July 24, 2017
The competition between Tehran and Riyadh for regional supremacy attracts a lot of international attention. Precision forecasts in today’s turbulent and unpredictable Middle East remain risky. However, in retrospect, one cannot but observe that the trend has been Iran’s ascendancy particularly since the coming to power of President Rouhani and his choice of Javad Zarif as foreign minister.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the First Gulf War, US intervention in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 paved the way for Iran’s rise as a regional power. This is not to say that Iran was not one before. But it was isolated; its economy was stagnating under sanctions as the people of Iran tried to absorb the punishment. Nonetheless, Iran and the US cooperated in Afghanistan. Arab Spring turmoil, developments in Iraq and Syria in particular, presented Iran with new challenges as well as opportunities. Iranian influence in Iraq appeared to take a downturn with the ouster of the Maliki government in August 2014 but the fight against ISIS made Iran a de facto ally of the anti-ISIS coalition and the pressure on Damascus gradually lessened. Surely, the balance sheet of the Syrian conflict for each regional country is yet to be written but some are already in the red like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon with millions of refugees as well as security problems.
On March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia supported by the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar started air strikes against the Houthis under “Operation Decisive Storm”.
A day after the first air strikes against the Houthis, the Washington Post reported that according to Mustafa Alani of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, the strikes were the culmination of years of humiliating Iranian expansion throughout the Middle East that has seen Sunni influence shrink at the expense of Iran and its allies, and Saudi interests seemingly abandoned by the United States. “It started with Lebanon, then Syria, then Iraq and now Yemen. It’s like a domino, and Yemen is the first attempt to stop the domino… Now there is an awakening in the region, a counter-strategy, and Yemen is the testing ground. It is not just about Yemen, it is about changing the balance of power in the region,” he said. Today, the war in Yemen has turned into a major humanitarian disaster and a source of embarrassment for Saudi Arabia.
On July 14, 2015, less than four months after the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, the P5+1 and Iran adopted the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The nuclear deal elevated Iran’s standing further. The Trump administration grudgingly certified to the Congress last week that Iran has continues to meet its obligations under the JCPOA. However, it also announced new sanctions against Iran for its “malign activities across the Middle East”.
On June 5, 2017 Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed diplomatic relations with Qatar over allegations of support for terrorism, bringing to light another division within Arab ranks. Although the anti-Qatar bloc signaled a “softening” of its demands last week, an ebb and flow pattern of tension and attempts at a palace coup in Doha cannot be discarded.
At present, there is no single Arab country to counter-balance Iran. As a matter of fact, Iran’s rise is also a function of Arab disarray. With Iraq and Syria now only shadows of their former selves the Arab heartland is gone. Egypt under military rule hardly offers any inspiration. It faces serious economic problems. Saudi Arabia despite difficulties still enjoys considerable economic power and the custodianship of Islam’s holiest shrines gives Riyadh a special status but these do not add up to strong regional leadership. Like other Gulf countries it has internal undercurrents which cause the ruling dynasty concern. Thus, while others have been wary about Iran’s ascendancy and calling upon the US to do something, Tehran has pursued its own agenda without seeking others’ support.
The Arab League was founded on March 22, 1945 but the Arab world always remained divided. After seventy years, at the end of March 2015, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi who hosted an Arab summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, announced that the leaders had agreed in principle to form a pan-Arab force and that a high-level committee would be formed to work out the details. Egyptian officials reportedly said at the time that the force was to include up to 40,000 elite troops backed up by fighter jets and warships although it wasn’t clear how many of the League’s 22 members were prepared to contribute to the proposed force. It still isn’t. Had such a force existed it could have taken on ISIS at a much earlier date and save Mosul from becoming a ghost city. And unless the Iraqi leadership can reunite the country through national reconciliation, the “total victory” claimed by Prime Minister al-Abadi in Mosul may prove to be a pyrrhic one.
If Arab countries are uncomfortable with Iran’s growing power they either have to collectively offer a counter-weight or seek accommodation through genuine dialogue which no doubt is the better option. In both cases, they would need to put the Arab spring turmoil behind through national dialogue, political and social reform and revive Arab identity not in a spirit of confrontation but of cooperation and progress. This is essential if Iraq and Syria are to have a future. Because then, Iran would also have to take a more constructive attitude towards its regional responsibilities.
President Obama, in his long interview with Jeffrey Goldberg published in the April 2016 issue of the Atlantic, while admitting that Iran engages in all kinds of destructive behavior, said that his view had never been that the US should throw its traditional allies—the Saudis—“overboard in favor of Iran.” But he went on to say that the Saudis need to “share” the Middle East with their Iranian foes. “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen—requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace,” he said. Perhaps, this was also a message to Prime Minister Netanyahu who bitterly opposed the Iran nuclear deal, challenged President Obama before the US Congress and since then has been striving for a broad anti-Iran regional coalition that would also help Israel normalize relations with the Gulf states.
Reuters reported yesterday that the Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit warned Israel that it was “playing with fire” over the “red line” of Jerusalem and that the foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting on Wednesday over Israeli-Palestinian violence. Isn’t one entitled to ask, “Very well Mr. Secretary General, but where were you during the last six years when entire the Middle East was on fire?”
On July 12, Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi was in Tehran for talks with the Iranian leadership continuing with his country’s ceaseless diplomatic efforts to promote regional stability through dialogue. Last Friday he was in Washington. For these efforts, Oman should be applauded by all and those in the region should follow the example.
In the wake of Saudi-led airstrikes against Yemen, Turkey was among the countries to blame Iran for its efforts to dominate the Middle East. But, all of a sudden Ankara has found itself on the same side of the Qatar conflict with Tehran. Turkey’s individual response to Iran’s rise could simply have been remaining on the democratic path. Because, that would have greatly strengthened the hand of those favoring reform in Iran.
Ten days ago, it was the first anniversary the failure of the coup attempt of the last year, a black page in Turkish history. Some tried to find similarities between the defeat of the coupists and the defeat of the Allies, the victors of the First World War in Gallipoli. A newspaper carried the headline “rebirth of a nation” probably “inspired” by the title of the Lord Kinross’ book “Ataturk: The Rebirth of a Nation”. It is clear that ideological obsessions of the ruling Justice and Development Party will forever prevent it from admitting that what put Turkey ahead of other regional countries for decades was our War of Independence under Ataturk’s leadership, the far-reaching reforms undertaken by him and his “peace at home, peace in the world” policy. Now, we are part of the Middle East, polarized, backsliding and fighting everybody.
July 24, 2017