BERLIN – The “new” Middle East is now on daily display. Unlike the old Middle East, whose fate was determined by the dominant Western powers (the United Kingdom and France after World War I, and the United States from the 1940s until recently), the new one has no external hegemon to stabilize it. And, without a dominant regional power, a dangerous strategic vacuum has emerged.
The US, quite obviously, is no longer willing – or able – to play its old role. Though America will not withdraw its armed forces from the region completely, direct military intervention, especially with ground troops, is not tenable, given the debacle in Iraq. America will not be a military player so long as the region’s strategic balance is not called into question in a fundamental way (which explains US airstrikes on the Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria). Apart from this, the US is now operating at the level of diplomacy to resolve, or at least contain, a fundamental strategic threat – the danger posed by the Iranian nuclear program.
Various state and non-state actors have been trying to fill the void created by America’s newfound caution, with most of the latter dependent on the support of regional powers, and two in particular: Iran and Saudi Arabia. These countries’ struggle for regional supremacy is now playing out on proxy battlefields in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and, now, Yemen. Indeed, the Houthi rebellion in Yemen marks a new phase in the broader regional conflict. Not only is it occurring in the south of the Arabian Peninsula, directly on Saudi Arabia’s borders; the kingdom’s direct military intervention has brought its strategic rivalry with Iran into the open.
As always in the Middle East, religious and ethnic factors play a large role in this rivalry. The Shia-Sunni divide within Islam is being reflected in the region’s geopolitics. Moreover, whereas Iran is a Shia country, the overwhelming majority of Arabs are Sunni, reinforcing the salience of Iran’s ethnic distinctiveness.
Geopolitical interests, religious sectarianism, and ethnicity thus form a dangerous mélange in the new Middle East. And, because history has shown that outside military intervention can neither solve nor even contain such conflicts, the regional powers will have to sort this out among themselves, which is far easier said than done. It will entail a long phase of largely unpredictable violence, which implies a high risk of escalation, even toward global conflict; and it will most likely result in humanitarian disasters on the order of what is happening in Syria today.
Even barring escalation beyond the Middle East, significant economic dangers are also likely, given the region’s energy reserves and thus its importance to the global economy. World oil prices are de facto determined on the Arabian Peninsula and by the countries of the adjacent Gulf region, and this will not change anytime soon.
In terms of international security, a long-term fight for regional dominance will increase the threat of global terrorism, as both sides are using extremist groups that seek to legitimize their actions in religious terms. An even greater danger is that the key players in this conflict seek to arm themselves with nuclear weapons. A nuclear arms race in a region characterized by long-term instability would be a global nightmare.
So it is no accident that, concurrently with the regional powers’ direct military confrontation in Yemen, the international community, led by the US, has been trying to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran. The framework agreement that has now resulted from these talks, which have been taking place off and on for 12 years (and in which I participated for a time) is intended to bring Iran’s nuclear program under international supervision, thereby containing the risk to regional and global stability. In exchange, international economic sanctions on Iran are to be lifted.
America’s agenda is now arousing massive criticism from its close allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia. But such criticism is based on illusionary aims. Acceding to it would merely ensure further escalation of the conflict with Iran, which will never completely abandon its nuclear technology and nuclear activities. The only realistic option to prevent a nuclear arms race in the region is international supervision – as far-reaching and as comprehensive as possible.
But this goal, even if achieved, would satisfy neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia, both of which fear that any agreement would support Iran in its effort to establish its regional dominance. So the end result could be a de facto change of regional strategic partners by the US – a development that in fact is already becoming apparent in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq.
Iran’s strategy in all of this has not been very clever: its military interventions in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen entail major risks. That became apparent with the recent formation of a pan-Arab military force, which is clearly directed against Iran and should give its leaders reason to rethink their policy.
The new Middle East needs neither a nuclear arms race nor religious hatred, and it also does not need a foreign policy based on military intervention. Rather, it requires the strength to sit down together and negotiate, and to develop systems of collective security that do serve the legitimate interests of all parties involved. Without diplomacy and the willingness to work toward viable mutual understandings, as has just happened with the framework agreement negotiated with Iran, the new Middle East will remain the powder keg of world politics – one whose fuse has already been lit.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2015.
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