From Riyadh to Tehran: A new Middle Eastern order

Daily Mirror

Middle Eastern politics and political leaders made news over the last week from the Iranian presidential elections, Turkish President’s American visit to President Donald Trump’s first foreign visit as President of the United States, starting from Saudi Arabia had political analysts engaging in intense debates charting the implications of these developments. From a Sri Lankan perspective careful attention to these developments may give our foreign policy makers a sense of the numerous transformations taking place within the region and the political divisions within and among Middle Eastern states that are becoming more ominous.

Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman

Contemporary Middle Eastern politics and security were eternally linked to the relationship between Israel and the rest. This traditional adversarial relationship is overshadowed by an emerging intense geo-political struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia vying for dominance in the region. Middle Eastern conflict zones either dominated by Islamic State (IS), Al Qaeda or Houthi rebels is increasingly marked by its sectarian nature which the two competing regional powers are exploiting to maximize their regional hegemony.

  • Geo-political struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia vying for dominance in the region

  • Re-election of Hassan Rouhani will play a major role in Iran’s position in the region

  • West and Saudi policy makers accuse Iran of being main sponsor of terrorism

In this context, the outcome of the Iranian presidential election is crucial with the re-election of Hassan Rouhani. Iran has actively expanded its military involvements in the region by engaging in battle theatres in Iraq and Syria and to a certain extent in Yemen. While Western and Saudi policy makers accuse Iran of being the main sponsor of terrorism, Iran has been vocal about its ‘anti terror’ operations across the Middle East. Iran claims that it is leading the regional battle against Islamic State (IS) terrorists and has been successful in delivering significant blows to weaken the terror outfit.

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If one carefully examines what is driving this increased Iranian involvement in a so called ‘anti-terror’ campaign the functions of a complex and nuanced internal political machinations could be unravelled. The Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, labelled as a moderate President has been pushing for a wider Iranian engagement within the region and the world. Rouhani’s core argument has been that wider Iranian regional and global engagements would increase its importance and legitimacy as a global player. Thus the anti terror policy of Iran has become a key foreign policy plank and a means of military intervention in the region with backing of Russia and the Assad regime in Syria.

Rouhani’s main rival for the Presidency a traditional, conservative candidate Ebrahim Raisi attempted to manipulate religious sentiments through populist slogans to restore the religious and conservative values in the Iranian polity yet failed. Raisi, is also tipped to be the favourite to be the next supreme leader in Iran, the Ayatollah. As there are wide speculations that current supreme leader of Iran Ayatollah Khamenei’s health is deteriorating with his age. Raisi took a great risk by running for the presidency, as his fall will put him in a precarious position to be the next Ayatollah.

Middle Eastern political analysts claim that Raisi seems to have flicked a few pages from the Trump play book, by attempting to project himself as an anti establishment candidate and highlighting corruption, economic failures, phantom threats and unemployment. His campaign tried to undermine Rouhani’s claims of success of the 2015 nuclear deal which got Iran out of some trade sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western nations, that were strangling the country’s economy.

Rouhani despite Western aggression managed to build diplomatic relations even with Sunni dominant country’s like Turkey while reaching out to States such as China, Russia and India. Yet it seems just as in France, the so called populist movements’ staying power or applicability as a generic model to analyse political change is flawed. This is very clear with victories of Macron in France and Rouhani in Iran.

Rouhani’s victory marks a significant shift in traditional Iran and confirms it as a society in transition. With expanding urban centres, significant modernization Iranians seem to prefer a leader who will not take them back to a inward looking, conservative society. The victory will encourage Hassan Rouhani to continue with his diplomatic push to make Iran firmly be identified as a great power in the region.

Iran’s election result will be a key determining factor of the future of Middle Eastern politics and security priorities. While the Iranians voted to elect a new president last Friday, Donald Trump started his first foreign visit as President heading for Saudi Arabia and the moment he reached there he tweeted, ‘great to be in Riyadh’. Plagued by domestic political controversies, debacles and self inflicted political wounds Trump maybe looking for some reprieve and success in his foreign outings

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani

Trump’s visit starting from Saudi Arabia would conclude from Brussels where he will attend a NATO summit. If he was looking for some respite in this tour it may not come that easily. With his anti Muslim comments , yet he is not going there alone, an entourage of American CEO’s are joining him in this tour coordinated by his son in law Jared Kushner. Trump is supposed to seal military hardware sales to Saudi Arabia worth nearly $100 billion. As Saudi military has been embroiled in a long drawn conflict in Yemen against Iranian backed houthi rebels, American and British weapons sales have skyrocketed in to the country to replenish its arsenal.

Saudi Arabia has embarked on a radical transformation of its key economic models, and is trying to break from oil dependence by diversifying its economy. Unveiled as the Saudi Arabia 2030 vision, where a key plan is to sell around 5% of shares of the oil giant ARAMCO and create a sovereign wealth fund with an estimated value of $2.5 Trillion that will help drive the diversification process. Thus irrespective of Trump’s rhetoric this Saudi vision is a win-win for both the United States and Saudi Arabia if the two work together honouring their long term commitments.

Yet political realities in the Middle East may challenge every established political elite and system in the Middle East. With more American weapons, the Saudis will try seeking to achieve strategic dominance in the region. While Saudi Arabia may warm up to Trump, he is feeling the heat from a Turkey which is not happy with American strategies of battling ISIL. While Turkey’s response to Islamic State is filled with ambivalence, it is very clear on its position on Kurdish groups who are entangled in the conflict. Syrian Kurdish militias known as YPG (people’s protection units) are to be armed by the United States. Turkey designates the YPG as a terror outfit and has increased attacks on them. This complicates security and strategic aspects of American involvement in the Syrian conflict and has wider repercussions onto its role in the region. The Trump administration has already approved $300 million worth of arms sales to the Kurdish Peshmerga militias in Iraq to battle IS.

Turkish government commenced a deeper engagement with Russia in dealing with conflicts in Middle East, especially in Syria while maturing to accommodate Iran. Iran, Russia and Turkey seems to be creating a new triumvirate loaded with sufficient power resources to bypass or even undermine Saudi and American influences in the Middle East. Thus such geo-political configurations and an American diplomatic system probably in its weakest form since Trump took over as President, with the non-appointments of heads and functional staff to key positions at the State department limits Washington’s strategic manoeuvrability creating opportunities for regional and extra regional powers to fill the vacuum.

Thus we are witnessing a partial unravelling of the artificial boundaries that made up Middle East since the end of World War II and an embryonic shaping of a new configuration. What is coming may still be hard to predict but what is definite is that the Middle East that was split among Western political powers is coming to an end.

The Writer is the Director, Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS)