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The nuclear deal and geostrategic shifts in the Arab east

April 18, 2015 at 12:37 pm

Iran and the P5+1 have finally agreed upon the final framework for the agreement that is said to solve the crisis over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, which has been an extremely complex regional and international issue. The United States and Secretary of State John Kerry have played a pivotal role in outlining the terms of the deal and reaching a final conclusion. Whichever way you look at it, it appears as though both Iran and the P5 +1 or, more specifically, the United States, feel as though they have achieved everything that they aspired to in the painstaking negotiation process. All of the parties involved in this deal have the right to feel that they have achieved something of great importance; however, this will not be the focus of this article. Instead, I will choose to look at the geostrategic shifts, which in part made this agreement possible but were also the result of other factors in today’s heated regional climate.

The Saudi-led operation against Yemen, Operation Decisive Storm, cast a significant shadow of influence on the Iranian nuclear negotiations. In fact, some people feared that the airstrikes would lead to the failure of the talks for many reasons, one of them being that the operation targets Houthi bases and deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, both of which are essential to Iran’s expansionist project. Tehran has started to defend this project no matter what the cost, as its influence has now spread to take over four Arab capitals. To confirm the veracity of this claim one must look no further than the recent statement made by Ali Yonsei, the primary adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who said, “Baghdad has become the new capital of the Persian Empire.” That comment provoked many politicians within Arab circles.

The chaos and disruption being experienced in the Arab east is due to the repercussions of the presence and dominance of militias linked to Iran in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Furthermore, the emergence of ISIS has also contributed to the overall state of chaos in the Arab world, as the group has destroyed symbols of Arab civilisation and threatens centuries-old traditions. The result of all of this is that Arab populations have been divided and dispersed and they are all fighting each other without knowing what the end result of the chaos will be. One thing for certain is that it will lead to the geostrategic division of the region in a way that will benefit only one entity, and that is Israel.

Geostrategic formations

What I mean buy the term geostrategic formations is the change in relationships between regional actors and players in a manner that affects the overall way in which these relationships are played out. In these cases, the supposed effect that each regional actor will have is transformed into their overall ability to influence events and their outcomes, whether negatively or positively. Thus, local forces are transformed from actors which can make suggestions as to how one can change realities on the ground to actors who can actually implement changes in countries where governments have failed, such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq and maybe Lebanon. These are all examples of states where the local governments have failed and given way to groups like ISIS and their like.

What the region is experiencing at this stage is an atypical legacy that began to unfold once the status quo in place prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 dissolved post-occupation. Furthermore, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait led eventually to the removal of one of the region’s crucial decision-makers, which has resulted in negative impacts on the Arab world where once it experienced good. Iraq used to ensure that the region enjoyed a sense of balance. Yet, since the first Gulf War, many international players have enjoyed their slice of the Iraqi pie; the disintegration of the country has benefited Israel in particular, which feared for its security due to the potential of Iraq’s political vigour, which became evident during the Iran-Iraq war.

One of the key features of this transformation is the pattern of the Arab-Israeli polarisation that existed in the region before changes began to occur. In today’s Arab world, what we see is a new cause for polarisation, the Iran-Iraq War polarisation of 1980-1988 which is beginning to reappear. At the time, we saw that the majority of Arab countries aligned themselves with the Iraqi position; today, however, we see that many countries like Libya and Syria are now inclined towards Iran. There remain a number of countries like Oman and Algeria which have expressed a neutral stance on this matter.

Another important element in the nature of alignments within the Middle East is the introduction of sectarian politics and loyalty onto the political scene with Ayatollah Khomeini’s religious revolution in 1979. With the success of the Islamic Revolution and the end of the Pahlavi dynasty, a new era was born that would allow the Shia to govern the Islamic world; their slogans declared that the revolution would be exported, starting with their Arab neighbours. The religious leadership of the Iranian Revolution set targets to infiltrate Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon. Iran’s goal was to incite Shia populations within Arab countries to rise up against their governments. The plan has been remarkably successful in Lebanon and Syria, as Hezbollah succeeded in making the Shia community in Lebanon feel marginalised. Moreover, the Alawite sect in Syria, which is represented by Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, has also aligned itself with Iran. In due course, Syria and Lebanon will face a fait accompli that will allow Iran to absorb them completely despite the fact that the vast majority of the Syrian and Lebanese people are fighting for their lives and existence as distinct nations and will continue to do so until the final destruction of their homelands.

The Islamic Dawa Party tried a similar endeavour in Iraq but did not succeed because the system of government focused its efforts on limiting the range of influence that politicised Shia possessed within their communities. As a result of this, the Iraqi Shia leadership fled to Iran and then to Syria and then sought asylum in the West. The violent dismantling of the party’s cells in Iraq in this way, and the overall feeling there that the country was being threatened by the existence of such parties, led those groups with Shia sympathies to seek refuge in neighbouring Iran. The Iraqi leadership thought that striking while it was hot would allow them to form the metal in any shape that they desired, but with the “Khomeinisation” of Iran and the fall of Arab nationalism, countries like Syria and Lebanon soon pledged their allegiances to Tehran.

The political leadership in Iraq has invested a great deal of effort in pan-Arab causes, the Palestinian cause in particular, which they saw as a defence of the Arab world’s western gateway. In fact, Iraqi policies are said to be the inspiration behind Egyptian novelist Gamal Al-Ghitani’s book Guardians of the Western Gate, which received much popular acclaim in Iraq at the time of its publication.

All of the excessive repressive policies that were implemented to limit the control of the Islamic Dawa Party were not necessarily aimed at limiting the influence of the party itself; they also targeted other sectarian practices and policies that began to unfold in the Middle East. These policies and the Iran-Iraq War were all considered to be efforts that would help prevent the export of the Iranian revolution in the Arab world. The Iraqi regime succeeded in gaining the loyalty of its Shia citizens throughout the war as they population did not rebel much. Iraq came out of this war as the victor. Despite the strength of the Shia sector in Bahrain, they did not achieve much of a political victory. Many Shia communities tried to take revenge on Kuwait for coordinating with the Iraqi government during the war and went so far as to send a convoy to target the Kuwaiti Amir, Shaikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Jaber Al-Sabah.

Such historical events illustrate the many shifts and changes that have impacted the Levant as well as Iraq. These are the points in history that have led us to where we are today. The Arab world’s regional security is something that was torn apart by the international community. We have reached a stage where Arab governments are fighting their own people and in some cases have blown their countries to pieces.

Required foundations in regional security

Research in this area requires the identification of the elements of power and threats being posed in the Arab world, particularly in the Levant. We need to define where the Arab east (the “Mashreq”) begins and ends, as well as the capabilities of each of the individual states in terms of political capital and military strength.

The Arab Mashreq is defined geographically by and includes all of the countries in the Fertile Crescent (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine), Egypt and the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, which are the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE and Oman) as well as Yemen. All of these countries are members of the Arab League, and are party to a 1951 joint defence and economic cooperation agreement.

Security threats have played a role in re-shaping the geostrategic formation of the Arab Mashreq in the way that we see manifested today. The threats that are not only affecting the security of the region, but also its balance, include Zionist Israel, Iran, factional conflicts within the region itself, water conflicts (the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, for example), sectarian conflicts and various elements of power-related threats.

The Israeli threat will continue to exist in the Mashreq and it will not end until the occupation of Palestinian and other Arab land ends with the establishment of a viable Palestinian state that will be able to interact independently with its Arab neighbours. An agreement of this nature is not likely in the foreseeable future. From here, one can say that we will, undoubtedly, continue to witness a series of destructive events in which Israel will continue to target Palestinian communities, wherever they are, as it will no longer target Gaza alone. There is no doubt that the continued existence of this threat will have regional repercussions that will threaten the security of the Arab Mashreq.

The escalating Iranian threat has now taken on a multi-faceted and multi-layered pattern at this stage. The threat in Iraq differs from that in Syria which, in turn, differs from that in Lebanon, which also differs from that in Yemen. Moreover, the threat that Iran poses in Bahrain will manifest itself differently there than it will in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. Having said that, it remains important to note that countries like Egypt and Jordan will also possibly experience different manifestations of Iranian influence and interference.

Just as the Iranian threat must be taken seriously on the external level, it is almost more dangerous to the domestic affairs of its target countries. What Iranian interference in the Arab world has shown is that it promotes fragmentation and conflict in a way that resembles other players, such as Israel. We saw how little international parties did to prevent such fragmentation in Iraq, for example, after the official end of the US occupation.

In terms of the impending threats of water-related security and regional stability, our efforts to prevent the expansion of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam proved futile as the countries of the Nile Delta agreed, finally, to sign an agreement amongst themselves. We still do not know how the after-effects of this agreement will manifest themselves in the countries that share the Nile’s water supply. We have, however, some idea of how these things work due to the conflicts that have taken place between Iran and Iraq over water from the River Tigris. Despite Iran’s current level of influence and control over the Iraqi government, this situation has yet to see any drastic improvement. Countries such as Syria, Turkey and the rest of southern Anatolia are also affected by the implications of future conflicts over water threats and security.

When it comes to questions of power and influence, the Arab Mashreq remains a crucial geostrategic point of interest because of its many waterways and canals. We must continue to follow the developments in the security sector of this region as the world continues to show its interest in the Mashreq’s hydrocarbon resources.

Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadid, 15 April, 2015

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.