It seems that there are two very surprising reconciliations underway and they involve two very significant Middle Eastern powers as they develop relationships with two world powers. These two rapprochements go against the current in regional politics and foreign affairs: Iran-US and Egypt-Russia.
What are the reasons behind them? To what will they lead? What do they suggest about the future of the region?
Prior to the Arab Spring, Middle East politics shifted along two primary axes: the axis of resistance and opposition, and the axis of Arab moderation. The polarisation that existed in the Arab world remained locked into these two until the outbreak of the Arab Spring, which shook these axes to varying and still inconclusive degrees.
Nevertheless, the Arab Spring wiped out the old image of the Middle East but it is still impossible to define the region anew. The Islamists came to power and established new definitions and it was on this basis that Egypt was invited to take its proper place in world affairs. Relations between Turkey and Qatar also developed.
However, these changes were cause for concern in some capitals, where governments feared for their position if the Arab Spring was allowed to succeed.
There is some irony in the fact that regional powers which resisted the Arab Spring, from each of the two axes noted above, found common ground on certain issues. For example, Iran and the Gulf states worked together against President Morsi in Egypt. The ongoing attempt to overthrow the Arab Spring includes staging an attack against political Islam and eradicating it from the political arena. At the same time, there are also attempts to reduce public awareness as to the reality of the situation. By introducing stricter and more severe security measures, these powers have been able to neutralise the most important components of the Arab Spring.
Strategically, the current situation resembles the events that preceded it in that the powers that overturned the Arab Spring may have decreased its impact and slowed its trajectory but have failed to draft a new regional map. The fluidity of the situation is manifested through the Iran-US and Egypt-Russia rapprochements. These two reconciliations demonstrate the mobility within the region and the potential for new output.
It seems as though Ankara is looking towards Beijing in light of this new regional picture, in an attempt to purchase weapons far away from NATO. Cairo is growing closer to Moscow in spite of America’s anger and Riyadh is fuming at Washington and Tehran due to their new closeness. Meanwhile, Tel Aviv is scheming against Washington, its biggest ally.
This surprising convergence can be attributed to several factors including the many deficits that are currently facing the parties. As far as the US is concerned, its move can be explained as a “managed withdrawal” from the Middle East. Iran has suffered greatly from sanctions and the Syrian war. In other words, both countries are facing severe losses at the moment but what do the Americans and Iranians want from this reconciliation?
At the very least, this reconciliation will provide both sides with the chance to declare a truce in the war of words that has passed between them. Washington seeks the opportunity to test the new leadership in Iran in its attempts to put an end to the Iranian nuclear programme due to its inability to stop it by force. It is also possible that Washington is trying to contain the government in Tehran. The US would like to see an end to the conflict in Syria and believes that Iran is playing a major role there. Things may even evolve to the point where Iran and the US join forces on the battlefield against Al-Qaeda and similar organisations in Syria. This would ultimately ensure the survival of the Assad regime in Damascus or several of its important institutions.
Tehran wants to have the sanctions lifted in order to boost its deteriorating economy. It is also possible that Tehran will also make territorial gains by saving the Syrian regime in a deal with Washington.
The propaganda in Egypt portrays a false image of the current reconciliation with Russia. The media wants people to perceive the current situation as equivalent to when Abdel Nasser confronted the West by visiting Moscow fifty years ago. The truth is that Al-Sisi’s Egypt differs greatly from Abdel Nasser’s and Putin’s Moscow differs greatly from Gorbachev’s. On top of that, the international and regional political dynamics today are completely different from the political climate of the 1950s. However, the fact that these two have come together suggests that the region will undergo some changes, especially considering Washington’s diminishing relevance and Russia’s attempts to fill the void. Even so, Russia’s involvement is very different to its 20th century role. Its foreign policy serves its own interests; it does not have the missionary approach of the old Soviet Union.
In summary, it is fair to say that Moscow is attempting to fill the void left by America. It has succeeded in Syria thus far and is now trying its luck in Egypt. At this stage, we can also view these events as an attempt to build a temporary partnership between Moscow and Washington in the region. This partnership will attempt to bring an end to the violence plaguing the region and it will seek to remove Islamists from power.
Russia’s support for Egypt ensures that an Islamic power in the region can be avoided. Moscow does not want an Islamic party in power because that would affect the dynamics in the region and would undoubtedly interfere with its strategic interests. Putin’s government also seeks to strike weapons deals in an effort to support its economy. Arms sales are a valuable part of the Russian economy.
This reconciliation represents Cairo’s attempts to put pressure on Washington to accept the military coup. The leadership behind the coup want to restore its alliance with America to what it was in Mubarak’s time.
It is too early to say whether we are seeing new alliances being formed in the Middle East. It could be that we are witnessing simple manoeuvres which aim to improve alliances for some parties, as is the case in Egypt. This is inconsistent with Washington’s current vision, which believes that the blunt and sudden removal of Islamists in Egypt does nothing to ensure the survival of democratic legitimacy. Washington wants to have Islamists in the political arena in order to prevent the radicalisation of the youth.
These two reconciliations demonstrate that what is happening in the Middle East is not just a shifting of regional powers but that the turmoil also affects international forces. They also demonstrate old alliances between world powers and key regional figures. The regional picture is shaky internally and externally so such interactions cannot be underestimated.
It is probably best to describe the recent moves as tactics rather than new strategies because political tensions have prevented radical changes in the structure of the region. The ongoing fluidity across the region means that we may not have seen the last of such major shifts.
The author is a Jordanian writer. This is a translation of the Arabic text published by Al Jazeera net on 30 November, 2013
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.