Future Middle East Conflicts Won’t Be Iran vs. Arab States
(By Vali Nasr – March 2, 2021 - Foreign Policy)
VALI NASR is Majid Khadduri Professor of International Affairs and Middle East Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
For more than two decades, the United States has seen the politics of the Middle East as a tug of war between moderation and radicalism—Arabs against Iran. But for the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, it was blind to different, more profound fissures growing among 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 U.S. help. But Arab states have been sliding deeper into paralysis and chaos since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, followed by the failed Arab Spring, leading to new fault lines. Indeed, the competition most likely to shape the Middle East is no longer between Arab states and Israel or Sunnis and Shiites—but among the three non-Arab rivals.
The emerging competitions for power and influence have become severe enough to disrupt the post-World War I order, when the Ottoman Empire was split into shards that European powers picked up as they sought to control the region. Although fractured and under Europe’s thumb, the Arab world was the political heart of the Middle East. European rule deepened cleavages of ethnicity and sects and shaped rivalries and battle lines that have survived to this day. The colonial experience also animated Arab nationalism, which swept across the region after World War II and placed the Arab world at the heart of U.S. strategy in the Middle East.
All of that is now changing. The Arab moment has passed. It is now the non-Arab powers that are ascendant, and it is the Arabs who are feeling threatened as Iran expands its reach into the region and the United States reduces its commitment. Last year, after Iran was identified as responsible for attacks on tankers and oil installations in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi cited the Iranian threat as a reason to forge a historic peace deal with Israel.
But that peace deal is as much a bulwark against Turkey as it is against Iran. Rather than set the region on a new course toward peace, as the Trump administration claimed, the deal signals an intensification of rivalry among Arabs, Iranians, Israelis, and Turks that the previous administration failed to take into consideration. In fact, it could lead to larger and more dangerous regional arms races and wars that the United States neither wants nor can afford to get entangled in. So, it behooves U.S. foreign policy to try to contain rather than stoke this new regional power rivalry.
Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear capability and its use of clients and proxies to influence the Arab world and attack U.S. interests and Israel are now familiar. What is new is Turkey’s emergence as an unpredictable disrupter of stability across a much larger region. No longer envisioning a future in the West, Turkey is now more decidedly embracing its Islamic past, looking past lines and borders drawn a century ago. Its claim to the influence it had in the onetime 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 is pushing back against Iran’s influence in both Damascus and Baghdad. Turkey has increased military operations against Kurds in Iraq and accused Iran of giving refuge to Turkey’s Kurdish nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Turkey has inserted itself in Libya’s civil war and most recently intervened decisively in the dispute in the Caucasus between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Officials in Ankara are also eyeing expanded roles in the Horn of Africa, and in Lebanon, while Arab rulers worry about Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its claim to have a say in Arab politics.
Each of the three non-Arab states has justified such encroachments as necessary for security, but there are also economic motivations—for example, access to the Iraqi market for Iran or pole positions for Israel and Turkey in harnessing the rich gas fields in the Mediterranean seabed.
Predictably, Turkish expansionism runs up against Iranian regional interests in the Levant and the Caucasus in ways that evoke Turkey’s imperial past. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent recitation of a poem lamenting the division of historic Azerbaijan—the southern part of which now lies inside Iran—during a triumphant visit to Baku invited a sharp rebuke from Iran’s leaders. This was not an isolated misstep.
Erdogan has been for some time suggesting that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was wrong to give up Ottoman Arab territories as far south as Mosul. In reviving Turkish interest in those territories, Erdogan is claiming greater patriotism than that of the founder of modern Turkey and making clear that he is breaking with the Kemalist legacy in asserting Turkish prerogatives in the Middle East.
In the Caucasus, as in Syria, Turkish and Iranian interests are interwoven with those of Russia. The Kremlin’s interest in the Middle East is expanding, not only in conflicts in Libya, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh but also on the diplomatic scene from OPEC to Afghanistan. Moscow maintains close ties with all of the region’s key actors, sometimes tilting in favour of one and then the other. It has used this balancing act to expand its advantage. What it wants from the Middle East remains unclear, but with U.S. attention on the wane, Moscow’s complex web of ties is poised to play an outsized role in shaping the region’s future.
Israel, too, has expanded its footprint in the Arab world. In 2019, Trump recognized Israel’s half-century-old claim to the Golan Heights, which it seized from Syria in 1967, and now Israeli leaders are planning out loud to expand their borders by formally annexing parts of the West Bank. But the Abraham Accords suggest that the Arabs are looking past all of that to shore up their own position. They want to compensate for America’s dwindling interest in the Middle East with an alliance with Israel against Iran and Turkey. They see in Israel a crutch to keep them in the great game for regional influence.
The tensions between Iran and Israel have escalated markedly in recent years as Iran has reached farther into the Arab world. The two are now engaged in a war of attrition, in Syria and in cyberspace. Israel has also targeted Iran’s nuclear and missile programs directly and has been blamed most recently for the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist.
But the scramble for the Middle East is not just about Iran. Turkey’s relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt have been deteriorating for a decade. Just as Iran supports Hamas against Israel, Turkey has followed suit but has also angered Arab rulers by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey’s current regional posture—extending into Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and the Horn of Africa while staunchly defending Qatar and the Tripoli government in Libya’s civil war—is in direct conflict with policies pursued by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt.
This all suggests that the driving force in the Middle East is no longer ideology or religion but old-fashioned realpolitik. If Israel boosts the Saudi-Emirati position, those who feel threatened by it, like Qatar or Oman, can be expected to rely on Iran and Turkey for protection. But if the Israeli-Arab alignment will give Iran and Turkey reason to make common cause, Turkey’s aggressive posture in the Caucasus and Iraq could become a worry for Iran. Turkey’s military support for Azerbaijan now aligns with Israel’s support for Baku, and Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have found themselves in agreement worrying about the implications of Turkey’s successful maneuver in that conflict.
As these overlapping rivalries crisscross the region, competitions are likely to become more unpredictable, as will the pattern of tactical alliances. In turn, that might invite meddling by Russia, which has already proved adept at exploiting the region’s fissures to its advantage. China, too, may follow suit; its talk of strategic partnership with Iran and nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia may well be just the opening act. The United States thinks of China in terms of the Pacific, but the Middle East abuts China’s western frontier, and it is through that gateway that Beijing’s will pursue its vision for a Eurasian zone of influence.
The Biden administration could play a key role in reducing tensions by encouraging regional dialogue and—when possible—use its influence to end conflicts and repair relations. In response to change in Washington, feuding adversaries are signaling a truce, and that provides the new administration with an opportunity.
Although relations with Turkey have frayed, it remains a NATO ally. Washington should focus on improving ties between not just Israel and Turkey but also among Turkey and Saudi Arabia and UAE—and that means pushing Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to truly mend ties with Qatar. The Gulf rivals have declared a truce, but fundamental issues that divided them persist, and unless those are fully resolved, their differences could cause another breach.
Iran is a harder problem. U.S. officials will have to first contend with the future of the nuclear deal, but sooner rather than later Tehran and Washington will have to talk about Iran’s expansionist push in the broader region and its ballistic missiles. Washington should encourage its Arab allies, too, to embrace this approach and also engage Iran. Ultimately reining in Iran’s proxies and limiting its missiles can be achieved through regional arms control and building a regional security architecture. The United States should facilitate and support that process, but regional actors have to embrace it.
The Middle East is at the edge of a precipice, and whether the future is peaceful hinges on what course the United States follows. If the Biden administration wants to avoid endless U.S. engagements in the Middle East, it must counter-intuitively invest more time and diplomatic resources in the region now. If Washington wants to do less in the Middle East in the future, it has to first do more to achieve a modicum of stability. It has to start by taking a broader view of regional dynamics and making the lessening of new regional power rivalries its priority.