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Global powers in the Mideast: Assessing strategies

The impending nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran should, hypothetically at least, have a positive impact on a much-troubled region

Manuel Almeida

Published: Updated:

The impending nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran should, hypothetically at least, have a positive impact on a much-troubled region. The inspections regime and verification mechanisms of Iran’s controversial nuclear program could offer some temporary guarantees to Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states, Egypt and Israel, and avoid a potential nuclear arms race.

By removing a major factor of regional anxiety and establishing a permanent dialogue between the U.S. government and those factions in Tehran willing to talk, it could also open the door to cooperation on Syria, Iraq or Yemen.

There is debate about the plausibility of this scenario. The main problem, according to numerous commentators (especially in the West), is the animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is marked by an increasing sectarian outlook with terrible repercussions across the region. According to this view, Saudi-Iranian hostility is so deeply rooted that the nuclear deal will be of little help to change it.

The region is reaping much of what the policies and decisions of outside powers have sowed in recent years.

Manuel Almeida

The current state of Saudi-Iranian relations, which at the diplomatic level seem almost non-existent despite the presence of a Saudi ambassador in Tehran and an Iranian one in Riyadh, is an obstacle to any plan to address the various Middle Eastern crises.

Foreign meddling

However, what is missing in the analysis of various commentators blaming Saudi Arabia, Iran or both for various crises is that the region is also reaping much of what the policies and decisions of outside powers have sowed in recent years.

The Gulf’s delicate balance of power used to be grounded on three main pillars: Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq. That balance was far from ideal, as the devastating legacy of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s attests. Plus, Saddam Hussein was arguably the worst kind of dictator that Iraqis and the region have had to endure.

Yet the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 - which Saudis warned against - that toppled Saddam, and the absence of a coherent post-invasion plan shattered one of those pillars. The invasion, the protracted conflict that followed, and the strong sectarian disposition of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki opened the door for Iranian hegemony in Iraq, to the point that Tehran has played a leading role in the creation of various Shia militias more powerful than the Iraqi national army.

Moreover, Iran’s much-feared aggressive and outright anti-Western behavior in the region, and the dominance of the transnational principle of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist), are to a great extent a direct product of Western meddling.

Syria, another so-called Arab Republic, harbors a regime that has crossed all limits of cruelty on in its own citizens in a desperate attempt to survive. The brutalities committed by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have not prevented Russia, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, from providing key political and diplomatic support that is far beyond the reach of Assad’s main patron, the Iranians. When he crossed U.S. President Barack Obama’s red line by using chemical weapons, Russia was quick to put a deal on the table that probably saved the regime.

For the Russians seeking to counter U.S. hegemony and maintain a foothold in the region, which provides access to the Mediterranean, it is not mainly about Assad. Thus they have also cultivated ties with the Syrian opposition, while not doing enough to prevent Assad from turning the revolt against his rule into a regional calamity.

With the advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) threatening the survival of both the Syrian and Iraqi states as we know them, it is important to remember that it was the mishandling of Iraq and Syria combined that paved the way for ISIS.

In Yemen as well, Russia was quick to cultivate ties with Houthi rebels, despite the fact that they had placed an internationally recognized government under house arrest while violating every single agreement they had entered under U.N. auspices.

Aligning interests

Look again to the impending nuclear deal. From the U.S. perspective, it has to do as much with regional security and global non-proliferation as with the American global strategic realignment, or the much-vaunted semi-pivot to Asia. Reaching a deal was the main concern of the Obama administration, while diplomatic efforts to address the various crises in the Arab world, assure regional states and build trust became secondary.

Why does all this matter? In the current desperate search for a lifeline to the various regional states that seem to be disintegrating, perhaps it is time to go back to some basic principles. The United States, Russia and the increasingly influential China have had very narrowly defined strategies in the region. A far bigger focus on collective responsibility could achieve a lot in terms of regional cooperation and stability, while being compatible with their national interests.

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Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.