolutely, looking beyond the lines and borders drawn a century ago. Her claim to the influence she wielded in the former domains of the Ottoman Empire can no longer be dismissed as rhetoric. Turkish ambition is now a force to be reckoned with.

For example, Turkey now occupies parts of Syria, has influence in Iraq, and pushes Iran’s influence back in Damascus and Baghdad. Turkey has stepped up its military operations against the Kurds in Iraq and accused Iran of giving refuge to the Turkish Kurdish enemy, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Turkey has inserted itself into the civil war in Libya and recently intervened decisively in the Caucasian dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Ankara officials are also considering expanding roles in the Horn of Africa and Lebanon, while Arab leaders worry about Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its claim to have a say in it. Arab politics.

Each of the three non-Arab states has justified these encroachments as necessary for security, but there are also economic motivations – for example, access to the Iraqi market for Iran or the poles for Israel and Turkey in the exploitation of the rich gas fields of the Mediterranean. seabed.

As might be expected, Turkish expansionism clashes with Iranian regional interests in the Levant and the Caucasus in a way that evokes Turkey’s imperial past. Recent of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recitation of a poem lamenting the division of historic Azerbaijan – the southern part of which is now inside Iran – during a triumphant visit to Baku drew a sharp rebuke from Iranian leaders. It was not an isolated misstep.

Erdogan has been suggesting for some time that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was wrong to abandon the Ottoman Arab territories as far south as Mosul. By reviving Turkish interest in these territories, Erdogan claims a patriotism greater than that of the founder of modern Turkey and clearly indicates that he is breaking with the Kemalist heritage by asserting Turkish prerogatives in the Middle East.

In the Caucasus, as in Syria, Turkish and Iranian interests are closely linked with those of Russia. The Kremlin’s interest in the Middle East is growing, not only in the conflicts in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, but also in OPEC’s diplomatic arena in Afghanistan. Moscow maintains close ties with all the key players in the region, sometimes leaning in favor of one and then the other. He used this balancing exercise to extend his advantage. What he expects from the Middle East remains uncertain, but with US attention on the decline, Moscow’s intricate web of ties are poised to play an outsized role in shaping the future of the United States. region.

Israel has also expanded its footprint in the Arab world. In 2019, Trump acknowledged Israel’s half-century-old claim to the Golan Heights, which he seized from Syria in 1967, and now Israeli leaders are loudly planning to expand their borders into formally annexing parts of the West Bank. But the Abrahamic Accords suggest that the Arabs are looking beyond all this to consolidate their own position. They want to offset America’s waning interest in the Middle East with an alliance with Israel against Iran and Turkey. They see Israel as a crutch to keep them in the big game of regional influence.

Tensions between Iran and Israel have intensified dramatically in recent years, as Iran has moved further into the Arab world. The two are now engaged in a war of attrition, in Syria and in cyberspace. Israel has also directly targeted Iran’s nuclear and missile programs and has recently been blamed for the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist.

But the Middle East rush isn’t just about Iran. Turkey’s relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have deteriorated for a decade. Just as Iran supports Hamas against Israel, Turkey has followed suit but has also angered Arab leaders by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey’s current regional position – stretching as far as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and the Horn of Africa while firmly defending Qatar and the government in Tripoli in the Libyan civil war – is in direct conflict with the policies of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

All of this suggests that the driving force in the Middle East is no longer ideology or religion but old-fashioned realpolitik. If Israel strengthens the Saudi-Emirati position, we can expect those who feel threatened, like Qatar or Oman, to rely on Iran and Turkey for protection. But if the Arab-Israeli alignment gives Iran and Turkey a reason to join forces, Turkey’s aggressive posture in the Caucasus and Iraq could become a concern for Iran. Turkey’s military support for Azerbaijan now aligns with Israel’s support for Baku, and Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have all come together, worrying about the implications of Turkey’s successful maneuver in this conflict.

As these overlapping rivalries crisscross the region, the competitions are likely to become more unpredictable, as is the pattern of tactical alliances. In turn, this could invite interference from Russia, which has already shown itself adept at exploiting the region’s cracks to its advantage. China can also follow its example; his speech on a strategic partnership with Iran and a nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia might just be the opening act. The United States thinks of China in terms of the Pacific, but the Middle East borders China’s western border, and it is through this gateway that Beijing will pursue its vision of a Eurasian zone of influence. .

The Biden administration could play a key role in reducing tensions by encouraging regional dialogue and – where possible – using its influence to end conflicts and mend relationships. In response to the change in Washington, rival adversaries signal a truce, giving the new administration an opportunity.

Although relations with Turkey have frayed, it remains a NATO ally. Washington should focus on improving ties not only between Israel and Turkey, but also between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – and that means pushing Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to genuinely reestablish ties with Qatar. . Rivals in the Gulf have declared a truce, but the fundamental issues that divided them persist and, unless fully resolved, their differences could cause another breach.

Iran is a more difficult problem. US officials will first have to face the future of the nuclear deal, but sooner or later Tehran and Washington will have to talk about Iran’s expansionist push into the wider region and its ballistic missiles. Washington should also encourage its Arab allies to take this approach and engage Iran as well. Ultimately, it is possible to subdue Iran’s proxies and limit its missiles through regional arms control and the construction of a regional security architecture. The United States should facilitate and support this process, but regional actors must embrace it.

The Middle East is on the brink of a precipice, and whether the future is peaceful depends on which direction the United States takes. If the Biden administration is to avoid endless U.S. engagements in the Middle East, it must now invest more diplomatic time and resources in the region in a counterintuitive fashion. If Washington wants to do less in the Middle East in the future, it must first do more to achieve a minimum of stability. It must begin by adopting a broader vision of regional dynamics and making the reduction of new regional rivalries for power its priority.

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