Middle East or Far Orient

The US election and the new geopolitical realities in one of the most turbulent regions in the world

09:00 | 21 юни 2024
Обновен: 18:32 | 25 юни 2024
Снимка: Bloomberg L.P.
Снимка: Bloomberg L.P.

By Rosen Ivanov

Historians and political scientists seem to be at the same opinion: the Middle East is not just a region where the interests of several great powers intersect, but a complex system of relations between actors with fundamentally different political cultures. And indeed, for us this East may be near, but in terms of culture and civilization it is quite far from Europe, the USA and their culture.

The interests of East and West have always intersected at this point, but the relations between the players have always been governed by a golden rule - they have always been "adopted" by a parent state or a patron to protect their interests. The fact that (with the exception of the period of Ottoman rule, which nevertheless passes under the sign of Western economic influence) not a single country in the region managed to become a great power, actually means that cultural and political attitudes do not imply a homogenization of relations of the ethnic groups in the region - except, perhaps, on a religious basis. In other words, the name Middle East as we know it from geopolitics textbooks is highly inaccurate. Rather, we should talk about the Far Orient, which never managed to turn away from its religious heritage and continue on the path of secular government, which was the guarantor of the rapid development of Western powers and even of many Asian giants. And of course, there is one exception here - Israel. But whether we could consider the security architecture in the region to be unipolar after the recent events from October 2023 is something quite debatable. Therefore, the main question now is not when the war between Israel and Hamas will end, but will it permanently change the balance of power in this region?

The Middle East as an "American" region. After the end of the World War II and the creation of the State of Israel, Britain began to withdraw from the Middle East, and the disastrous French presence in Algeria from the 1960s proved that the time of colonial empires was already over. The US is becoming the main source of security for the region, and Tel Aviv becomes the center from which it projects its geopolitical influence.

American foreign policy in the region also has three main counterbalances that emerged during the Cold War and are still considered to be a major factor in all US geopolitical strategies to this day. The first of them is the ideology of pan-Arabism, which arose in the 1950s when the administration of US President Dwight Eisenhower temporarily loosened the support for Israel. In its essence, pan-Arabism is Arab socialism, which is aimed at uniting all Arabs against Israel under the auspices of the USSR. Moscow spends a lot of effort and resources to consolidate this movement, but the Arab communities refuse to recognize Marxism-Leninism as a political formula for the development of their independent states. Although many of them are world dictatorships, leaders like Gaddafi and Sadat bet on an ideological aspect of Islam. Thus, pan-Arabism began to transform and from socialist it became a nationalist ideology that sympathized with either the world dictators in the Middle East or the Islamists in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, who vowed to restore the Caliphate after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Despite being illusory, this idea enters in confrontation with Zionism, since the existence of the Jewish state is a thorn in the side of the Islamists.

The second counterbalance to American influence in the region is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Over the decades, several US administrations have made great efforts to modernize the Iranian monarchy, which leads to record investments in the country. The Shahinshah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, became one of America's most loyal partners, and the legacy of ancient Persia existed in peaceful coexistence with Israel. And relations between the Pahlavi dynasty and the Jewish state are more than friendly.

All this collapsed with the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the emergence of the radical Islamic preacher Ruhollah Khomeini, who called on Iranians to rise up against the oppressive regime of the Shah, whom Islamists mockingly called an American pawn. After the successful revolution, Iran was declared an Islamic Republic, and Reza Pahlavi was forced to live in exile, first in Egypt, then in Morocco, the Bahamas, Mexico, he was briefly treated in the USA, settled for a few months in Panama and finally returned to Egypt again, where he died in July 1980.

Paradoxical are the reports in the media, which show how huge crowds of women in jeans and American shirts protesting against the Shah on the day before the fall of the monarchy, and the next day - crowds of Islamists who forcefully dress them in burqas. As Iran's transformation ends, relations with Israel deteriorate abruptly, and Washington cuts diplomatic ties with Tehran.

And last, we cannot fail to mention the terrorist networks whose roots in the region are lost far back, at the end of the World War I, when the Ottoman Empire retreated from its possessions in the region. Shortly after the establishment of the modern Turkish Republic, a group of Egyptian radical preachers who call themselves the "Muslim Brothers" created a compact organization that aimed to restore the lost Caliphate through armed struggle and organized resistance against the West.

In the following decades, while European states argued for supremacy, this organization began to create its own subsidiary factions throughout the Middle East, and after the creation of Israel, they declared a course toward the liquidation of the Jewish state. Far from eliminating this network, the establishment of the Wahhabi monarchy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its alliance with the United States – on the contrary, it continues to grow, accusing the Wahhabis of treason against Islam. Thus, America acquires a very strong rival, whose influence in the region will continue to increase and escalate in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

From a unipolar to a bipolar model in the Middle East. Despite the numerous attempts by America's rivals in the region to destroy Israel during the Cold War, the Jewish state has shown astonishing resilience and managed to turn the UN-granted desert lands into habitable cities, where not only Jews immigrated, but also many Palestinians. Despite suffering minimal defeats from the Arab forces, Israel still managed to come to an agreement with Egypt, which took on the heavy burden of brokering peace. For this, Egyptian President Anwar-Al Sadat paid with his life and was killed by Islamists. In the wake of this incident, the US has taken the region under manual control, turning its ally into a well-oiled war machine that resists any attempt to change the status quo in the region. Washington even risked its relations with Europe by declaring the Palestine Liberation Organization a terrorist organization, thus forever slamming the door on the negotiation process with several Arab countries.

Yet American influence in the region continued to grow and that of the USSR to decline, as even after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, none of the countries in the region decided to make a turn towards a socialist republic. Practically, the Middle East became "unipolar" already during the Cold War, since for decades there was no actor in the region that could effectively oppose the Jewish state and its ally in the face of the United States.

After the collapse of the USSR, the Middle East continued to look like a colorful mosaic of interests, and the US strategy changed: it was already aimed at containing the countries of the axis of evil - Iran, Iraq and North Korea, and after September 11, it added the war on terror. It became increasingly difficult for America to support Israel unconditionally, and when Barack Obama entered the White House, for the first time the strategic partnership between the two countries was called into question. This allowed another center of influence to form in the region – that of non-state actors who fought simultaneously against Israel and the US.

Still, the elimination of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State showed that without a political protection, terrorists could not effectively fight against Washington because they lacked the logistical or organizational capital to consolidate. Some of these groupings saw their future as "invisible warriors" that carry out terrorist attacks around the world, and another as a state actor - successor to the Caliphate.

Over time, despite their doctrinal differences with Iran, the terrorists recognized in the face of the Shiite state the convenient "master" that would allow them to dethrone American influence in the Middle East, and days after he began to cooperate with Hezbollah, the former Caliph of Daesh declared the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia too tolerant and unworthy of being his ally against the West as a monarchy.

This led to the formation of a bipolar model in the Middle East. On one side stood the US, Israel and countries such as Egypt, which were willing to peacefully coexist with the Jewish state in order to prevent Islamic fundamentalists from overthrowing their secular regimes and to survive politically. On the other side stood cross-border terrorist networks under the protection of Iran, which began to assemble a broad anti-American coalition to balance the influence of American allies. The opportune moment came after the start of the war in Ukraine, when the ayatollahs decided it was time to act. Still, there was no domestic consensus that Tehran should confront Washington directly, as the country had not completed its nuclear program and Russia had little desire for a two-front war. In these conditions, Iran began arming Hamas and Hezbollah, who chose the Gaza Strip as the starting point of their intervention.

Is the US-Israel alliance sustainable. One of the biggest myths that Iran has been able to promote in the last few months is that the US-Israel alliance has no future. This is the place to say that there is no president of the United States who has done more for the Jewish state than Joseph Biden. Even as a senator, he chaired several congressional committees that built Israel's modern defense industry long before the Iron Dome.

The problem with his administration is that a large number of Democrats began to put their hands off the region at the insistence of another major lobby in America - the Islamic one. It is a golden rule in American politics that if the Jewish lobby is best represented politically, the Islamic lobby gains strength among voters. Facing the dilemma of losing support or openly continuing to support Israel, Biden made the wisest possible decision – to criticize Netanyahu openly but play with Tel Aviv behind the scenes. This is also the consensus inside the Democratic Party, where they openly point out the negatives in the Israeli Prime Minister's management model, without generalizing the political behavior of the country. In these conditions, the Trumpists' strategy suffered another failure because Trump failed to find a rhetoric to balance it, and indirectly stated that if he became the president of the United States, he would allow Netanyahu to "cleanse" the Middle East of terrorists.

Still, the rift between the liberal Jewish lobby in the US and the conservatives in Israel who prop up Netanyahu's government has become apparent. Some would characterize this as a covert design by Russia, which shortly after the Hamas attack received its official delegation on a visit to Moscow. Whether this is true, however, is a matter of conjecture. The challenge to the alliance between Washington and Tel Aviv remained in the division between conservatives and liberals.

The former gradually gained popularity in Israel and took root in Netanyahu's small government, which already had to accommodate them in order to survive politically. The latter came under attack from pro-Palestinian movements in the US and their satellite organizations in American universities. But the situation in Europe seemed to be the worst, and even a German synagogue dawned painted with stars of David. The widening gap between the two factions does have the potential to shake the alliance between the two countries, which would have critical consequences for the system of alliances that America has built since the end of World War II.

However, this scenario is very far-fetched, since there is no American president who would decide on such a drastic step in foreign policy, and despite university protests in the USA, it became clear that the relationship between Washington and Israel is strong enough to withstand such a crisis.

Two more unknowns remain in the Middle East. The first of these is Iran, which had decided to attack Israel, but given that the "big" actors in the region were not ready for it, the Ayatollahs ultimately decided to wait. In this spirit were the actions of Israel, which responded asymmetrically to the attack, despite the calls of the military lobby for a full-scale intervention.

From now on, Iran has several moves that will depend a lot on who takes the country's rudder after the death of President Ebrahim Raisi. If the Ayatolas rely on a new conservative leader, sooner or later the crisis in the Middle East will escalate into a war between Iran and Israel. Even if it seems far away, America and Russia will not be constantly able to hold on to the pursuit of the two countries to fight, but for the coalition partner of Netanyahu, the war in the Gaza Strip is a matter of political survival. If, eventually, Raisi's heir decides to bet on a more moderate political line, then Tehran will rather focus on speeding up its nuclear program. In fact, the big question is whether Iran will become a member of the nuclear club, because if that happens, then the transition to a two -pole model in the Middle East will end completely.

Saudi Arabia remains the other unknown. Riyadh is torn between its desire to maintain constructive relations with China and Russia within the SCOs while continuing to supply the latest American weapons in the event of a crisis in the region. The reason why the kingdom has not yet been affected by any military crisis is not just oil.

Black gold has its importance in global politics, but the fact is that for several decades, Riyadh has purchased the most modern and latest American weapons, without which the country would be just a huge oil refinery, vulnerable to terrorists' attacks and Iran. Moreover, if relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel had reached a level of recognition, it would definitely have given a new impetus to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. And here comes Iran and his satellites in the face of Hamas and Hezbollah, who decided to thwart this scenario. This put Riyadh in a very delicate position, since its role in the Islamic world has repeatedly been questioned by Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

In conclusion, we should say that the Middle East will remain close to countries in the region, but still distant as an understanding and culture of the West. This, of course, does not mean that the West must abdicate from the responsibility for security in the region. There was such case with the former French colonies in Africa and we see that Russia and China were very comfortable there. Rather, sooner or later, the role of Israel and the conflict with Palestine as a whole will be rethought, which is already beginning to happen, judging by the reactions of Brussels and Beijing.

The big dangers are hiding elsewhere. One of them, of course, is an escalation of tensions in the Middle East, which could lead to a global war - a scenario that has been discussed several times, but thanks to the adequate reactions of world leaders, it has not reached. And the second is the increasing anti-Semitism, which was revived by populist parties in Europe after the war in Gaza has begun. It has become quite difficult for many politicians to distinguish constructive criticism of the government of Netanyahu from the anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish speaking that marked the history of the Old Continent forever nearly a century ago.

These two hazards continue to be underestimated by many political elites who see another regional crisis in this war that will subside naturally. It is not yet clear when will the latter happen, but when it does, global actors must do what it needs so the consequences of this war do not cause global messages of hatred like those from the beginning of the last century.

THE BOTTOM LINE The Middle East will remain close to countries in the region, but still distant as an understanding and culture of the West