Since the onset of the “destructive chaos” in 2011 when waves of transformation and attempts of change took the Middle East by storm, no one has ever made a winning bet regarding the drastic changes in the region. Today, with the arrival of Joe Biden’s administration to the White House, the Saudi turnabout, the change in Israel, the presidential election in Iran, the Turkish shift, and the scheduled US withdrawal from Afghanistan, questions arise on whether the freezing of conflicts are linked to the management of the chaos in the region with a view to perpetuate the status quo and distribute power.
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This is emphasized by the complications that arise from reconstructing the region (through a new Sykes-Picot agreement or a Westphalia conference tailored to the Middle East), pending a clearer vision on potential changes should the nuclear deal with Iran go through, alongside the repercussions of the receding US engagement in the region. Still, conflict management and the freezing of conflicts do not guarantee that no new disputes would arise in the Nile over the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, for instance. But most importantly, they do not guarantee the obliteration of black holes in a region rife with intractable conflicts, fatal hatreds, foreign quarrels, and imperial projects that throw the notions of maps and nations out the window.
Even though the atmosphere of the Vienna talks suggests that there are bumps in the road, the political decision taken at the White House top level along with Iran’s urgent need for the lifting of US sanctions suggest that the deal will eventually take place, either before Hassan Rouhani’s term ends in late August, or after Ebrahim Raisi takes the reins of the executive power in Iran.
Nonetheless, restoring the agreement warrants several questions regarding Iran’s genuine commitment to renouncing its undeclared objective to make a nuclear weapon, or whether the Iranian leadership will agree to renounce its regional gains and disengage from the Palestinian-Arab conflict with Israel.
So far, Tehran still insists on exclusively negotiating a return to the 2015 deal. This refusal to discuss its ballistic missile program and behavior in the region implicitly means Iran is urging Washington to accept the perpetuation of the status quo in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, where the balance is tipped in favor of Iran -- perhaps as the price to pay in return for Iran’s acceptance to freeze its support for anti-Israel efforts. However, this also hinges on the repercussions of the declining US military presence in Iraq and some Arab states in the Gulf, and the continuity of the strategic overlap between the US and Israel.
This awaited freeze and the compromise scenario leave many questions hanging in a region that is vital for global power balances and the shaping of the new world order. However, the approach of freezing conflicts by the Biden administration is apparently falling on deaf ears, as evidenced by recent developments. In Yemen, the Saudi readiness for a solution was not echoed by the Iran-backed Houthi militia nor by Iran itself, and Washington’s response was limited to futile mediation attempts and contradictory statements on the recognition of Houthi legitimacy, with no significant breakthrough achieved. In Iraq, the pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Forces is clearly still scoring points as operations against US troops continue. In Syria, instead of reaching a minimal understanding with the US following the Biden-Putin summit, Russia chose to escalate, using the entry of UN humanitarian aid as a bargaining chip, and thus, allowing further economic and humanitarian collapse. Lebanon, for its part, remains at an impasse, with pro-Iran forces standing their ground.
Meanwhile, some observers see in the end of the Netanyahu era and the current Israeli administration’s retraction of some of its predecessor’s decisions an indicator of the need to lower the expectations of change in the region that arose following normalization agreements between some Arab states and Israel. The uprising in Jerusalem and the recent Gaza war proved that the Palestinian factor cannot be disregarded, and the “Iranian threat priority” and fear of reduced US support have clearly risen in Israel. The intensification of US-Israeli consultations on points of contention relating to Iran’s nuclear file is also remarkable. The Democrats seem to be betting on Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the rising star of Israeli politics. Nonetheless, this novelty in the Israeli situation remains fragile and not likely to lead to any changes in behavior in the region, especially regarding Gaza, Iran’s military presence in Syria, and Hezbollah.
On the other hand, the upcoming situation in Afghanistan once the US withdrawal is completed next September may be shuffling the cards already. Observers say Taliban has struck an alliance with al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other extremist groups to take control of the country. Iran, cautious of these developments, has begun to mobilize militias summoned from Syria to reinforce the status of its supporters inside Afghanistan, which will impact the global “Greater Middle East” game.
For its part, China, Washington’s chief competitor, is watching closely as the US gradually withdraws its troops from Afghanistan, as well as the partial evacuation of American forces in Iraq and from some positions in the Gulf. With China’s military presence restrained to a base in Djibouti (its only military base in the world outside its immediate vicinity), Beijing cannot fathom that it will be able to fill the military vacuum left by Washington, but it is likely to resort to soft power by establishing and intensifying economic trade and investments to pave the way for the Belt and Road Initiative.
Thus, the Greater Middle East will be at the heart of the conflicts amongst the US-Chinese-Russian triad, and regional powers will have to rearrange their positions accordingly. Therefore, should Biden’s administration take the path of extending the status quo or favoring the reconstruction of some states in the region, the other competitors do not have to give their approval, which leaves us with several possible scenarios. For instance, Iran’s economic future after the sanctions are lifted will be at the core of the conflict between several actors; evidently the US, China, and Russia, but also European states and India.
Hence, the Middle East is likely to enter a relatively calm transitional phase, especially if understandings to manage conflicts are linked to dynamics that could possibly pave the way for halting the deterioration and for the crystallization of another, more stable, regional map.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily al-Arab news channel.