The prevailing discourse in the United States is becoming dominated by the belief that the Middle East has lost its central position in the strategic calculations of the superpower. USA’s reliance on Middle Eastern oil has significantly reduced since the beginning of an era of uni-polarity; in fact, the US is now one of the biggest oil exporters in the world. Though the Middle East remains an area of secondary concern for the US, as a big chunk of the world’s energy supply comes from the Persian Gulf and stability in this region is necessary to sustain the global oil market and ensure consistency in terms of international economic order.
The primary focus of US foreign policy has shifted to the Asia Pacific region and the rise of China as an economic, military, and tech power. As of now, the US maintains the presence of over forty thousand troops on the ground in almost all Middle Eastern countries except Iran. The American disengagement in the region is not an option, leading to a significant reduction in troops; however, the military footprint has begun, particularly the defense infrastructure. According to reports, the Pentagon is scaling back on eleven Patriot and THAAD antimissile batteries from four regional countries, including Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
How is the US surviving in the Middle East despite reduced influence?
Politically and in terms of policy, the American disengagement kick-started with President Obama’s Pivot to Asia policy and his initial refusal to intervene in the Syrian Civil War after using chemical weapons and reluctance to contain the threat of the Islamic State (IS). The demise of American power in the region paradoxically had begun with its invasion of Iraq. This event heightened the security dilemma for Iran, which in turn escalated its covert efforts for influence in the Shia-dominated regions of the Middle East, including Iraq. In the era of the Cold War, the US practiced the policy of offshore balancing.
The balance of power had already been established with certain states siding with the US, such as the Gulf states and Jordan, while Syria and Iraq joined the Soviet camp. The rise of uni-polarity brought in unchecked American interventionism. The military and financial costs of the US mission in Iraq combined with reduced US interdependency on oil, the financial recession of 2008, and growing unpopularity of foreign intervention in America’s domestic politics brought a shift in the Bush-era adventurism.
However, the damage was already done; as the US was adopting a more gentle approach to the region, the socio-economic pitfall of the Arab countries exploded in the form of the Arab Spring of 2011. The Arab Spring resulted in Civil Wars in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the Islamic State’s rise as a capable expansionist nonstate actor. These Civil Wars, later on, turned into proxy wars between regional and extra-regional rivals. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey favored and sponsored their own factions in these conflicts. The instability brought on by the Civil Wars brought a golden opportunity for these regional actors to test their weight in shaping the events in the region.
The entry of Russia’s troops in Syria in 2015 symbolized the weakening US hegemony of the region
Though Moscow has become an important factor in the region, as it also enjoys Iran’s support, the regional actors remain the driving force behind the Middle East’s geopolitics. The current geopolitical landscape has divided the region into three blocs, one dominated by Iran, the second by Saudi Arabia, and the third somewhat smaller by Turkey.
The current politics of the region is driven primarily by the policies, objectives, and designs of these powers, with US and Russia being more like spectators and intune to the whims of these actors. All three states perceive a role for themselves in the wake of diminishing US ability to craft events in the region. Turkey only became an active actor after the Syrian Civil War, while Saudi Arabia enjoyed full US sponsorship to balance the perceived or real Iranian threat. Tehran, for its part, was motivated by the urgent sense of insecurity driven by its history after the Islamic Revolution, triggered and exacerbated by the US intervention of Iraq. US actions in Iraq naturally activated the security dilemma in Tehran.
Hence Iranian investments in nonstate actors, proxies, and militias grew exponentially. In the case of Baghdad, these proxies, militias, and power vacuum succeeded in providing Tehran were a massive influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, despite enjoying financial and conventional military superiority, cannot sustain against Iran’s use of proxies as instruments in conflicts. Despite US patronage of Saudi Arabia, the current balance of power is in Iran’s favor. In Syria and the Yemeni conflict, the Iranian-supported regimes and actors enjoy an upper hand. For all their maneuvering, coercion, and diplomacy, the Americans seem unable to shape and control the geopolitical realities in the Middle East any longer.
The post-US- Middle East stage is already set, and Iran is likely to triumph over Saudi Arabia. In case of a significant US disengagement from the region following scenarios can occur, first is a continuation of prolonged proxy wars with both Iran and Saudi Arabia vying for dominance. This outcome seems rather unlikely as, despite both sides desiring hegemony, the continuation of conflicts in Yemen and Syria would fuel further instability. In contrast, conflict might penetrate the borders of these two countries, as already witnessed in the case of Houthis attacks on the Saudi mainland.
Iran and Saudi’s newly reformed relations
The second is some sort of engagement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to at least disengage from active conflicts in the Middle East to avoid escalation. The third scenario could be an alliance between Israel, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Gulf states to counter Tehran’s influence. Despite that an understanding against Iran already exists among Israel and the Arab Gulf, the Gulf monarchies, including UAE, are unlikely to be keen on this scenario as it puts them directly under the wrath of Iranian militias and proxies, a prospect even more glaring under the absence of US as a benefactor.
For the US, the admission that heightened perception of Iran as a threat and the aggressive rhetoric and interventionist policies actually contributed to the Middle East’s quagmire today is critical to determine the course of action prior to complete disengagement. The US has already realized the limits of its ability to shape geopolitical events. The only option is to prevent the regional Cold War from escalating by encouraging Saudi Arabia to engage Iran with clear strategic objectives. The US must convince Riyadh to end the conflict in Yemen and find a political settlement with the Houthis.
Iran should also be re-engaged by reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action using economic and diplomatic incentives while encouraging the country to change its aggressive tone regarding Riyadh. It seems that sooner or later, the US will significantly disengage from the region to focus entirely on geopolitical conflict with China and Russia. Cooperation between the Saudi Arabia-led bloc and Iran-led bloc of regional countries is the only way to maintain the stability of the Middle East.
The write is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed by the writers do not necessarily represent Global Village Space’s editorial policy