In the Near and Middle East, the signs are suddenly quite asynchronously pointing to relaxation. Where a short time ago deadly enemies faced each other, pragmatism has now returned. Once enemy rivals celebrate reconciliation after reconciliation. Recep Erdogan and Mohammed bin Salman, Egypt’s President Sisi and the Emir of Qatar, the Turkish and Israeli presidents, Abu Dhabi and Tehran – even the butcher of Damascus, who has been banned for a decade, the red carpets roll out again. The culmination of this process is the recent rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two hegemonic opposites whose enmity has kept the region in suspense. If it succeeds, it would also be China’s masterpiece in world politics. The final proof that the empire in the East is playing on a global level with Washington.
On September 14, 2019, a swarm of missiles and drones attacked key oil rigs and refineries in Saudi Arabia. The tensions between the Wahhabi kingdom and the Shiite power Iran were enormous at the time. Hardliners in Tehran had apparently given orders to send a show of strength. In Washington, US President Donald Trump showed little desire to get involved in military confrontations least in the Arab world.
September 14, 2019 is not a day that evokes meaningful associations between the Mediterranean and the Gulf. And yet it is an important milestone. The leading Arab power Saudi Arabia had to learn two bitter lessons: one about its own vulnerability. Another about the fact that even with a policy of maximum pressure on Iran, Washington offers only minimal protection. The region’s neighbors have also recognized this.
In the Middle East, rapprochement stands above all for de-ideologization in external relations. Twelve years after the outbreak of the Arab Spring, calm has returned. A deceptive, a graveyard rest. Because the autocrats who are now making peace are left. The former challengers to leaden autocratic rule – the young, liberal, ambitious democrats as well as the dark but no less dynamic force of political Islam – are exhausted. Not infrequently, their protagonists were driven out of the region or oppressed, are in prison or dead. In Tunisia, the last bit of democracy is being buried, and the government in (still) democratic Israel is also sawing off the branch of the rule of law. Meanwhile, the brutal regime in Tehran is showing that it takes more than street protests to overthrow a dictatorship.
Today the region is in a state of upheaval that is the result of the experiences of the past few years. Above all, the players in the Gulf want one thing: peace on the outside so that they can focus their energy on the upheavals on the inside. In this way, Riyadh and Tehran are working to contain the destructive power of their antagonism.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies are in the process of diversifying their strategic relationships. Relying solely on the West has not paid off. The fate of the West’s allies in countries like Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, where Iran’s vassals have the upper hand, shows this.
So it is possibly precisely the withdrawal of the Americans that made détente in the Middle East possible in the first place. Iran, on the other hand, is a reality that cannot be wished away. A power on the verge of a nuclear bomb that is better not to be an enemy, especially in times of increasing antagonism with the West. Unfortunately, American bases in the Gulf are in close proximity to Iran, where Tehran could strike back in response to possible Israeli-US airstrikes.
But for Iran too, embracing the former arch-enemy is an insight into the necessities of Realpolitik. Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy has hurt the regime more than it is willing to admit. The unprecedentedly radical recent wave of protests was also so dangerous for those in power because it moved beyond sections of the population that were already hostile to the regime. The long-standing economic misery of sanctions has eroded the support of the traditional layers of support. The Islamic Republic needs economic breathing room again if it wants to continue its high-risk foreign policy. Peace in the region is therefore precisely the prerequisite for enduring the conflict with the West on a global level.
NATO head of state Erdogan meets Putin on his first trip abroad since the outbreak of war – in Tehran of all places. The Saudi government coordinates the regulation of oil production quotas in the OPEC-plus cartel beforehand with Moscow. There is no sign of Russia’s isolation in the Middle East. It would be downright foolish for the West to expect those in power to behave very differently in the event of a confrontation with China. In terms of power politics, it can be stated that the governments of the large regional states are almost all among the temporary winners of the new epoch, and beyond the economic collateral damage that parts of their populations have to suffer.
Internal peace and quiet, reconciliation with rivals and striving to enter the global arena – this triad does not produce a stable balance for the time being. But beneath the surface it simmers. None of the fundamental contradictions that caused the Arab Spring have been resolved. Beyond the Gulf, which is awash with money, it is above all the lack of socio-economic prospects that endangers political consolidation in many places. The Iranian revolt is only the latest to be crushed under the weight of repression. She won’t be the last.
The West should not only view the reorganization of conditions east of the Mediterranean with great concern because of its own loss of importance. Because the process is led by autocrats and aims to preserve authoritarian systems. Many of the Middle Eastern arrangements of convenience are not only pragmatic but also cynical. They aim to somehow pacify the conflicts in the region, not to solve them.
The best example is Bashar al-Assad’s foreign policy triumph. The Saudi foreign minister was just a guest of the Syrian despot, who had long been expelled from the circle of Arab autocrats. It is attractive for Saudi Arabia to trade the rehabilitation of Tehran’s Syrian protégé for a de-escalation in neighboring Yemen, where Iran is promoting the Houthi rebels. Syria is no longer high on Saudi foreign policy’s list of priorities. For the West, and especially for Europe, it is a harmful trade.
Not only is a dangerous precedent being set when a mass murderer who used poison gas on civilians sits at conference tables rather than in a dock. It is also consolidating a regime that is at the root of the Syrian calamity; that uses the people it expels to blackmail Europe; whose secret services do not shy away from cooperating with Islamist terrorists. Only the Syrian dictator and his patrons in Moscow and Tehran benefit from an upgrade.
Moreover, Iran remains the greatest risk to the fragile and superficial peace. It is precisely these strangely asynchronous developments that establish an escalation dynamic that is almost impossible to break through. The regime’s domestic fragility contrasts with its great foreign policy self-confidence. The rapprochement with the rivals in the region with an ever stronger antagonism towards the West. Even if both sides want to avoid a very large conflict, it is currently unclear how a political exit from the spiral of escalation can still succeed. Where would be a stable landing point at which a new nuclear agreement could be stabilized? An agreement that ensured that the de facto nuclear emerging state did not cross the last threshold. In addition, in a situation in which Russia no longer wants to play a constructive role.
The desire for de-escalation in the region is also playing into the hands of the Iranian regime on another front: that of its shadow war with Israel. An anti-Iran alliance with Israel and flanked by Washington seems more remote now that Tehran and Riyadh are drawing closer. Iran is comfortably positioned to de-escalate its confrontation with the Arab Gulf states while fueling conflict with Israel and the United States – thereby widening the divide between the Gulf Arab monarchs and Washington.
The region has not yet slipped away from the West. It should not oversleep the turning point in the Near and Middle East and thus in the neighborhood of Europe. Anyone who wants to prevent a reorganization under autocratic and anti-Western omens will not be able to avoid one thing here either: maximum commitment.
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