The drums of war are sounding in Europe, but there seems to be a modest surge of pragmatism across the Middle East, the arena of at least one war a decade since the defeat of fascism in World War II.
Of course, the fighting continues in the civil war in Syria, the disastrous conflict in Yemen and, sporadically, in Iraq and Libya. The Arab citizens who just over a decade ago were swept away in a wave of euphoria as they defied dynastic despots and dared to dream that they could finally put the past behind them, are not , for the most part, in a good position.
Autocracy is back. The collapse of state institutions has exposed the hard-wired, subconscious grammar of sectarian affiliation. Proxy wars between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, encouraged by Iran and Saudi Arabia, are a boon to jihadist extremism and are mortally threatening the region’s minorities, from Christians to Druze to Yazidis.
Yet regional players who have clashed over the past decade and more are slowly moving toward tentative partnerships. There are two main reasons: Iran and the United States – and the tantalizing possibility of a nuclear deal in the coming weeks, after which President Joe Biden’s attention will turn elsewhere.
First, there is an attempt to bail out the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It was the uncertain deal Iran signed with the United States and five other world powers – France, Germany, the United Kingdom, China and Russia – in 2015, to impose verified restrictions internationally on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic and Iranian sanctions. – entry into the global market. The JCPOA has worked, albeit somewhat to the detriment of Tehran since the US Treasury has used sanctions on other aspects of its regional behavior to severely limit its access to the dollar-dominated global financial system.
But Donald Trump torpedoed that deal by pulling the US out in 2018 when he was president. Iran waited a year before abrogating its own obligations and increasing the enrichment of uranium to make it a nuclear bomb. Trump mounted his “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, piling on new sanctions and inciting Gulf Arabs to stage a jihad against Shiite and Persian Iran. But in September 2019, when Iran attacked the heart of Saudi Aramco’s oil facilities with a drone and missile attack, Trump stood by, saying it was the Saudis and not the Americans who were targeted.
It was a turning point in the modern history of the Middle East.
It shook Washington’s traditional allies in the region, Saudi Arabia in the first place, but also Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, a NATO ally. This gradually led to efforts to defuse intra-regional disputes. The embargo led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Qatar, the maverick oil-rich Gulf emirate they accused of siding with Iran and supporting Islamist attempts at regime change in the Gulf, ended last year. Qatar is home to the largest US airbase in the Greater Middle East.
But now speculation is growing that the US and Iran are about to resurrect the JCPOA – at five minutes to midnight. Iran still stands for concessions that Biden cannot deliver, but with leeway. Iran’s foreign minister, in an interview with the FT, suggested that a statement by the US Congress or its leaders that a new deal would not be torn up by Washington in the future would help matters.
Any new agreement would be worth less than the JCPOA of 2015, for the simple reason that Tehran now has technology and techniques that it did not have then. Iran’s neighbors are acting as if this is the case and that a new deal will not work against Iran’s Shiite Arab sphere of influence, especially across the Levant: in Iraq, Syria and the Lebanon.
A pragmatic movement is therefore underway. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, long on the Islamist side of regional competition against Egypt and the Gulf, was in the United Arab Emirates this week and plans to visit Saudi Arabia soon, and is also mending fences with the Egypt and Israel (Isaac Herzog, the Israeli president recently on a historic visit to the United Arab Emirates, is due to visit Turkey soon after a long break). Gulf countries led by the United Arab Emirates want to rebuild Syria, while Saudi Arabia has used diplomatic trickery to woo Shiite-majority Iraq after decades of ignoring it.
All of these players are attentive to the ambitions of Russia — the dubious lucky master of Syria since 2015 — and especially China, with its technology and the Belt and Road initiative encompassing the region. They devalue the historical alliance with the United States and diversify.
They explore how to deal with each other pragmatically, through trade, investment and diplomacy.
Curiously, the region is starting to look like what Biden boss Barack Obama wanted in 2015. We need, obama saidto “tell our friends as well as the Iranians that they must find an effective way to share the neighborhood and establish a kind of cold peace”.