Summary: The six world powers and Iran have come to an agreement about the curbing of Iran’s nuclear program. But it would be a mistake to assume that this agreement will result in an immediate, or even short-term, decrease in violence or competition among the Middle East’s strongest powers. In fact, the opposite will be the case. Iran will use its newfound international legitimacy to attempt to realize its ambitions to become the regional hegemon. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and a host of small countries and even smaller religious and ethnic groups will all compete and at times align for influence.
After the Nuclear Deal, a Region Recalibrates
Stratfor, 28 July 2015
Though reams of bureaucratic red tape remain to be cut in the coming months, it seems likely that the joint accord will pass the U.N. Security Council. Furthermore, it will be extremely difficult for both houses of the U.S. Congress to muster the two-thirds votes necessary to prevent the lifting of certain U.S. sanctions levied against the Islamic Republic.
Normalization with the West will give Iran the chance to improve its economy and recruit foreign investment, and will also open up potential relationships that sanctions prevented from developing. Proxy battles and diplomatic rapprochements on the periphery of the Middle East will continue apace, but Iran’s primary focus will be on Baghdad. Control of Iraq is the necessary condition for Iran projecting force in the Middle East, whereas lack of control or, worse, control of Iraq by another outside power, would constitute a direct threat.
Ambitions of Other Power
But Iran will have to contend with other regional powers. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the other heavyweights in the balance of power the United States seeks to create in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia hopes to lead a broad Sunni Arab coalition against Iran. Egypt has much in common with Saudi Arabia, but it also has its own ambitions and will bristle at taking a junior role. Saudi Arabia’s and Egypt’s interests will coincide most of the time, but the partnership will not be without competition. Egypt’s domestic concerns, however, will limit how successfully Cairo can play this game.
Turkey, like Iran, is a non-Arab power seeking to dominate the region, and Arab memories of the Ottoman Empire are not exactly rosy. Turkey’s relationship with Iran is not as antagonistic as that of major Sunni Arab powers: Turkey imported 26 percent of its oil from Iran in 2014 and is one of the biggest markets for Iranian natural gas. But Turkey is also a Sunni power, and of the three Sunni heavyweights, it is the most capable and equipped to prevent Iran from realizing its objectives. Turkey views the Middle East as its sphere of influence and will not look kindly on any country, whether Iran or Saudi Arabia, encroaching on its ambitions.
The most vociferous critic of the Iran nuclear deal has been Israel. The Iran deal for Israel is the final punctuation mark of a U.S.-initiated realignment of the relationship with Israel. The Iran deal is obviously not in Israel’s interests, but it is not the catastrophe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is making it out to be. Moreover, it illuminates sturdy bedrock upon which the close relationship between Israel and the United States will continue to rest.
With Iran freed from pariah status, Israel represents the United States’ insurance policy for the complicated game it is playing should developments not proceed according to plan. Israel may be forced to the front lines often in the coming years, but it will be able to lean on Washington should dire needs beyond its control arise.
Long-Term vs. Short-Term Forecasts
Stratfor’s long-term forecast is that if one’s default unit of measurement for time is in decades, then Turkey will become the pre-eminent power in the Middle East. There are a great many pieces on the board that must be settled first, most important in Iraq and Syria, but also in Lebanon and Yemen. Israel has a role to play in that process, ensuring that Iran cannot secure the type of anchor on the coast of the Levant that would insulate it from the Turkish rise.
The United States, however, does not want any one power to become too dominant, and Israel will continue to prove integral to U.S. aims by also preventing Turkey from being able to claim the region as its own personal sphere of influence.
Conversation: Shifting Alliances in the Middle East
If the time scale is reduced to weeks and months, however, the future is much more uncertain; the conflicts in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Syria will be the central issues that define the region. Iran will seek to empower its Shiite allies in Iraq, and its ability to meaningfully project influence beyond proxies in the region will depend on its success. The Saudis and Egyptians will empower Iraqi Sunnis to counter Iran’s allies. They may also flirt with increasing support to Kurdish factions, in part to provide an Arab counterweight to Iran’s relatively close ties to Kurdish groups and to give Ankara a reason to think twice about pursuing its interests without regard to Riyadh and Cairo.
Tehran will look for weak points in the Gulf monarchies; Riyadh and Cairo will respond by attempting to forge a regional, Arab coalition to combat Iran. All of the various powers will view the Islamic State as a menace, and unexpected temporary fellowships to root out the group’s strongholds will materialize concurrently with regional competition. Unless the Islamic State is able to form more pragmatic relationships with neighbors rather than lash out at what it sees as a universal epidemic of blasphemy, it will be crippled by a broader, regionwide push to eliminate it.
These dynamics are what will shape the Middle East now that the Iran nuclear deal has finally been signed and will be the focal point of the future pieces tied to this series. The breakdown of governments such as those in Iraq and Syria created chaos in the region’s heart, and out of the disorder sprang multiple small groups with various ideologies. The stakes for the Middle East’s major powers, Ankara, Cairo, Riyadh and Tehran, have been raised, and each will attempt to shape the development of the region by inserting itself into the vacuums that have been created by general upheaval.
Smaller countries and small ethnic or religious groups will be caught in the crossfire and forced to balance old loyalties with new realities. Conflict in the Middle East will still appear chaotic, but more and more it will have a deeper rationale. Rather than merely using proxies to wage one central free-for-all, various opponents will be playing a many-sided game of chess, deliberately moving their pawns into formation, jockeying for position in the region’s center and readying for the larger battles that will eventually come.
Iran’s reconciliation with the West has diluted power in the region. The United States will no longer intervene with its direct, forceful approach of the past, and Iran’s improving relationship with the West will enable it to better compete with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The region’s heavyweights now have similar strength but different ambitions. The result will be several recalibrations that will involve more fighting, more battling proxies and strange temporary alliances. As in centuries past, the potential rise of a Shiite power will bind together the Sunni Arab world, and Turkey — slowly, deliberately, at times unwillingly — will be drawn into maintaining stability in the lands south of Anatolia.
This is the first installment of an occasional series on the evolving fortunes of the Middle East that Stratfor will be building upon periodically.
After the Nuclear Deal, a Region Recalibrates
is republished with permission of Stratfor.
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For More Information
Other articles about the Iran deal:
- “Shaking Up Alignments in the Middle East” by Paul R. Pillar.
- Stratfor: what the Iran deal means for oil prices.
- Stratfor: how the Iran deal will change the long-term price of oil.
- The hidden objective of our alliance against Iran, June 2012.
- Threats to attack Iran are smoke. Sanctions on Iran are our tool. Weakening Iran is our goal., June 2012.
- Hegemon at work on Iran, doing what hegemonic powers do. No war needed – or likely., July 2012.
- Our crusade slowly crushes Iran, and reveals much about us, October 2012.
- Obama’s great deal with Iran: getting Iran’s “yes” was the easy part., April 2015.