Stratfor describes the Middle East – after the Iran deal

Summary: What lies in the future of the Middle East once the specter of an nuclear-armed Iran disappears (said tobe imminent every year since 1984)? Not peace, unfortunately. Stratfor describes what to expect in the next chapter of this misgoverned region.

Stratfor

Aftershocks of the Iran Deal:
Why Middle Eastern Conflicts Will Escalate

Stratfor, 28 August 2015

Summary

Tehran’s competitors in the region will not sit idly by without attempting to curb the expansion of Iranian influence. This will not manifest in all-out warfare between the Middle East’s most significant powers; Iran is not the only country well versed in the use of proxies. But the conflicts that are already raging in the region will continue unabated and likely only worsen. These clashes will occur on multiple fault lines: Sunni versus Shiite, for example, plus ethnic conflicts among Turks, Iranians, Arabs, Kurds, and other groups. The Iranian nuclear deal in the short term thus means more conflict, not less.

Flag of Turkey

Turkey

Stratfor has long predicted that the role of regional hegemon will eventually fall to Turkey, which boasts the largest economy in the Middle East and is strategically situated at the confluence of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, on the Sea of Marmara. It is not a coincidence that what is now the Turkish commercial capital spent more than 1,500 years as the center of powerful empires, from 330 CE, when the Byzantine Empire was founded, until 1918, when the Ottoman Empire fell.

Like the United States, Turkey has some converging interests with Iran; its rivalry with its neighbor to the east is not a zero-sum competition. For one, Turkey depends on Iranian oil, which in 2014 made up 26% of Turkey’s oil imports. Lifting sanctions on Iran will offer Turkey’s commercial class, which is hungry for the potential economic returns, ample opportunity to invest.

Besides the economic links between the two powers, Tehran and Ankara also share some strategic interests. For example, both oppose the rise of an independent Kurdish state from the ashes of the Syrian civil war and the Iraqi conflict. While Tehran has at times offered military support to Kurds fending off the Islamic State in Iraq, Iran has a significant Kurdish population of its own, with estimates ranging anywhere from 6 million to 7 million people. Almost 15% of Turkey’s population is Kurdish, and Ankara has had to contend with Kurdish insurgency since 1984.

Stratfor: map of the Middle East

More broadly, however, Turkey and Iran are natural competitors. And even though Kurdish containment is a common interest between the rivals, the Kurds are also a useful tool for each to undermine the other. Thus, Kurdistan is the natural battleground between Turkey and Iran, and the two powers will use factions against one another as their competition increases. And though Turkey is predominantly Sunni and Iran predominantly Shiite, it is important to note that Ankara and Tehran seek to establish dominance over a region that is predominantly Arab. For many Arabs, choosing between Turkish or Persian rule is like choosing between death by drowning or by immolation.

Turkey’s relationship with the Islamic State is unclear; only in recent months has Turkey’s policy toward the militant group changed from passive acquiescence to active disruption. This may be because Turkey feels that Islamic State is becoming a domestic threat, with cells and operatives located across the country. Ankara may also have grown weary and frustrated with the fact that the West looks more favorably upon the prospect of Kurdish independence when it hears and sees that the Kurds seem to be the most effective force fighting the Islamic State.

Turkey has been adamant about seeing the downfall of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, actively supplying and training militants to fight Damascus. Ankara regards the Levant as its own sphere of influence, and it does not look kindly upon Iranian attempts to expand in the region. The possibility that Turkey will take a more active role in Syria also cannot be dismissed, especially in light of recent reports that Turkey is considering moving its military into northern Syria to create a buffer zone that would prevent Syrian Kurdish expansion and significantly weaken the Islamic State, enabling Sunni insurgents to focus their resources on continuing the assault on the al Assad government.

Saudi Arabia Flag & Oil Barrels

Saudi Arabia

Unlike Turkey, Saudi Arabia has relatively few if any shared interests with Iran. The kingdom is an Arab, Sunni power, and the Wahhabism sect of Islam to which most Saudis subscribe views Shiites with deep suspicion.

With a Shiite minority making up between 10% and 15% of its population, and with Iraq no longer a bulwark against Iran’s ambitions, Saudi Arabia rightly sees itself on the front line of the conflict with Iran.

That most of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite population lives in close proximity to the country’s massive oil fields, which are the source of Saudi wealth and power, makes the specter of Iranian expansion all the more alarming to Riyadh. As recently as 2011, Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain to help put down unrest in the Sunni-ruled, Shiite-majority country, precisely because it feared Iran might use the situation to extend its reach in the Gulf.

Like Turkey, Saudi Arabia wants to see the downfall of the al Assad government, which would deal a crippling blow to Iranian influence in the region. For a time, the Saudis thought that the Islamic State could help them achieve that goal. That plan has backfired on Riyadh, as it must now deal with threats from both the Islamic State and al Qaeda. Still, Saudi Arabia continues to support other Sunni militants in Syria fighting against loyalist forces, and it, along with Jordan, is reportedly providing arms to Sunni tribes fighting in Iraq.

Unlike Turkey and Iran, Saudi Arabia has no immediate Kurdish problem, and Stratfor is already observing signs that the House of Saud will assist Kurdish elements in Iraq militarily. How far the Saudis will pursue this strategy, and which Kurdish factions the Saudis will support, is unclear. But the Iranians are already trying to provoke minority groups in Saudi Arabia, so the Saudis will likely at least attempt to embolden an autonomous Kurdistan capable of affecting regional economic and security issues — even though supporting the Kurds will mar Riyadh’s relationship with Ankara. After all, though both are Sunni powers, Saudi Arabia has almost as little interest in seeing Turkey dominate the Middle East as it does Iran.

In 2014, Saudi Arabia did attempt to start a diplomatic dialogue with Iran, but this effort quickly deteriorated with the beginning of the conflict in Yemen. With Riyadh focused on battling the Shiites and the Islamic State in the rest of the region, it was caught off guard when Iranian-backed Houthi rebels made significant military gains in Yemen, at one point even capturing Sanaa, the capital. Saudi Arabia has since committed air and land power to the conflict, and by April 2015 the tide had begun to turn. Since the six world powers agreed to a nuclear deal with Iran, Saudi-backed anti-Houthi forces in Yemen have won major victories in the Gulf of Aden.

These types of conflicts are already the norm across the region, and the rehabilitation of Iran’s international image coupled with Tehran’s desires to expand its domain will lead to more of the same.

Modern Egyptian Architecture

Egypt

Egypt, like Saudi Arabia, is an Arab, Sunni power, but one whose ability to act is much more constrained than Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Still, Cairo is an important part of the balance of power that the United States is trying to establish in the Middle East, as evidenced by Washington’s abrupt amnesia regarding the coup that ousted democratically-elected President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, as soon as Iranian-backed forces in Yemen reared their heads in 2014. In addition, from the U.S. perspective, the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979 remains one of the defining features of the region.

Yet Egypt faces serious internal issues of its own, as it tries to roll back a subsidy regime, elect a parliament, contain social unrest, and manage multiple jihadist threats in the country, including disturbingly competent attacks in Cairo and the Sinai Peninsula. Despite this, Egyptian forces are also active in Yemen, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was in Russia this week to discuss economic ties and the situation in Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia have increased cooperation in recent months and may try to pool their resources to protect the Arab heartland of the Middle East. A joint Arab defense force under development could easily become part of this plan and is one of Cairo’s ways of attempting to maintain a prominent role in the regional alignment.

Overall, the Iran nuclear deal then will not mean less violence or war; it will mean more. The uprisings in the Arab world in 2011 created power vacuums across the region; proxies supported by outside powers, as well as local militias and groups, found new space in which to operate. Conflict in the region will become increasingly about Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt using various groups to compete against one other, rather than groups taking advantage of failed states to carve out small fiefdoms of power and responsibility for themselves.

Aftershocks of the Iran Deal is republished with permission of Stratfor.

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8 thoughts on “Stratfor describes the Middle East – after the Iran deal

  1. I am intrigued by the way Stratfor veers from accurately representing information to presenting a highly unlikely spin on the news in the last few paragraphs.

    “this week to discuss economic ties and the situation in Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin.”
    This seems accurate and makes sense. The Americans are a bit squishy about supporting the Egyptian regime in spite of the US government’s amnesia about the coup (also accurately reported by Stratfor, by the way) and it makes sense for the Egyptians to try to find another patron and to play the old Cold War game. But the Russians are no longer the Soviets, and while I’m sure they WANT influence in the area, I am not sure they can afford it. Still, Stratfor’s comments are not unreasonable to this point and the Egyptian situation bears watching.

    “Egypt and Saudi Arabia have increased cooperation in recent months and may try to pool their resources to protect the Arab heartland of the Middle East…”
    This seems like accurate reporting on the surface but does not acknowledge the issues the two countries face. Egypt is an insular country with a horrible economy and the current government does not have the tools to make it better, especially because of the increasing internal dissent noted earlier. Saudi Arabia is an insular country which has pissed off all of its neighbors except Jordan by chopping the price of oil. The Saudi government simmering internal security issues, nasty foreign policy issues caused by past tone-deaf actions, and is dipping into its massive foreign reserves to stay afloat. Neither country has the tools to extend their influence more than a few miles beyond their borders and the populations of both countries would be unhappy if they tried.

    “Overall, the Iran nuclear deal then will not mean less violence or war; it will mean more.”
    Wait, what was that? Where did this come from? While the statement is true, the reverse: a failure to get an Iranian nuclear deal, would not mean less violence, it would also mean more violence with Iran striving even harder to get the bomb. All of the evidence presented by Stratfor up to this point implies this. But Stratfor implies, by a lack of analysis, that they believe that a lack of an Iranian deal will reduce violence in a highly contested, politically unstable region.

    This massive failure in an otherwise well written article is disconcerting and makes you wonder what other fantasies are being entertained in the Versailles on the Potomac (aka the White House) and the Puzzle Palace (aka the Pentagon).

    1. Not much to add, other than you have a great point here. Someone tell me, how exactly does this deal leads to more war? The connection between more war and the Iran nuclear deal, it’s just incoherent. Obama’s nuclear deal with Tehran has triggered profound cognitive dissonance in the war party. I support the deal with Iran, for this alone.

  2. Overall, if STRATFOR’s analysis is accurate, these developments could be good for US (as in the U.S.) because it seems as if the Muslims in the Middle East will be busy solving their internecine battles in their own culturally inimical ways and will have less resources available to exporting their barbarism to the U.S.

  3. When economies turn south and peasants start revolting governments typical start wars. War is after all the health of the state. This is the central dynamic in MENA. Certainly more important than Sunni vs Shiites and ancient tribal feuds. It’s the economy stupid. Again.

    1. Peter,

      “When economies turn south”

      That is a commonplace of history.

      “peasants start revolting”

      Peasants revolt frequently (see list at Wikipedia). They’re usually poorly led and so easily crushed. Real revolutions require a base in the middle or upper classes, which is quite rare. The large role of the few successful revolutions (e.g., in France and America) in our imagination leads people to exaggerate their frequency.

  4. Turkey and Iran are the only Middle Eastern Muslim countries that will make it. The rest will get worse. Egypt is the biggest grain importer in the world–they are not self-sufficient for their food. And if and when America cuts off aid to them, they will starve.

    Pakistan is in a similar, if not worse, situation.

    And forget about the Arabs. The deal will Iran is a good idea. It is appropriate that we adjust our alliances now, and side with the strong. When the time comes, Iran, Turkey, Israel and America will get together to divvy up amongst themselves what’s rest of the destruction wrought in the Muslim world.

    1. Irving,

      “Egypt is the biggest grain importer in the world–they are not self-sufficient for their food.”

      There is no reason a nation has to be self-sufficient in anything. Many prosperous nations rely on imports for key supplies, such as Singapore and Japan.

      “And if and when America cuts off aid to them, they will starve.”

      Only if they’re eating ammo. US aid to Egypt in FY2014 was $1.5 billion. But only $200B of that was non-military aid. It’s a dot compared to their GDP of $325B.

      “Pakistan is in a similar, if not worse, situation.”

      Ditto for Pakistan. Our non-military aid is a dot compared to their GDP.

      “the deal with Iran is a good idea.”

      I agree!

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