Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 15 ­- 22 November 2013

Conflicts Forum

The severe shaking to the old order in the Middle East, dished up by President Obama with the Syrian and then the Iranian initiatives, seems to be spilling out onto the ground as an incipient new geo-political pattern. It is early days, and the trends may be no more than straws blown about in the winds of what has been termed the new ‘a-polar’ or non-polar global order, which now seems in any case to have ‘lost’ the very structures that empowered the old polarity of power. This new ‘order’ seems to be acquiring more an anti-polar mode ­– that is to say, a refusal of polarity as its main characteristic, and a return to the old notions of sovereignty and autonomy: perhaps less an ‘order’ at all. The impact of this de-structuring is perhaps most evident in the strategic incoherence of our times: of which Laurent Fabius’ storming into Geneva to overturn the P5+1 apple cart, and so rudely expose the lack of a western concert, and Prince Bandar’s angry, destructive marauding through the region, are but two examples.

The US is disinvesting militarily from the region ­in order to invest militarily in Asia. America might wish to keep all its balls in play, but it is overstretched militarily and financially – and must prioritise.  Obama was explicit at UNGA that this means that the US will rigorously reduce the priorities on which it will spend political and military commitment — limiting it to four only.  Its policy is to have ‘no policy’ beyond this. And anyway, the American public mood is no longer prepared for the US to be sucked either by Israel or Saudi Arabia into another Middle Eastern war, for their own distinct purposes.  It is plain enough too that America’s regional allies have not been able to deliver on US interests: they can neither contain Iran, nor stabilize Syria or the region (but rather are actively destabilizing it); and more importantly, they certainly cannot deal with spawning jihadist cells.  It is time for a new balance of power: hence the attempt to re-align with Iran (and Syria, which alone has the capability to inflict meaningful defeat on the jihadists).

And suddenly, two other states feel the ground giving way beneath them. For 50 years, Saudi Arabia has been able pay others to think through, and then to implement, foreign policy on their behalf.  Money was all. Neither did they build the nation institutionally, or in a societally meaningful way, and they took their leadership of the Muslim world for granted ­ doing nothing to build a solid basis for that either. All was “off-shored” and delegated out to service providers (predominantly the US and European intelligence services). The Kingdom has few real friends in the region (even within the GCC). The prospect of a ‘revolutionary’ Shi¹i state coming to the fore almost certainly would spell the end of King Faisal’s dream to impose Wahhabism as the sole legitimate voice of Islam – and indeed may take Islam in a very different direction: one inimical to Salafism. For Saudi Arabia to contemplate allying itself with Israel is a sign of desperation, not strategy: Recall the domestic protest and violence caused by having US troops stationed in Saudi Arabia during the last Gulf war. Internal tensions in Saudi Arabia are mounting. Saudi Arabia simply cannot continue as it is: it has entered a state of dynamic instability, which must end soon – one way or another.

Israel also is in a similar state. Israeli commentators have been noting wryly that Israel was always happy to outsource all its regional interest to the US, as Israel’s “lawyer” to negotiate; but now ­- with the advent of US ‘disinvestment’ from the region – Israel finds itself without a seat at any of the tables of negotiation in which it has a keen interest (presence at the Palestinian table is out of reluctant necessity, more than any genuine enthusiasm).  Furthermore, the Labor Party’s shift in 1992/3 to abandon the Ben-Gurion policy of Israel seeking its alliances amongst regional minorities and in the periphery – in a radical shift to seeking Arab allies ­ – seems to have reached its sell-by date.  The mood among Israelis seems to be that this strategy has brought few benefits (the Arab upheavals have only served to crystalize this notion).  Israel too is casting around for new partners and allies (other than the very uncertain Saudi prospect). Netanyahu’s recent attempt to play Putin against Obama was not a success. Some in Israel perceive its oil and gas deposits as the instrument by which it may lever a new Eastern Mediterranean ‘coalition’: Israel sees Greece and Cyprus as obvious collaborators with it in a gas pipeline to Europe ­- and is eyeing Italy as its potential corridor into Europe. The objective here is that by supplying energy to Europe (Israel has already connected to the European electricity grid), Israel feels it might finally acquire “legitimacy”­ especially if France can be included.  It is also somewhat telling that Israel seems now to perceive that its route to international legitimacy is to be acquired by cleaving closer to the European mainland ­- rather than to be achieved in the region itself.

This may have a certain appeal, but perhaps Israel is being overly sanguine about the potentially explosive politics of East Mediterranean oil and gas deposits, where such a coalition will face harsh power-politics over the demarcation of the Mediterranean EEZs, and the laying of any pipeline to Europe.  There will be elephants stamping in this room. Ultimately, Israel may conclude that it needs its own channel of communication with Iran, rather than be entirely dependent on the US (there are serious commentators there who believe that Israel has seriously “over bid” on Iran, and this fundamental flaw has now been exposed, and resulted in Israel¹s isolation), but that shift in orientation will probably have to await the arrival of a new prime minister in Israel.

It seems that Israel’s erstwhile potential energy partner, Turkey, is now regarded by Israel as too unreliable politically to be considered a part of this tentative ‘East-Med coalition’,­ casting further doubt on Turkey’s own pipeline project. Indeed, Turkey has been doing its own ‘re-balancing’ in light of the US shift of policy on Syria to prioritise the combatting of jihadists over “regime change”.  A bruised Ankara has been mending its bridges with Maliki in Baghdad, and looking to a revived partnership with Iran (setting aside its differences over Syria).

Russia largely has sat quietly-by, through these recent episodes (P5+1 negotiations, and on Syria after the chemical weapons accord).  President Putin, of course, has long thought that international politics had entered upon an unstable and volatile stage of incoherence:  And if western solidarity visibly is fraying (Fabius again), then Russia should stand aloof (Putin might conclude), and watch the unipolar world unravel of itself ­ from the sidelines.  Russia naturally does have a number of basic interests, and these, it seems, are modifying in their conception ­ as a result of regional events. 

Russia has a primordial objective to halt any EU slippage towards its default, and historic mode, of hostility towards Russia.  This is particularly the case following western Europe’s swallowing up of eastern European states into the EU who have little affection for Moscow. The methodology is to woo Germany and to acquire political leverage though becoming the monopoly supplier of energy to Europe.  Russia does not want competition either from Israel or Qatar or some Israeli eastern Mediterranean consortium to interfere with this ambition.

And this is where the Syrian crisis has played its part: The Russians and the Iranians have found themselves moving much closer over the last two years, though there is still residual caution. But effectively, relations have been radically transformed – a revolutionary change. Iran is not intent on challenging Russia’s wish to supply Europe with gas, but rather Iran wishes to carve out a complementary role for Iranian (and Iraqi) energy exports.  It shares too an interest with Russia to support (and even to set) the price of gas. Iran and Iraq will look eastwards (and to their immediate neighborhood), possibly with western international oil company support – whilst Russia primarily looks westward to the EU.

Recent figures released by the US show that China may have overtaken America to become the world’s largest consumer of oil (though the statistical details are disputed by China). The point however, is that China¹s demand is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years, and most of this (60%) comes from Middle East sources, with Iraq now China’s second biggest supplier (on the back of heavy investment by China in Iraq).  Sanctions on Iran account for much of this Chinese focus on Iraq, with Iranian exports to China having fallen from third to sixth place as a result of China’s shift towards Iraqi oil.

What has this to do with the P5+1 negotiation? It helps explain why Iran’s opening is not directed exclusively ­- or even mainly -­ toward the US. From the outset, the Iranian policy has been the transformation of its relations with the external world as a whole: to open itself to friendly relations widely (including to the Gulf), and to have demonstrated a transparent seriousness in trying to resolve issues with America.  There has not been any real expectation in Tehran that the conflict with the US could be fully resolved (because of the legal impediments to lifting sanctions), but there was a sense that it could lead to a de-escalation of tension with America, and the rising of “pockets” of co-operation.

The talks with western states may possibly fail. But were that to happen (as a result of French/Israeli/Saudi sabotage), it would not necessarily represent a failure of the policy per se.  It is possible that the US acting independently would continue to de-escalate tensions and to seek areas of co-operation with Iran (in Afghanistan, Syria, etcera). But more significantly – should the western elements of the P5+1 fall out amongst themselves and prove unable to reach an agreement with Iran,­ we may see the edifice of sanctions peel away. Much (but not all) of the present range of sanctions has flimsy ­- if they have any ­- legal basis, and their enforcement has relied more on US Treasury threats than legality.  In short, the US sanctions edifice may well start to crumble, if the US loses its appetite for arm-twisting. And it is possible that other states may assume the lead in reaching an accommodation with Iran thus leaving the US isolated.  The “anti-polar” refusal of polar authority sentiment is an important factor in this sanctions equation.

And if an accommodation is reached?  One of the unexpected outcomes of the Syria crisis is that Russia has found that its relations with Syria and Iran has been (literally) empowering. It has helped make Russian diplomacy effective; it has given Russia influence and international standing;­ and it has given it a platform in the Middle East.  And it has helped lay the basis for strategic energy co-operation between Russia, Iran and Iraq. Iran wants to supply gas to Syria and Lebanon through a high capacity pipeline; Syria and Lebanon both abut upon potential eastern Mediterranean gas deposits. Ultimately, these flows might possibly join with Russian plans for their South Stream pipeline.

Any P5+1 successful resolution therefore will be unwelcome news for the Gulf ­ both politically and economically.  Such an outcome would likely skew the energy equation to the disadvantage of certain Gulf states, who have grown accustomed to high production and high prices.  As Iraqi (and later Iranian production grows), pressure will grow on Saudi Arabia and others to cut their production, in order to maintain prices.  Revenues for such states will be affected.

The odd one out in this pattern is Egypt. Where will it seek its new alliances? There have been some indications that Egypt senses it now has more in common with Syria ­ than it does with Saudi Arabia. But no Egyptian wants to say this out loud.

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