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Re-Shaping The Geopolitical Landscape In The Middle East

While Washington and its European allies, as well as NATO, are preoccupied with the course of events in Ukraine and predicting Moscow’s next step, Beijing was able to surprise the international community in an exceptional manner that may affect the balance of power and alliances globally.

The announced resumption of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh after severed diplomatic and political tensions since 2016 was a significant deal brokered by Beijing, in a step that may involve significant regional diplomatic changes.

Many senior officials and leaders in the region see that Beijing is not wasting any time or effort to enhance its economic, political, and strategic capacity, while the western camp is involved in solving self-created conflicts. More specifically, while the rapprochement between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and The Islamic Republic of Iran could, to a certain degree, ease regional tensions and herald a better regional future, it does not come free of significant implications. China’s aspirations and ambitions continue to grow, not only to ensure its commercial superiority over strategically located straits and maritime ports but it enhances its military presence all over the region.

Beijing, through this move, also sends a symbolic message in light of the American-Israeli cooperation and the renewed discussions concerning potential scenarios to launch air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities that may result in an added disturbance and chaos in a turbulent region.

While Beijing has always avoided political interference in the Middle East, focusing instead on expanding its economic relations, this initiative indicates that the features of the geopolitical map have begun to change with the change of the global poles of power amid the Russian involvement in Ukraine, and the international division into different axes, mainly based on the need to re-evaluate the balance of international alliances that have been around for a century, or perhaps more in some cases. The recent maneuver highlights China’s growing role economically and politically in the Middle East at the expense of the fluctuating U.S. influence in the region.

On the other hand, regionally, the development is perceived positively; many believe that China could bring balance to the political equation in the Middle East, where strategic alliances and shared interests are determined according to specific criteria rather than committing to one side versus other, or in other words, the West vs. the East. Senior Arab officials, including at least two, whose countries are considered among the most important allies of the United States in the region, and pivotal partners in war and peace that the United States and countries in the region have always relied on, believe that the development reflects an apparent decline in the scope of U.S. foreign policy engagement and the future of U.S. alliances in the Middle East in general, it also creates a new arena for competition between Washington and Beijing and their allies in the region, which would increase the size of economic, political, and strategic exchange both regionally and internationally.

 

Iran in the crosshairs

Iran’s Nuclear Program 

The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that it had found traces of highly enriched uranium particles, up to 84%, in Iranian facilities. This is the closest Iran has come to achieving the 90% threshold required to produce weapons-grade nuclear fuel.

This level of uranium may mean that Tehran has approached at least the ability to assemble a primitive nuclear bomb, which can be carried on aircraft and not a missile, bearing in mind that Iran’s main offensive force lies in its vast missile arsenal, not its air force.

It is vitally important to understand that Iran’s nuclear program is an existing danger and an imminent threat, not a collection of flimsy arguments, speculation, or outdated pretexts that shaped the basis on which the war campaign and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 were established. Iran is entirely different, and the intentions of the Iranian regime are deeply rooted in its political ideology and aim at threatening the stability and national security in its regional environment in the Middle East and global security in a broader scope.

The U.S.‚ÄďIsraeli cooperation, militarily, during the past months, was noticeably captured in the Middle East, as well as other parts of the world, after reports indicated that the U.S. and Israel are coordinating military activities against Iran‚Äôs nuclear program, especially after conducting a Joint-Military Exercise between the U.S. and Israel, that simulate qualitative air-strikes and tactical operations against strategic Iranian nuclear facilities.

The recent coordination between Washington and Tel Aviv and the escalation of events generated an unprecedented overlapping state of anticipation and curiosity among governments in the Middle East, as well as the public, especially since tensions have noticeably escalated in the past six months over Iran’s nuclear program, and the failure to reach a satisfactory result during Iran’s nuclear program negotiations.

Also, Tehran’s provocative role in supporting Moscow’s military operations in Ukraine and providing logistical and military aid, UAVs (drones), and other military equipment had a profound effect on the evaluation process of Tehran’s activities and the depth of the Iranian role and impact on the power balance and the poles of the international equation.

Additionally, recent information indicating Russia‚Äôs intentions to provide the Islamic Republic with the most technologically advanced fighter jets, the Sukhoi Su-35, has placed Washington and its allies in an alarming situation, taking into account that the new Sukhoi fighter jets could give Iran additional strike power advancing both the offensive and defensive capacity, primarily that Iran’s main offensive force lies in its advanced missile arsenal, compared to their Air Force capabilities.

Saudi Arabia РIran Relations  

The recent announcement of restoring the diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh, a deal that Beijing brokered after years of negotiations, is a highly impactful tactical maneuver that carries a serious message through which China sends a political signal to the United States at times of a non-engaging U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and a period that is best described as foggy, at all levels; domestically and internationally.

China diligently read the internal political scene in the U.S. and the state of decline in U.S. foreign policy, which reinforced its determination to fill the void and launch its expansionist project to overturn the international equation and emerge as an influential pole capable of delivering strategic and productive mediating and changing the regional alliances’ map in the Middle East after nearly a century of western superiority.

This development, as much as it represents a change in the geopolitical features and a change in the topography of the region in terms of alliances, which may undermine the interests of the United States and its historic alliances in the Middle East, yet, some pillars of the administration in Washington are reading the development from an economically positive angle without paying much attention to the strategic, security, and military dimensions.

The restoration of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran would push towards a political consensus between the two poles of influence in the region, leading to a settlement in which Iran would limit its sponsorship and support for armed groups and militias that impose their hegemony over various areas in the Middle East, but specifically the Houthis in Yemen (Iranian-Proxy in Yemen), where some pillars of the administration in Washington and several individuals associated with the Washington based think-tanks believe that restraining the Houthis through an agreement between Riyadh and Tehran will lead to stopping military operations against Saudi oil facilities, which will lead to stability in Saudi oil production and thus reduce and stabilize global oil prices.

However, the actual dimensions are far more profound than the major driver of oil prices. The Saudi motives for engaging in a diplomatic equation with Iran are based on sensitive calculations related to the kingdom’s national security concerns. The continued conflict with Houthis in Yemen, backed by enormous military aid from Iran, is no longer actionable, nor is it a feasible option.

Additionally, the leadership in Riyadh has realized the futility of counting on the United States, especially democrat administrations, to commit to the agreements and charters of more than eight decades of cooperation under a clear framework, mainly based on security-for-oil. The Saudi leadership began, at several stages, to sense that U.S. interest and strategic commitment to its allies began to dry up gradually. This was evident when two major facilities run by Saudi Aramco were attacked by the Houthis (Iranian-Proxy in Yemen), which led to the shutdown of almost half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production in 2019.

As for the Iranian side, there are many motives and reasons behind their response to Beijing’s mediation, perhaps the most important of which is the attempt of Tehran’s regime to end the exhausting international isolation and find an exit strategy to relieve the financial pressure. Improving the commercial relations with Saudi Arabia would support and boost the Iranian economy, which has been exhausted by crises and burdened by years of U.S. sanctions.

Through this diplomatic rapprochement, Iran will also ensure that Israel loses the potential advantage of utilizing Saudi airspace to launch attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Likewise, Saudi Arabia also finds that the diplomatic rapprochement with Iran will distance Saudi Arabia from any obligations and consequences that may arise regionally if Iranian nuclear facilities are targeted, whether by Israel, the United States, or both.

China’s mediation also comes at a time while Iran is desperately trying to strengthen its position within the Russia-China axis and to ensure that the agreement is well interpreted geopolitically as Saudi Arabia and perhaps other countries have actually begun to move more and more away from the American-European orbit, in favor of the new axis. Simply, it is a matter of commitment and shared interest.

The other dimension is the Arab-Israeli convergence, which Iran has been keen to find a formula to destroy since the emergence of the Abrahamic Accords, which represents the first step towards a promising peace process between the Arabs and Israel, and an initiative to pave the road for a new Middle East. However, the emergence of the Abrahamic Accords was just the foundation for a new structure that would bring more stability and security to the region after decades of conflicts and crisis, and it would be politically and strategically wise to empower and advance such achievement with an alliance or coalition to complement the foundation of the accords. Here comes the dawn of the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) or commonly known as the Middle East NATO.

Iran is determined to utilize the restoration of its diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, and the concessions that can be traded between both countries, to dispel any hopes and aspirations to establish an Arab-Israeli alliance against the Iranian expansionist current and the waves of radical and terrorist movements in the Middle East. There are very sound indications that the recent development could play a significant role in undermining and sabotaging the proposed Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) that would focus on building security, political and economic coalition, between Israel and several Arab Gulf States, in addition to Jordan and Egypt, to confront Iran’s permeation and expansion in the region.

U.S. ‚Äď Israel Relations¬†

Regardless of the longstanding relationship between the United States and Israel and the recent military and intelligence collaboration, the harmony between Washington and Tel Aviv is also taking its share of fluctuations and imbalance. The depth of the rift between Washington and Tel Aviv was evident during a visit to Israel by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley a few weeks ago. The visit was loaded with unprecedented messages that can be best described as unprecedented and unusual, where the Biden administration has indicated that its cooperation with the Israeli government on a number of common issues between the two countries, including Iran’s nuclear program, the uranium enrichment, and the sanctions against Tehran, as well as the Russian support to Tehran with Air Defense Systems, depends mainly on the extent of Israel’s commitment to mitigating the confrontation with the Palestinians.

Washington’s messages to Tel-Aviv, through several channels, including Gen. Milley‚Äôs recent visit, were overshadowed by a unique tone that Tel-Aviv find it to be outside the usual frameworks of alliances between the two countries. However, the current turmoil is not limited to the political tension or military cooperation but may also affect intelligence cooperation between the two countries, which has always been characterized by stability even during the most sensitive political and diplomatic fluctuations.

The state of discontent may have reached the joints of the intelligence community in the United States as well, and the Israeli approach has begun to negatively affect Washington’s pre-determined approach in its dealings with the Middle East, not only on the foreign policy level but to the extent that it leads to unforeseen consequences on the security and intelligence levels.

The current U.S. administration‚Äôs foreign policy is facing a serious challenge and a critical task to reconcile the historical balance of alliances and the desire to reduce footprint and abandon a region that once was one of Washington‚Äôs most important geostrategic posts.¬†The dilemma remains in Washington’s ability to balance its regional interests and alliances and the ability to comprehend the depth of the Iranian threat that continues to destabilize the region, in addition to Iran‚Äôs ability to pose a direct threat to U.S. national security inside and outside the regional borders.

For two decades, the United States has sought to remove the heavy burden of war from its shoulders, to reduce the footprint, and thus the exhaustion of human, military and financial resources in open battlegrounds and on multiple fronts in the Middle East in order to redirect some of the feasibly available resources to Asia as part of the global strategy approach. However, the current U.S. administration must balance its future strategy, rather than shifting priorities, to maintain the remaining interests in the Middle East during a period of power fluctuations and fierce competition between global rivals.

The Biden administration has repeatedly shown a desire to deal diplomatically with regional conflicts and threats. Despite the repeated attacks by Iran-sponsored militants and proxies in Iraq and Syria against U.S. diplomatic posts, logistical support bases, and other military and civilian installations, the current administration’s military and tactical responses were insufficient and inadequate to deliver a decisive deterring message. The enemy should not perceive the desire to avoid military confrontation as a weakness sign or hesitation. Otherwise, as soon as the political situation or security conditions change in an ever-changing threat landscape, the potential for hostile attack will become very serious and may result in heavy casualties and losses.

The U.S. government, despite the sensitivity of the situation, is in dire need to maintain and strengthen the intelligence channels and the joint-cooperation with Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey in order to ensure the continuation of intelligence flow promptly and in both; its raw and actionable categories.

Moreover, Washington must realize that the best option to preserve U.S. interests and maintain balanced national security in the absence of an influential presence in the Middle East is through threat containment when confrontation is not a viable option.

The restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran may be perceived negatively by some regional countries, or positively by others, however, the U.S. government can skillfully utilize the same level of resourcefulness that China has shown in brokering the Saudi-Iran diplomatic agreement, by beneficially utilizing and building upon this approach to restore and reaffirm its commitments to its trusted regional partners and allies, enhancing and tightening the intelligence collaboration, while maintaining a steady diplomacy, and to delegate special tasks to relevant regional partners, in return for the enormous support and aid programs those countries receive from the United States, to focus on encircling Iran by its regional surroundings and investing in any potential regional convergence to effectively deter or disrupt Iran‚Äôs hostile activities while incentivizing Tehran to engage in a productive commitment within the region and within the international community to avoid severe international sanctions or military confrontation, while diligently addressing Iran’s nuclear ambitions with regional and international partners and allies.