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Reassessing US strategy in the Middle East: the rise of Iran and the overshadowed threat of China

Hamid Bahrami
2 months ago
People walk on the streets of Tehran as they continue their daily lives after the explosions heard in Isfahan and Tabriz cities of Iran, in Tehran, Iran on April 19, 2024. [ Fatemeh Bahrami - Anadolu Agency]

People walk on the streets of Tehran as they continue their daily lives after the explosions heard in Isfahan and Tabriz cities of Iran, in Tehran, Iran on April 19, 2024. [Fatemeh Bahrami - Anadolu Agency]

In the complex tapestry of global geopolitics, the recent missile attack by Iran against Israeli targets marks a critical shift in the Middle East’s security paradigm. This event, far from being a deterrent act, signifies a new security balance in the region, heavily skewed in favour of Iran. This shift demands a profound reassessment of US foreign policy, particularly in light of the broader strategic challenge posed by the rising power of China.

The Iranian missile strike on 14 April is not merely another episodic flare-up in the region; it represents a calculated demonstration of Iran’s enhanced military capabilities and its willingness to directly confront Israeli interests. This act has effectively nullified the strategic viability of the IMEC corridor, an initiative aimed at establishing an economic and security zone that could contain Iranian influence alongside Russian and Chinese regional ambitions. With the corridor’s failure, the US finds itself at a crossroads, needing a new approach to both regional stability and its global strategic priorities.

John Mearsheimer’s realist theory of international politics offers a lens through which to view these developments. According to Mearsheimer, states are primarily motivated by the pursuit of power in an anarchic world, where great powers inevitably vie for dominance. The US, in Mearsheimer’s view, should be strategically focused on countering the ascendance of China, its most formidable competitor on the global stage. Yet, America’s entanglement in the Middle East, particularly its unconditional support for Israeli actions under Prime Minister Netanyahu, exemplifies a significant misallocation of resources and strategic focus.

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The Biden administration’s recent veto against a UN resolution recognising Palestinian statehood further illustrates this misstep. This action, while intended to support an ally, has paradoxically strengthened Iran’s position in the Arab world and eroded the US’s standing among its traditional Arab allies. By appearing to side unconditionally with Israel, the US undermines its own credibility and influence in the region, inadvertently playing into the hands of both Russia and China.

China, in the meantime, has been capitalising on these distractions to bolster its economic and military stance globally. Its strategic investments across Asia, Africa and Latin America, along with its role in brokering talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, suggest a long-term vision aimed at repositioning itself as a stabilising force and a viable alternative to US hegemony. As the US expands its energies on the Middle Eastern quagmire, China quietly enhances its global influence, particularly in regions critical to US strategic interests, like the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific.

Given the new realities on the ground, the US must pivot its strategy not only to address the immediate implications of Iran’s rising power but also to refocus on the Indo-Pacific region, where the real challenge to US supremacy from China is crystallising. The establishment of an independent Palestinian State emerges as a critical component of this strategy. Such a move would serve multiple strategic functions: it would placate US allies in the Arab world, undercut the ideological underpinnings of groups like Hamas and reduce Iran’s influence over its regional proxies.

Moreover, advocating for a sovereign Palestine aligns with broader international norms and could help restore US credibility on human rights and conflict resolution. It would also signal to both allies and adversaries that the US is capable of adapting its strategies in response to changing geopolitical dynamics, thereby strengthening its position in negotiating other international agreements, particularly in relation to containing China’s ambitions.

The US must, therefore, recalibrate its foreign policy to not only navigate the complexities of the Middle East but also to adequately address the systemic challenge posed by China. This involves withdrawing from over-extended military commitments and, instead, leveraging diplomatic and economic tools to stabilise volatile regions. Simultaneously, the US needs to strengthen alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, investing in emerging technologies and enhancing its military capabilities to directly counter Chinese expansionism.

Given Iran’s still ambivalent foreign policy stance, the United States has a crucial window of opportunity to engage Tehran in ways that could potentially realign its regional affiliations and global alliances. Recognising the nuances and the potential flexibility in Iran’s foreign relations, the US must explore all diplomatic avenues to coax Iran away from the influence of China and Russia. This would involve leveraging Iran’s economic needs, security concerns and its historical pride in its sovereignty and regional influence, presenting alternatives that align better with Iran’s long-term strategic interests than its current partnerships with Beijing and Moscow might offer.

The US stands at a pivotal moment where it must choose between continuing its costly engagements in pointless battlegrounds like the Middle East and Ukraine or reallocating its focus towards countering the strategic manoeuvres of China. The choice will determine not just regional outcomes but the future contours of global power dynamics. The path forward requires a clear-eyed recognition of the new geopolitical realities and a bold willingness to pursue long-term strategic stability over short-term tactical gains.

Nevertheless, the US appears to have opted for ongoing costly engagements, as evidenced by the House of Representatives’ approval of the $95 billion package. This funding primarily supports Ukraine and Israel, rather than adopting a containment strategy towards China.

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

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