Tuesday, February 23, 2021

The State of Play in the Middle East

The proprietor of the Geopolitical Futures site, George Friedman is always thoughtful and always analytic. Thus, we pay special attention to his analysis of the current state of play of Mideast policy, with a particular emphasis on the Biden administration wish to return to the Iran nuclear deal.

Friedman argues that, despite Biden’s manifest wish to return to the days of Obama, realities on the ground have changed so significantly that this is not going to be very easy or even very possible. By his lights, reality, not campaign promises determine policy.

Of course, he might have mentioned that Biden is filling some of the top ranks of his administration with anti-Israel activists, and they might just be dumb enough to ignore reality, in order to favor their ideology.

As we have often noted, Donald Trump engineered a major strategic realignment in the Middle East. In general, it is comprised in the Abraham Accords, but it has also initiated a markedly hostile attitude toward Iran, one that had brought that nation to its knees. 

Trump also sought to decrease Iran’s foreign operations, or at least increase the cost, by supporting a system of relations, beginning with Israel and the United Arab Emirates and expanding to other countries, that was designed to both isolate Iran and limit its ability to play off one Arab country against another. By the end of the Trump administration, the map of the region had shifted, and with it Iran’s position. Its economy was in steep decline, the hostility of the Arab world was consolidated, and the assumption was that between coalitions and economic costs, the Iranian political and military operations in the Arab world would decline, something not yet clearly visible. But economic weakness and a degree of political unrest in Iran are obvious.

However much Biden might want to return to the past, the Middle East today is not as it was during the Obama administration:

The Middle East is at the moment a radically different place than it was at Obama’s or Trump’s point of decision. The coalition that was formed had the American imprimatur, even if the mechanics of the creation were primarily in the hands of local powers. But now Biden must consider not only the nuclear deal and Iran but also the effects on the way in which recognition of Israel formed a coalition that even countries that have not formally recognized Israel are part of. The foundation of this organization arises from hostility to Iran, and the fear that when it reemerges, its power will swamp the region. Israel fears Iran’s nuclear weapons, the Saudis fear Iranian drones and Iranian proxies in Yemen, and so on. On the whole, these countries welcomed Trump’s revision of Obama’s approach for the reasons given.

An Iranian recovery will be seen not only as a threat to Israel, but, more significantly a threat to the Sunni Arab powers in the region. Of course, the Biden administration has begun trying to empower the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, and also to diminish Saudi Arabia by slandering its leader, Mohammed bin Salman.

As for what would happen if Biden returns to the Obama policy, Friedman explains:

The inclination of Biden, given the American political process, is to reinstitute Obama’s strategy and repudiate Trump’s. But the problem is that a return to Obama’s strategy, with the withdrawal of sanctions, would reasonably quickly revive the Iranian economy, strengthen the Iranian hardliners who refused to bend in the face of Trump’s policy and would then be vindicated, and create a massive crisis in the Middle East.

Some members of the Biden administration might believe that the Abraham Accords cannot hold together, because they do not address the Palestinian question. On the other hand, the Gulf Arab states have largely ceased to fund the Palestinian Authority, so that issue seems not to concern them overly:

There are those who would argue that the Abraham Accords are a house of cards unable to hold together. That may be true. But it is there now, and it is there because of Iran. A shift in U.S. policy on sanctions will be read in this region as the U.S. moving to a pro-Iran position, a view that might not be true but will appear to be the case. Israel will see it as a mistake, and the UAE and the rest of the Sunni world will argue that whatever the subjective intent of the Biden administration, the objective fact is that its policy is strengthening Iran. And as a result, the anti-Iran construct that is seen as American in its root will in fact fragment. And in a fragmenting Middle East, war is a frequent accompaniment.

That is, an American turn toward Iran would be read as a threat to most of the other nations in the region.

Consider that if Israel draws the conclusion that the Abraham system is of no importance and allows it to fragment, Israel will conclude that the management of the Iranian threat is solely an Israeli problem, and Israel strategically cannot allow the threat to evolve. The Saudis, who are facing the Iranians in many ways and who are being investigated by the Biden administration for human rights violations, will have to pick a new direction. It is not in the American interest to have allies (however distasteful to the current ideology) start choosing new directions. At the moment the region is relatively peaceful. If Iran were let out of its box without major concessions and controls, the region would go back to looking how it normally looks. And given Biden’s opposition to “America First,” instability there will draw the U.S. in.

1 comment:

Sam L. said...

It doesn't matter what Biden says or does, it matters what the Dem party lets or makes him say. My take: This will NOT end well...