July 25, 2011

MIDDLE EAST: REGIONAL POWER PLAY BECOMES MORE COMPLEX


By Dr Subhash Kapila

Introductory Observations

The Middle East has always been the arena for power play of global powers and continues to be so. This was analysed in my paper on the subject (Paper No. 4336 dated15 February 2011). However within that overall game and as a crucial sub-text is the emergence of complex power games of the regional powers of the Middle East.

The major regional powers of the Middle East which have conspicuously figured in any strategic calculus of the Middle East and the global powers have been Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. Syria and Iraq, though not in the same league also figure as important regional determinants.

Of the regional powers named above, Egypt along with Saudi Arabia and Turkey till lately were considered staunch allies of the United States and the West and in the overall balance of power in the Middle East weighed it heavily in favour of the United States.

Egypt was the second largest recipient of United States military and financial aid after Israel. Saudi Arabia enjoyed a close strategic partnership with the United States. Turkey was the bedrock of the Eastern Flank of NATO security.

All three of these completed the United States security architecture of the Middle East which after the disintegration of the Soviet Union was basically configured to pre-empting the rise of any regional power threatening US strategic interests in the region, namely Iraq and Iran.

With the regime change in Iraq and its coming under US control, Iran remains the prime target of the United States. But in tandem, developments have emerged in the Middle East that are not very favourable for US security and strategic interests.

Egypt has witnessed massive political upheaval leading to overthrow of United States backed President Mubarak. Saudi Arabia has in recent years adopted ‘hedging strategies’ against United States by moving closer to Russia and China. Turkey despite its continuance in NATO has adopted foreign policy postures which cannot be described as promotive of United States interests.

Iran continues as adversarial to the United States in the absence of any meaningful political reach- out to Iran by the United States. Iran continues with its nuclear program and possibly can only be a screw driver turn away from a nuclear weapon assembly.

While the United States may not have lost its leverages and clout in the Middle East but there seems to be a strategic churning taking place regionally within the Middle East in which Turkey and Iran as the more prominent regional powers seem to be moving in the direction of discovering strategic convergences and alignments.
Two such alignments which have caught the eye are the Turkey-Iran-Syria alignment and the tentative moves by Pakistan and Iran for forming an Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan Triangle under the guise of counter-terrorism cooperation.

In both these strategic moves, Iran emerges as the common denominator and both these moves are certainly not friendly towards the United States in their orientation.

This paper intends to examine both these strategic moves in more detail as both have the potential to alter the balance of power in the Middle East.

Turkey-Iran-Syria Alignment: Political & Strategic Perspectives

Iran and Syria stand aligned together politically and strategically for a number of years and both these nations have not enjoyed normal relations with the United States. Turkey is the new addition to this grouping and with a Turkey veering off from the United States and NATO alignments newer and more ominous contours are being added to this emerging alignment.

Politically, the complexion of the Turkey-Iran –Syria alignment is more non-Arab because of Turkey and Iran. Syria is the only Arab state in this alignment in a Middle East abounding with a majority of Arab States.

Politically, the grouping also has to be viewed in terms of stance of the member states of this alignment in relation to Israel. Iran and Syria have been in strong adversarial stances towards Israel. Turkey till recently had a military cooperation relationship with Israel and has only recently revised its policy postures towards Israel when under the present political dispensation in a bid to play a greater political role in the Middle East, Turkey became pro-actively engaged in favour of the Palestine cause.

Politically, all the three states of this alignment are in good relationship with Russia predominantly and Turkey and Iran are engaged in military cooperation with China.

On the face of it, by the very nature of Turkey-Iran-Syria grouping as highly militarized nations of the Middle East they impart a strategic significance of unsettling the balance of power in the Middle East.

The regional strategic balance is visibly upset when one views that the two major regional powers of military consequence have combined in this grouping of geopolitical and geostrategic significance.

In terms of intra-regional military balance Saudi Arabia as the main regional contender for power in the Gulf in opposition to Iran now seems to have suffered a strategic setback.

United States strategically in Gulf power play politics has apparently lost a fair measure of strategic leverage to dominantly influence the power politics in the Gulf as it has now only Saudi Arabia with questionable ‘hedging strategy’ approaches to the United States.

In terms of future perspectives there over-hang many strategic uncertainties in terms of the longevity and strategic cohesion of the Turkey-Iran-Syria alignment. But undoubtedly the potential of its emerging as a credible alignment seems to have disturbed the policy establishment in Washington and Western capitals.

Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan Triangle: Iran and Pakistan as the Motive Forces

This triangular configuration presently more geopolitical in nature but one with geostrategic potential has visibly come into focus more after the United States targeted military liquidation of Osama bin Laden deep within Pakistan three months back.

Ostensibly under the garb of a regional counter-terrorism regional initiative the heads of state of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan gathered in Teheran last month for this purpose.

Politically, Iran-Pakistan relations have been an on-off swing relationship. Iran viewed with disfavour and resentment Pakistan’s strategic partnership with the United States.

Politically, Iran stands ranged against Saudi Arabia in a power tussle for leadership in the Middle East. This was an additional factor with which Iran viewed Pakistan with disfavour.

Since politics makes strange bedfellows Pakistan has made political moves to draw closer to Iran including the Iran-Pakistan Pipeline which could add revenues to Iran.

Pakistan’s political moves to Iran have come into sharper focus after the ongoing strategic denouement in Pakistan relations with the United States, Iran has cashed in on a United States-cornered Pakistan much to the dismay of the United States.

Afghanistan presently under United States political and military control seems to be the odd man out in this triangular configuration. Afghanistan has been prevailed upon by Pakistan earlier to cast its lot with China and now seems to have been drawn in again by Pakistan towards this triangular configuration preying on the uncertainties that worry President Karzai about the course that the United States pursues on Afghanistan.

In strategic terms the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan configuration does not count much presently even though Iran and Pakistan have outsized conventional military machines which stand tested in combat. Both Iran and Pakistan have a sizeable ballistic missiles arsenal. Pakistan is a nuclear weapons power and Iran can said to be having a basement nuclear bomb.

In terms of political and strategic perspectives on its longevity the prospects are not very promising. There is too much inherent vulnerability within Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan which hamper any forceful and assertive strategic moves and that too aimed at the United States.

Concluding Observations

The Turkey-Iran-Syria politico-strategic alignment and the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan triangular configuration are not any earth-shaking game changers in the Middle East. The former is definitely a Middle East grouping and the latter lies at the periphery of the Middle East.

These presently should be viewed only as political moves even though if fully crystallized they could be of strategic significance.

In terms of significance both need to be considered as aimed at shaking of the stranglehold of the United States yoke on Middle East affairs and creating more elbow space for the participants within the region.

Noteworthy is the fact that in both these politico-strategic regional configurations, Iran emerges as the strategic magnet to which other participant nations have been drawn to.

Noteworthy is also the fact that in case of the six nations involved in this strategic realignment in the Middle East, five nations are non-Arab states with only Syria as the Arab participant.

Does the above spell the end of Arab dominance of Middle East strategic architecture led by Saudi Arabia? In terms of intra-regional power tussle do the present configurations indicate that Iran has prevailed over Saudi Arabia? The latter does suggest so and that carries implications for the United States and Israel.


(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email:drsubhashkapila.007@gmail.com)

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