The Middle East in conflict: The empires strike back

The Middle East in conflict: The empires strike back

Dov S. Zakheim*
For the better part of the past 100 years, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran have maintained correct relations with one another. Friction between any two of them has been relatively short-lived, and it has never descended into armed conflict. That situation is likely to endure - at least in the short term.

Nevertheless, the civil wars in Yemen and Syria have pitted the Saudis against Iran and its proxies. The Turks, Saudis and Iranians have each provided funds and arms to different sides in the Syrian civil war. Saudi Arabia and its allies have played a more overt combat role in the Yemeni civil war, committing air forces and potential ground troops against the Iranian-backed Houthis. Thus far, Tehran has engaged in a war of words with Riyadh over its bombing runs in Yemen, which could easily escalate should the Iranians elect to provide more direct military support to their Zaidi co-religionists. 

The Saudi-Iranian rivalry also underlays the strong exchange of barbs that took place during Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s April 2015 visit to Washington. Asserting that the Saudi intervention in Yemen had “gone too far,” al-Abadi’s remarks clearly indicated Iraq’s concern that the Saudis would follow up “Operation Decisive Storm” in Yemen - recalling the name of the 1991 war against Iraq. 

Interestingly, when the Arab League issued its March 29, 2015, statement it referred to interference by foreign powers in Arab conflicts. Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby made it clear that the reference was to Iran, Israel and Turkey. While Iran was an obvious target and Israel a usual target, the inclusion of Turkey signaled the deep suspicion that the Saudis and its Arab allies continue to have of Ankara’s motives and regional objectives. The Turkish Foreign Ministry strongly rejected this allegation, but in blaming Egypt for Elaraby’s statement, it simply demonstrated the width of the gulf between Ankara and not only Egypt, but also the Arab monarchies in particular. The rift between Turkey and Saudi Arabia may not be anywhere near as wide as between Iran and Riyadh, but it is clearly growing wider.

At the same time, the Iranian drive for nuclear capability is likely to prompt both Turkey, whose relations with Iran are still cordial, and the Saudis to seek a capability of their own, setting off a nuclear arms race that will not cease until the Emirates and Egypt also obtain nuclear weapons. 

The irony that underlies all these developments is that the American intervention in Iraq in 2003 was meant to create a new democratic and stable order in the region. In practice, it had the exact opposite effect. All in all, it is not unfair to assert that the U.S. has become rather passive in the face of the collapsing Middle Eastern order. More than passivity, however, is what appears to be a fundamental change in the U.S.’s approach to the Middle East, at least while the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama remains in office. It appears as if Washington is prepared to revert to the old Richard Nixon doctrine of “offshoring” to Iran the role of maintaining stability in the region. 

Meanwhile, the administration appears prepared to downgrade its relationships with Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. As with Turkey, Washington will not walk away from its security commitments, or indeed its relatively friendly relations, just as it maintained good ties with Saudi Arabia even as it elevated Iran as the Gulf’s major power. Nevertheless, those relations will be nowhere as warm as they once were; just as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan no longer has as a close a connection with President Obama as he once did, so too will the Saudis and Israelis find that Washington’s door is open to them, just not as often or as wide.

The Obama doctrine may of course amount to very little if the implementation of an arrangement with Tehran and its nuclear program doesn’t come to much. If, however, an agreement such as the one currently reached actually is ratified and implemented, there is a serious risk that Iran would recover its once dominant position in the region with few limitations on its behavior, thereby igniting a new and dangerous dynamic not only for the Middle East but for the entire international system.

* Dov S. Zakheim is the vice chairman of the Center for the National Interest and the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under-secretary of defense of the U.S. between 2001 and 2004. This is an abridged version of the original article published in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Spring 2015 issue.