Have you ever wondered about the chaos and confusion coming out of the Mideast? Did you ever think the day would come when the United States’ leadership in the Middle East ceased to exist? Can you guess who is running Middle East affairs today?
Welcome to the new reality of the Mideast where Iran, Russia and Turkey now run the show — and with increasing influence from China. The United States may well have interests in the region, we may well make diplomatic visits (as President Trump did to Saudi Arabia last year) but we no longer exert muscle there and we no longer build on alliances.
Let’s start with Russia. Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, its long-term objective in the Middle East is reshaping political trajectories and ensuring outcomes that favor the Kremlin. Russian expansion and new alliances in the region suggest its strategy — no matter how clumsy it may initially seem — is in fact working. I’m convinced Mr. Putin has already considered the possibility of a confrontation with the West beyond the Feb. 7 skirmish in Syria between Russian mercenaries and U.S. troops. The clash left about 100 Russians dead and diplomatic relations strained.
Russia just signed a deal with Syria for a permanent Russian naval base, its only naval foothold in the Mediterranean. Another consideration: Putin wants to revisit and develop relations with Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Syria and Egypt to (a) avoid the negative impact of international sanctions by such powers as the United States and (b) to put pressure on the West and weaken its resolve. And don’t forget: As oil prices hover around $60 a barrel, Russia’s increased presence in the Middle East is driven by changes in the energy market, mainly oil and gas.
As to Iran, it has concluded the United States has lost all credibility and leadership in the region. As I argue in my newly released book, “Volatile State: Iran in the Nuclear Age,” Iranian leadership figures the United States, for all its saber-rattling, is not ready to engage in another military conflict in the Middle East. Hype and hoopla about war against Iran is nothing but rhetoric. And as we should have learned with Syria under President Obama, threats that we fail to aggressively pursue quickly demonstrate political paralysis, confusion and weakness. Isn’t that what President Trump said of his predecessor?
It is this failure of deterrence that makes the United States look impotent and indecisive on the world stage. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has dismissed the “uselessness of such empty threats” by U.S. leadership and says they should be consigned to the last century. If nothing else, Iranians are masters of the political put-down!
And the longer conflict and upheaval persist in the Middle East, the better it works for Iran and Russia. The matter is even more worrisome now that Iran is joining forces with Russia and China to further undermine U.S. leadership in the region. Iran’s rapprochement with those two global powers communicates to the rest of the world that the Middle East’s political order has shifted. And contributions toward this shift were not conducted unilaterally by Iran but multilaterally by Russia, China, Turkey, India and Iraq, to some degree.
My growing concern: A nuclear Iran will inevitably spur nations like Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to more readily pursue nuclear technology, igniting a nuclear-arms race in a region where no one should wish it. Saudi Arabia has already announced bidding for the construction of nuclear power plants in the Desert Kingdom.
Bottom line: Global players, mainly China and Russia, will not miss the opportunity to shape, or at least play a pivotal role in shaping, the geopolitical trajectory and landscape of the 21st-century Mideast, especially as their interests there multiply. Be on the lookout for China and/or Russia to soon enter into a strategic partnership with Iran that develops eventually into some sort of formal military alliance. Could we one day see either Russia or China establish a naval base in Iran? The possibility is there — now more than ever.