29.11.2014 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Crisis in the Middle East and the Crisis of Making of New Alliances

3452222It was not so long ago when the world was analyzing the probability of a US-Iran conflict over the latter’s nuclear programme. In such analyses, the Strait of Hormuz was considered to be the most crucial flashpoint. However, what we have seen in the recent past is a shift towards a possible complete realignment of the two state alliances which were, until recently, the so-called enemies. The shift is taking place not merely because of the prevailing circumstances in the region, but mainly because of the failure of the US policy to dominate the Middle East by playing upon regional states’ mutual enmity; and, it precisely did so by intensely politicizing sectarian divisions. As a matter of fact, it is not just a coincidence that all of the most troubled countries in the Middle East, such as Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Syria are Shia dominated; while, Sunni dominated states are, relatively speaking, less troubled both internally and externally. Similarly, it is again not a simple matter of coincidence that all of the “peaceful” Sunni states are also allies of the US; while, all Shia states have been and still are at daggers drawn with the US and its allies in Europe.

Notwithstanding peculiarity of the above mentioned geo-political realities, the crisis in Syria and Iraq have paved the way for the making of cross-sectarian alliances in the Middle East with the US, of course, playing the role of a “balancer” between the erstwhile enemy states. The re-making of alliances actually started with operationalization of a sort of what is being called détente between the US and Iran. It was in the mid of October 2014 when the US officially confirmed that Washington and Tehran have “moved into an effective state of détente over the past year.” It cannot be denied that the warming of relations between them can have potential benefits for the region as the US, its Arab Sunni allies and Israel have been very suspicious of Iran’s nuclear programme. According to the reports of the Western media, the main reason for current détente is convergence of interest of the two states over a number of issues that are intrinsically linked to the crisis in the Middle East.

However, the Western media is, quite obviously, oblivious of and is deliberately not highlighting the critical factors that can definitely damage this détente, which is at the most at its embryonic stage. For example, it is being presented as an undeniable fact that the emergence of the ISIS and the threat it is posing to regional states is facilitating the making of this alliance. However, by constantly emphasizing the ISIS as the reason for this détente, it is also being, though unwittingly, projected that the détente will not last for long, and that it will come to an end as soon as the ISIS is eliminated and “peace” is restored.

On the other hand, what is not being projected is that the détente, howsoever fragile it may be, has firm roots in the US’ own failures in the Middle East. The reported détente between Iran (previously declared “Axis of Evil” by the US’ officialdom) and the US (previously declared “the great Satan” by Ayatollah Khomaini and subsequent Iran officialdom) is no surprise. However, it attained high probability much before the emergence of the ISIS. It became a possibility when the US and its EU allies had to accept the course of dialogue on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. The reasons for this were that it was becoming evident to the US and its allies that though the sanctions on Iran were effective to an extent yet Iran had shown its credible resilience not to give up its resolve to go ahead with its nuclear program; besides that, the idea of attempting to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities had also become too hazardous.

Secondly, in view of its compulsion to withdraw bulk of it military from Afghanistan, the US was in need of a ‘possible partner’ if not a ‘strong ally’ in the region to assist the US’ interests in Afghanistan besides the Middle East; and Iran, for obvious reasons, appeared to be the choice. In this behalf, at least twice in the last two years, a specialized Pentagon task force secured special permission from the US government to seek help from Iran in setting up Afghanistan’s first pharmaceutical company and in developing four mines, according to government documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and interviews with people directly involved in the unusual outreach effort. Though the engagement with Iran ultimately faltered, the efforts demonstrated the lengths to which the US government and military was willing to go to promote business investment in Afghanistan to replace billions of dollars the US and its allies have spent during 13 years of war. The unusual and quiet cooperation with Iran represents one small example of the Obama administration’s tentative efforts to allow for a closer relationship with the US’ longtime adversary that would make it easier to work together in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Thirdly, some sort of a ‘détente partnership’ with the US could also suit Iran as well for getting the sanctions off, as also suiting its interests in Afghanistan and to an extent its interests in Middle East.

There are, however, certain critical aspects that have been and are still standing in the way of a long “lasting” alliance between the two states. The crisis currently facing Iraq may yet prove serious enough to force both states to do a radical re-thin about each other’s interest and strategic positions, but history suggests that concerted political will from both sides will be required to translate a tactical coincidence of interests into a strategic détente. On the other hand, given the extremely volatile nature of inter-state relations and complexities of bi-lateral relations of the US and Iran, it is difficult to expect that the alliance and détente would last for long. If history is any guide to the present and future, few international relationships express the dominance of ideology over realism with such clarity as the cold war that had, until now, practically set both states on the path to collision. Time and again, as history shows, events conspired to reveal a convergence of interests; and, time and again ideology relentlessly pulled them apart. In this behalf, it is yet to be seen how the US would eventually reconcile the two main opposing blocks headed by Saudi Arabia and Israel.

It is a fact that a reasonable normalization has taken place between both states; however, it seems to be too much to say that the ISIS alone has facilitated this normalization. To understand the complexity of this development, we have to get back to the recent past. The point is that negotiations between the US and Iran during the past one year or so were not merely related to Iran’s nuclear programme; these were equally about defining and determining Iran’s new role in the Gulf and the Middle East. Similarly, it was and is still about Iran’s active participation in healing long-standing open wounds, including the cancer of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. It would also have an impact on the regional geo-strategic competition as well. In 2012, the Middle East countries spent more than USD 132 billion on military spending, the highest percentage of GDP in the world (with Saudi leading at 8.9 percent of GDP, Oman 8.4 percent and Israel 6.2 percent). Freeing up economically sterile military expenditure and re-orienting this spending for investment in human capital, infrastructure, economic and social development projects and regional public goods would lead to much-needed job creation, increase in productivity growth and would raise real incomes for the young generations of a region that has witnessed too much violence, wars, death and destruction.

However, there are also grave challenge that this alliance has to face to ensure its safety; and, the greatest threat this alliance is facing at the moment is from its hardliners. Both of the key figures behind this breakthrough, the US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, have had trouble selling their deal to hard-liners at home. Iranian radicals have reason to “fear peace.” There is every prospect that a sanction-free Iran could thrive economically and politically, especially if its governing system evolves in ways that allow the hugely talented Iranian diaspora to return home and contribute to national development. A growing middle class always leads to increasing pressure for democratic governance. That is why Iranian hard-liners dread reconciliation. Still there is also considerable opposition to an alliance within Irani society. For example, November 4, 2014 marked the anniversary of the 1979 takeover of the US Embassy in Teheran. Thousands of Iranians took to the streets to chant “Down with America.” Many in the crowd chanted “Death to Israel” and “Death to Britain,” neither of which has an embassy there. Several protesters burned the American, Israeli and the British flags. On the other hand, hawks in Washington are also girded for battle. At a hearing in December 2013, members of the Foreign Affairs Committee castigated John Kerry with denunciations of the deal, laced with clichés that reflected mind-boggling ignorance of Iran, the Middle East and the diplomatic process.  Important members of Congress were found grasping desperately for ways to block this detente.

Besides these constraints strictly internal to both the US and Iran, there are also external ones, most explicitly expressed by Saudi Arabia and Israel. During the meeting of the US Foreign Affairs Committee, many of the members of the US congress were reported to have strongly objected to this détente mainly because it was being conceived at the expense of Israeli interests, and that it would jeopardize many of the US’ interests. This seems to be the beginning of a major campaign in Washington aimed at blocking a US-Iran deal. It is highly reminiscent of such efforts to block reconciliation between the US and China 40 years ago which, however, eventually ended in failure.

The fact of the matter is that the US has been compelled to forge this alliance with Iran mainly because of its inability to achieve its objectives. The failure and the changing geo-political realities have both combined in this case, but there is also strong opposition to this détente, which may also lead to some counter-alliances as well, notably a covert alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel. It is not to suggest that this counter-alliance will be anti-US, but it will certainly be anti-Iran and will keep impacting regional geo-politics. The making of these alliances will, however, leave one long lasting impact on the region, that is, it is likely to make the US’ position much stronger; for, the US will become the crucial “balancer” between the two blocks—hence, the sole mediator.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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