The Middle East security order should not be determined by the Arab states and Israel alone and should not be dictated by the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Ignoring other very important players, mainly Iran and Turkey, could result in a new cold war in the region, especially as Israel and some of the Arab countries see Iran as a national security threat while Syria and Iraq and the Kurds (with their statehood in mind) look suspiciously at Turkey’s regional policy.
A regional cold war would be nothing new to the Middle East as the region lived through wars, wars by proxy, and cold wars during most of the second half of the 20th century.
However, today there is a clear shift in the balance of power in the Middle East, mainly since Russia got involved directly in the Syrian conflict in 2016. Taking the Russian input into account, the scene may bring us back to the days of the Cold War itself. Russian troops are already on the ground in Syria, as well as at sea and in the air, and they are acting against terrorist groups and enforcing the rule of the regime headed by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
The Americans are not far away and are also present in Iraq and Syria. The Turks and the Iranians are deepening their positions, sighting future gains and calculating each other’s moves. Some Arab Gulf states are also involved, though their borders are some distance away from the conflict and they have their own proxies fighting their cause with their support of fighters, funds and weapons.
These things make the Syrian conflict interesting and its results decisive for the shaping of the future of the region as a whole. Many interconnected and complicated regional issues are at stake in the conflict in Syria, whose end still looks some distance away.
This article will not discuss the role of the Russia of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Middle East, as this deserves an article of its own. Instead, it will discuss the approach of the Arab states and Iran to each other, shedding light on the impact of the situation on these relations.
This approach may lead to the need for a fresh look and rapprochement between the two. The danger of failing to do so is that it could open the region not only towards a new cold war but also towards potential worldwide military confrontation. The Middle East today is one of the world’s three hotspots that could one day ignite to become the Third World War.
The two other hotspots are Ukraine and the South China Sea. However, in these places the world powers and quality diplomacy may put a brake on any escalation of the conflict. Germany and the European countries are very likely to oppose any hotter confrontation in Crimea and Ukraine, and even the American military may disagree with it as more voices in the United States are now calling for Ukraine to become a buffer zone or a bridge for mutual cooperation rather than a war front between NATO and Russia.
In the South China Sea, the US and its regional allies will have to think twice before dragging the maritime dispute there towards a hotter confrontation. China, on the other hand, though it has made it crystal clear that it will not allow any power to dispute its sovereignty in the region, is playing a very cautious game. Nobody knows when one of the powers involved may dare to test the waters. This leaves us with the conclusion that the Middle East is the most exposed and most vulnerable of the world’s three danger zones.
US foreign policy in the region is still under review, and the new administration in Washington has not decided on any of the very sensitive issues there. The Arab Gulf states are worried, however, and Israel is trying to exploit these worries the most. The Israeli strategy is to push the so-called Sunni Arab countries into a confrontation with Iran, making a new cold war at least imminent.
It can be assumed that the Arab Gulf states are incapable of defending themselves, and in fact this is not far from reality and these fragile states will always look out for and seek foreign assistance. Historically, they have relied on the British, then the Americans, but against the rise of Iran they feel more vulnerable and exposed to external threats. They are seeking to face their feelings of insecurity by three complementary options.
First, they wish to cement and fortify their relations with Egypt. Second, they wish to strengthen their alliance with the US. And third, they wish to explore the possibility of forging a new alliance with Israel.
FALSE STEPS: This is a dreadful way of looking at the security dilemma in the Middle East. In fact, as I wrote earlier in this newspaper, “not only has the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] region lacked an adequate defence system, so has the whole area stretching from North Africa to the East Mediterranean. Since the British withdrawal from East of Suez in 1971, the area has failed to create a common defence system.”
I added in the same article that “responding to GCC fears, theoretically there may be many options or alternatives. The most effective one, and perhaps the best from the GCC point of view, is for the two parties (the GCC and the US) to set up a bilateral security pact, or perhaps through NATO, the only credible security pact on earth so far. The NATO option is almost impossible to be established on the basis of Article 5 (any attack on one member is an attack on all), but it may be possible for all parties to hammer out an agreement loosely based on Article 5.”
However, to the dissatisfaction of the Arab Gulf states, the US establishment including the military is not in favour of such an option. That was reconfirmed by the Americans at two US-GCC summits in May 2015 (at Camp David in the US) and April 2016 (in Riyadh).
Iran is also vulnerable. The country’s sovereignty has been compromised as Russian fighter planes stationed at the Hamadan Air Base in Iran are outside Iranian control, and Russian missiles are cruising through Iranian air space to hit targets in Syria. Without Russian support, Iran would not be able to meet the cost of its military activities in the region. The slogan of a “resistance economy” is just an empty shell of conservative politics.
The people of Iran will soon realise that peace with themselves and with their neighbours is the best way forward and is the way towards progress and prosperity. Moreover, Al-Assad feels more gratitude to Russia, which is becoming his most important strategic ally, than he does to Iran. In the end, there is a limit to what Iranian power can do in an open confrontation with the Americans.
The struggle between the hardliners in Iran and the more realistic moderates and reformists (the pro-state political camp) will continue for some time, but sooner or later the pro-revolution political current in Iran will recede and give way to the pro-state camp and will let go of the radical slogans that still colour Iran’s foreign policy, especially the policy of exporting the Iranian model to the rest of the Muslim world.
Perhaps in fewer than 10 years from now the generation of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran will be gone, and the inevitable internal power struggle will not result in favour of the hardliners.
History is the best guide to this assumption. It should be remembered that revolutionaries such as Leon Trotsky, Che Guevara, and Gamal Abdel-Nasser all gave way to the rise of pro-state politicians such as Lenin, Fidel Castro and Anwar Al-Sadat. Militant Iranians will not be there forever, so Iran as a whole should not be reduced to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. There should also be caution about dealing with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as a revolutionary militant. He has been working hard to strike a balance between the revolutionary and pro-state camps in Iran, and the death of veteran politician Hashemi Rafsanjani earlier this year may push him closer to the middle ground.
The Arabs and Iranians need to review the basis of their relations with each other. The forthcoming presidential elections in Iran may prove to be a new landmark in Iranian history.
My last word here is from Omani wisdom. Omani leader Sultan Qaboos rightly believes that Iran is a fact of the region by virtue of geography, history, politics and culture. It will not go away, and no one can cut it off from the region. As a result, the Arabs should look for another approach towards Iran, one based on openness, engagement, mutual respect and cooperation.
The writer is former senior political affairs officer at the UNDPA.