Transformative Powers in the Middle East

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Transformative Powers in the Middle East - Editorial Staff


Dr. Gary Sick is a captain (retired) in the U.S. Navy and served on the National Security Council in the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations. He is a senior research scholar at the Middle East Institute at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and an adjunct professor of international and public affairs.

What are the greatest risks and opportunities for the U.S. in the Middle East–North Africa region?

Actually, I think the two are the same: the opportunities and the risks are almost identical, because risks create opportunities. 

The Middle East right now is probably in the most chaotic state that it’s ever been. There’s nothing like it in history. In the past there have been wars, revolts, and uprisings, but there has never really been what appears to be, in effect, a region-wide civil war in which there are different parties fighting domestically, as in Syria, Yemen, or Libya. But there is also a transnational civil war in which there are people trying to initiate what I would call a sectarian war – Sunnis and Shi’as – throughout the region. At the same time, there is a Sunni-on-Sunni civil war, in which there is the ISIS uprising and the so-called caliphate competing with the classic Sunni countries of the Middle East in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others. 

So there are multi-layered civil wars going on. To try to sort this out a little bit and to make some sense out of it, there are three transformative powers in the Middle East that are in the process of remaking it. Analysts of the Middle East have for many years worked under the assumption that there would be a war, or a revolt, or a change of government, or internal dissension. But after it had run its course, things would pop back to where they were before; we would end up back with something like the previous status quo, with minor changes. So if there was a revolt someplace, there might be a different government, but that government would probably end up looking very much like the previous government. There would be some minor adjustments, but things would stay more or less the same. 

I think that is changing, and I think that is why we have such a major problem today. The first transformative power is Iran. I believe that the Iranians actually made a serious decision – made a gamble, in effect – [that] by accepting extraordinary controls over their nuclear program (beyond any other country in the world), they would begin to move into a new era. They would begin to rejoin the rest of the world. And that means a real change in their attitudes in a variety of different directions. That isn’t accepted one hundred percent in Iran, and they don’t even talk about it in those terms, but in reality I think that is what is going on. So they have, in effect, gambled that by coming to an agreement with the rest of the world that they can begin to transform the revolution into perhaps its next phase – which would be to integrate more into the rest of the world. That is a significant change. This is not just business as usual; instead, this shift might actually produce something very different. And that, of course, frightens other countries in the region because they see Iran potentially becoming more powerful and having greater influence in the region. 

The second transformative power is Saudi Arabia, where there is a new king who has brought in his young son and given him a tremendous amount of responsibility. Saudi Arabia is not behaving the way Saudi Arabia used to. In the past, you could rely on Saudi Arabia to be conservative, to be very cautious about its activities, to work in the background. Today, we are seeing the Saudis getting out in front, leading the way, and in fact launching a full-scale war. They are putting together a coalition and launching a war on Yemen, which many of us believe is a bad idea and is a mistake on their part. It was the kind of behavior that was impulsive, impetuous, and much more like a country that is being ruled by a group of young people who are more likely to take such actions than the staid, conservative, and very elderly leadership of Saudi Arabia in the past. 

So in effect, what has happened is that there has been a transformation from one generation to the next, and we don’t know what the outcome of that is going to be. But in fact, it does change things, and Saudi Arabia has taken upon itself to emphasize the sectarian differences in the region. They are pushing very hard for the idea that “The Shi’a and Iran are responsible for everything bad in the region, and they have to be stopped at every point.” One can agree or disagree with that, but that is the way the Saudis see it at the moment and that is the way they are behaving. Saudi Arabia is not behaving the way it has in the past, and is probably not going to in the future. We’re seeing a fundamental change that goes beyond just the superficial. 

The third transformative power in the region is the United States. We are a Middle East power. We have the largest footprint of any country in the world in the Middle East. We have a tremendous influence on the economics, politics, and security aspects – every aspect – of the region. In the past the United States has taken on the responsibility for making sure that things work the way they are supposed to. We had said it is our responsibility to make sure that Iran is contained, and doesn’t get out of hand. And if there is a problem in Iraq, we will go in and settle it, and so forth. If there is a war on terror, we will lead it – and if others want to follow, that’s fine, but we will go in and do the dirty work ourselves. This is a policy on the United States’ part that has existed since the Clinton administration, and people in the Middle East have come to accept that. I would argue that President Obama is very gradually trying to take the United States out of that position, saying to the countries in the region, “It’s your problem, and you’re going to have to deal with it. We will help you. We will back you up. We will give you assistance if necessary, but we’re not going to go in and do it for you.” Obviously, this upsets countries like Saudi Arabia who have relied on the United States to come in and take care of their problems, and they see this as a threat. 

So those three things are going on, and I think they are irreversible. I think Iran is taking itself into a new stage in the revolution, and that it is not going to go back to where it was before. Saudi Arabia is going into a new generation, which is not going to behave the way their parents did. And the United States – regardless of who becomes president the next time – is, in fact, reducing its footprint in the region. I think that the next president, whatever they say in the campaign, is going to follow that same general process – that we are not going to go in and solve everybody’s problems for them. 

Those three factors are going on simultaneously. So, to answer your original question, all of those things involve risk. We don’t know what the new Iran is going to look like. We don’t know what the new Saudi Arabia is going to look like. And we are really not sure what the new U.S. is going to look like. But at the same time, each one of those presents opportunities to change the way that we have seen the Middle East in the past, for better or for worse. So, the risk is that it could be for the worse, and the opportunity is that it actually provides prospects here for positive change – and I don’t think we know which way things are going to go. 

Can you predict what you think Iranian-American relations will look like following the P5+1 deal?

Both sides made it very clear from the beginning that they saw this as a unique event, a single shot, that it was going to solve the nuclear issue which – in my view – it has solved. Take that off the table. Iran has proceeded to get rid of most of its centrifuges and its stockpile of nuclear material, and it got rid of the heavy water reactor in Arak. Remember, this is not just a deal between the United States and Iran. This was all of the major powers of the world: the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus in effect the European Union, all making an agreement with Iran. It does involve a lot of other people. Those others, including the United States, will relieve some of the sanctions pressure that Iran has been under. And, in so doing, that will change things. 

From the beginning, at least the United States and Iran made it very clear that it was only the nuclear issue they were aiming at. It was not something much broader. The reality is that in the process of negotiating this, the United States and Iran got very accustomed to talking to each other. We had not talked to each other for thirty-five years, in between the revolution and the beginning of this process. Now the top negotiators, such as Secretary Kerry and Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, have each other’s private e-mail addresses, and they exchange e-mails back and forth. That is a very different thing than we had in the past. So even though the parties said this was not their objective, simply going through the process of negotiating changed the nature of the relationship. Both sides still argue that they are not interested in a major shift or transformation of their relationship. I would argue that that is mostly window dressing for the local groups of hardliners on either side, but, in fact, a breakthrough has really happened here. We are seeing, for instance, Iran being invited to the Syria talks in Geneva, to which they were not invited previously. That is not by accident. It is because of the prior negotiation process. 

So, my best guess is that we will probably see – with some very serious ups and downs – more interaction between the United States and Iran than we have had since the days of the revolution. I anticipate that, although there will still be serious. I do not see, in the very near future, any prospect of the United States and Iran restoring full diplomatic relations. That may happen, but at the moment nobody is talking about that. We are going to have to see how the nuclear agreement pans out, with both Iran and the United States fulfilling their respective parts of the bargain. Once that begins to settle in as being normal, then I think there is a real possibility that those people will say, “Okay, so why are we not having diplomatic relations?” Once that question begins to be asked, the possibility of moving in that direction comes about. But it would be really premature to predict anything more than that right now.