Time for a U.S. Middle East U-Turn

Keeping Russia and Iran out of the Middle Eastern security architecture has cost stability.

While the U.S.-Russian agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons is a positive development, the danger of an outside military intervention in Syria has not yet been averted, and the wider problem of how to bring to an end the Syrian civil war remains. In this context, given the continuing threat of a wider regional war in the Middle East, and mounting international tensions more generally, a review of the entire Western policy towards the region is clearly in order.

In the wake of the chemical weapons attack on August 21 near Damascus, we have been told that the ‘international community’ cannot stand idly by in face of this monstrous atrocity and blatant disregard for international norms. In response to the attack, the United States, Britain, France, and others were quick to call for some kind of military response. What is far less clear is what any military intervention in Syria was meant to achieve in the first place, aside from, in the words of Giles Fraser writing in the Guardian, ‘satisfying our own sense of retributive morality, and one that has become blurred with a large dollop of action-hero crap.’ And even a limited military engagement would have carried significant risks.

So what are the roots and sources of all this mess?

Much of what has gone so terribly wrong in the Middle East, including in Syria, over the past few years must be attributed to the longstanding regional cold war between Saudi Arabia, the Sunni Arab Gulf states and Israel (and more recently also including Jordan, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood) on the one hand, and Shiite Iran and its regional proxies on the other, as well as to the active support of this Sunni-Israeli axis by the United States and the West. This cold war has significantly heated up since the American overthrow of the Sunni-dominated Baath regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Together with the divisive and destabilising effects of the so-called Arab Spring and the rapid regional ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood, this ongoing conflict is now threatening to tear the entire region apart.

So given all the dangers associated with the conflict in Syria and the deterioration of the regional security environment more generally, a reappraisal of western policy in the Middle East as a whole might be in order. To be clear, the existing policy has indeed been rather coherent. Its core elements, as has already been alluded to, have been to support Israel, Turkey, and the Sunni Arab states in their regional contest with Iran, to break up the so-called Shiite crescent of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. But why was this policy adopted in the first place? It appears that the desire to rollback Iran’s regional influence and ultimately affect regime change in Iran among some circles in the United States and elsewhere is so great, for reasons that go well beyond Iran’s refusal to cave in to western demands to abolish its nuclear program, that a policy towards the entire region has been fashioned on it.

One key factor behind this policy has been the increasing global competition between the United States as well as Russia and China, both close allies of Iran, and the faltering of U.S. global hegemony. Competing pipeline projects, the role of energy prices, the future of the petrodollar system, and ultimately even the continued international role of the dollar all play a role in this regard. Would sanctions as well as international pressure on Iran be lifted and Iran, supported by Russia and China, be allowed to pursue its intended pipeline projects in the Middle East and South Asia, this would provide Iran, and by extension Russia, with a huge strategic victory over the United States, shift the regional balance of power decisively in Iran’s favour, and further increase Russia’s stranglehold over European energy supplies, while simultaneously weakening OPEC and Saudi Arabia’s influence over international energy markets. On the other hand, this whole policy has been very detrimental to international security and in conjunction with other U.S. policies, while having allowed it to postpone, for now, the inevitable global economic and political readjustments that are clearly on the horizon, does not provide any long-term answers to the problems the United States and the West more generally are facing.

It is with the recognition that western policies in the Middle East are intrinsically linked to wider questions concerning the future of the West and world order that an alternative policy in the Middle East should be seriously considered. The core of such a policy would be a U.S. rapprochement with Iran and Russia and the construction of a new security architecture in the Middle East underwritten by the combined power of the United States, Russia, and the EU. Ideally, it would also involve a wider regional reconciliation, especially between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran, or, alternatively, the fashioning of a new regional alliance centred on Iran, Turkey and Egypt to replace the Sunni-Israeli alliance of today.

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