Home / Articles / Shifting Poles in the Middle East: Implications for U.S. Regional Strategy
The Arab uprisings and subsequent civil wars sweeping the region beginning in late 2010 have fundamentally shifted the internal regional balance of power in ways that U.S. policy has yet to account for. Pro-Western autocrats in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen who played key roles in U.S. regional policies for decades were suddenly ousted by public protests and pressures that had been building for decades. More recently, widescale public protests in Lebanon and Iraq are threatening to unseat existing governments there promising even more uncertainty and tumult in a region already teetering on the edge. Meanwhile, civil wars raging in Syria, Libya, and Yemen have left these countries divided, weak, and desperately poor with little prospect of meaningful recovery for a generation or more. Additionally, various Arab states are backing a host of divided and competing factions and militias—increasing regional instability and draining the limited economic and manpower of all states engaged in this competition.
These developments have left the traditional centers of power in the Arab world in a state of atrophy while bolstering the relative power of the non-Arab states in the region: Iran, Israel, and Turkey. Saudi Arabia has emerged as perhaps the most significant exception to this trend as Riyadh has thus far successfully exploited its oil wealth, claims of religious leadership, and strong connections to Washington to bolster its domestic and international standing.
U.S. policy going forward will need to navigate carefully between these shifting regional poles of power in Tehran, Riyadh, Ankara, and Tel Aviv—seeking to capitalize on opportunities for joint cooperation with any party that constructively advances U.S. interests while avoiding unnecessary entanglements and commitments that would drain U.S. resources and otherwise restrict U.S. freedom of maneuver.
The 1979 Iranian Revolution brought a theologically oriented regime to power in Tehran that saw itself as the rightful leader of the broader Islamic community. Although a religious Shi’a and Persian minority in a region dominated by Sunni Arabs, Tehran has sought to spread Iranian influence primarily through its extensive network of political, economic, and military contacts with fellow Shi’a communities and militias centered in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen.
U.S. policy since the revolution has been to isolate and contain Iranian influence subjecting Tehran to a network of American and international sanctions designed to prevent Iran from acquiring the technology needed to build a nuclear weapon, limit its ballistic missile program, and constrain its support to terrorist organizations. These economic pressures were only briefly eased after President Barack Obama had secured international backing for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015, but have since been re-imposed with increased vigor under President Donald Trump.
Despite these U.S. pressures, Iran retains several strengths, which make it both a challenging foe and potentially useful partner. In terms of traditional sources of hard power, Iran hosts one of the region’s largest populations (second only to Egypt) and contains the world’s second largest natural gas reserves and fourth largest oil reserves. While its conventional military power has been weakened severely by decades of economic and military sanctions, Tehran has compensated by: pursuing a strategy of asymmetric advantage through a regional network of Shi’a militia groups trained, equipped, and sponsored under the leadership of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); developing significant capabilities in the realm of cyber warfare; and building a civilian nuclear program that could provide the technological foundation for a nuclear weapons program at some point in the future. Moreover, Tehran’s deep and enduring contacts with regional Shi’a communities spread throughout the region leave it well positioned to exploit societal divisions and expand its regional influence for better or worse in places like Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Indeed, Iraq is illustrative of the dual nature of Iran’s support to regional militias. On the one hand, Iran-backed Shi’a militias were critical to the military campaign to oust ISIS from Iraq, but on the other, the strength of these non-state actors poses a direct challenge to central authorities in Baghdad and undermines U.S. influence. Finally, leaders in Tehran have the demonstrated ability to inflict significant damage on U.S. and Arab interests in the region as demonstrated by the September 14 missile and drone attacks on refining facilities in Saudi Arabia.
With the latest U.S. announcement of additional sanctions, the Trump administration appears committed to its “maximum pressure” campaign dedicated to compelling changes in Iran’s behavior. However, the international and regional consensus behind the U.S. anti-Iran strategy is badly fraying. U.S. allies in Europe and in Arab capitals are pursuing a different path that seeks some level of accommodation with Iran. Leaders in Germany, Britain, and France are seeking to preserve the Iran nuclear deal by creating alternative means of facilitating both international business investments and the provision of humanitarian goods to Iran. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates has sent a military delegation to Tehran to discuss coordinating security efforts to protect shipping in the Gulf even as leaders in Riyadh are reaching out to Iran with the aim of lowing regional tensions.
Meanwhile, the tit-for-tat escalatory steps taken by Iran to grow its stocks of uranium at higher levels of enrichment, to restart enrichment at the underground facilities at Fordow, and to attack Western interests in the Gulf could ultimately result in armed conflict whether by design or miscalculation.
The U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship has been a major linchpin of American Middle East strategy since President Franklin D. Roosevelt met Saudi King Abdulaziz aboard the USS Quincy in 1945. It is a relationship that for decades has centered on securing Western access to Saudi Arabia’s substantial energy reserves. Over these decades, Saudi Arabia directly contributed to U.S. interests by using its position as a major swing producer of oil to stabilize global oil markets at critical junctures. However, the Kingdom has also been widely criticized for using its wealth to promote a puritan and reactionary Wahhabi version of Islamic theology, which now fuels many of the violent Sunni jihadi terrorist groups threatening Western interests around the globe.
President Trump has placed his relationship with Saudi leaders at the top of the U.S. security agenda for the Middle East. He made his first overseas visit as president to Riyadh, where he emphasized the importance of the Kingdom in combatting terrorism, countering Iran, and purchasing billions of dollars of American-made weapons. Up to this point, President Trump has refused to blame Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) for his role in the brutal dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and has vetoed Congressional resolutions demanding an end to U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen that has contributed to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia is now being effectively ruled by MbS who is the King’s son, heir apparent, and at 34 years old stands to rule the country for several decades to come. At home, MbS is pushing a forward-looking economic agenda aimed at diversifying the Kingdom’s oil-based economy, boosting the private sector, and creating a more favorable environment for foreign investment. He has also said he wants to foster a more tolerant version of Islam that is not susceptible to being hijacked by violent terrorist groups for their own purposes. However, MbS has shown no signs of undertaking any serious domestic political reforms that would be more inclusive or serve as a basis to weaken the strong ruling hand of the Saud family. Moreover, his behavior overseas has been reckless and costly. As Defense Minister, he plunged Saudi Arabia into an ill-advised quagmire in Yemen that has highlighted its military incompetence, drained its fiscal coffers, and raised doubts about the wisdom of his leadership. Moreover, he led a regional campaign to isolate Qatar that has only created another opportunity for Iran and Turkey to expand their political, commercial, and military presence in the region.
For now, Saudi Arabia presents the veneer of stability as MbS appears to have consolidated his internal control, has offered a vision for economic reforms, and is taking initial steps aimed at winding down the conflict in neighboring Yemen. However, the waves of Arab protests that have overwhelmed other ruling regimes in the region could unexpectedly come to Saudi shores.
For almost 70 years, the United States has valued Turkey as a NATO Ally and strategic partner. When Recep Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2003, the United States hoped that the Republic would become an example of how Islam and democracy could co-exist in a secular state. Over time, Erdogan’s Islamic leanings and domestic repression have increasingly tarnished the image of Turkey as a secular democracy. After the failed 2016 coup attempt, Erodgan blamed his former ally, Fethullah Gulen, and the U.S. for failing to extradite Gulen from his compound in the Poconos. This and other developments have caused Turkey’s partnership with the United States to come under increasing strain.
On paper, Turkey should be one of the strongest players in the region. Turkey has a population of about 83 million people—about the same size as Germany. According to the International Monetary Fund, Turkey has a $706 billion economy and is part of a customs union with the European Union. In fact, the EU is Turkey’s top trading and investment partner. Turkey also has the largest military in the region, the second largest in NATO, and has a strategic role on NATO’s southeastern flank.
However, of the four regional powers, Turkey is perhaps the most unstable. Economically, it is plagued by high inflation and flailing investor confidence. Turkey also faces a solvency crisis, as the lira falls and debt levels increase, and it is reconsidering the net benefits of the EU customs union. The Syrian civil war created a massive influx of some 3.6 million refugees and migrants who are being hosted by Turkey today. While the EU has at least partially compensated Turkey for this burden, to the tune of over 6 billion euro, Turkish citizens are losing their patience with the refugees. In addition, Erdogan’s open support for the Muslim Brotherhood has placed him into open conflict with regional leaders in Riyadh, Tel Aviv, and Cairo.
Erdogan’s obsession with the (real but exaggerated) security threat posed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an organization designated as a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S., and many European countries, has led him to intervene militarily on multiple occasions into neighboring Syria and Iraq. These operations have strained Turkey’s military that is still reeling from massive leadership purges of senior and mid-level officers ordered by Erdogan in wake of the failed 2016 coup. These Turkish interventions into the sovereign affairs of neighbors have at various times exacerbated tensions with leaders in Baghdad, Damascus, Washington, Brussels, and Moscow alike.
Both the United States and NATO have pushed back strongly against Turkey’s deal to purchase S400 missiles from Russia resulting in Turkey’s suspension from the F-35 fighter program. Things deteriorated further when Turkey recently notified the United States that it was going to establish a 30 mile safe zone in northern Syria. Operation Peace Spring, as the invasion is called, was facilitated by President Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from the route of Turkish advance. As a result, Turkey, Russia, and forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad have deployed troops to fill the ensuing vacuum.
Turkey no longer seems content to be a client state of the United States in its own backyard. In fact, recent polling indicates that over 80 percent of the Turkish public now views the U.S. as a threat rather than an ally. Public threats by President Trump to destroy the Turkish economy reinforce those perceptions.
Israel is perhaps more secure than ever before despite its limited geographic size and small population of 8.5 million people. It boasts a vibrant open market economy that provides a higher standard of living than many Western countries, boasts a competitive high-technology sector, supports a modern infrastructure, and has an impressive record of fostering innovative startup companies. Recent discoveries of extensive natural gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean have the potential to bolster Israel’s already strong economic prospects and forge cooperative business ventures with neighboring Arab states. Additionally, despite the negative stigma of its continued occupation of Palestine, Israel shares many values and a democratic political system with the United States. It also benefits from strong and active constituencies within America’s Jewish and Evangelical Christian populations that make support for Israel a domestic as well as a foreign policy concern for American leaders.
Regional threats to Israel’s security have eased, benefiting from continued U.S. military assistance (currently $3.3 billion annually for 2019-2028) and strong relations with Egypt and Jordan—the two Arab countries traditionally posing a sustained and significant conventional military threat to Israel. To Israel’s north, Syria and Lebanon are now confronting serious political, economic, and social divisions that are consuming the attention of leaders in Damascus and Beirut and will prevent these states from presenting a serious conventional military threat for years to come. America’s 2003 military intervention into Iraq removed Saddam Hussein as a potent security threat. Moreover, Baghdad’s domestic political turmoil and inward focus on the more immediate threat posed by ISIS effectively eliminates this regional player as a meaningful threat to Israel’s security. These developments leave Iran and its proxies in Syria and Lebanon as the most serious regional threat to Israel’s security.
Fortunately, Israel today benefits from the security concerns of other Arab states who are similarly focused on the threat posed by Iran’s growing influence. Although public opinion in the Arab Street remains strongly anti-Israeli, many regional governments have formed increasingly strong security ties with Israel based on their own pragmatic needs. Israel’s southern and eastern flanks are largely secure (other than the contained but combustible situation in Gaza), and Egypt and Jordan share Israeli concerns about the threat posed by Islamist terrorist groups. Aside from Iran, the only other major negative trend is Israeli-Turkish relations. While Israel benefited from strong relationships with pragmatic Turkish governments in the 1990s, relations with the more Islamist Erdogan government have taken a decidedly negative turn.
Israel’s concerns about the growing threat from Iran have led it to take an increasingly aggressive active unilateral military and diplomatic measures. Militarily, Israel continues periodic, but extensive, airstrikes throughout Syria against Iranian or Iranian-backed targets and has demonstrated its willingness to risk inflammatory and potentially escalatory after-effects. One strike even led to Syrian air defenses shooting down a Russian jet in the ensuing confusion. More recently, a series of Israeli drone strikes against Iranian proxies in Iraq have threatened the fragile U.S.-Iraqi relationship and could potentially have placed U.S. military forces in Iraq at risk of Iranian retaliation. On the diplomatic front, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s willingness to intervene directly in U.S. domestic politics to undermine President Obama’s effort to secure a nuclear deal with Iran jeopardized America’s historic bipartisan support for Israel.
Given the present trajectory, Israel appears on course for continued confrontations with Iranian proxies in Lebanon and Syria that could potentially escalate if Iranian forces are directly targeted or Israel suffers a significant strike on its own territory or population centers. Moreover, a reinvigorated Iranian nuclear program could eventually prompt Israel to take unilateral action against Tehran through conventional military means such as previous Israeli military strikes on suspected Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities or through cyberwarfare or other asymmetric response independent of U.S. preferences or concerns. U.S. policymakers will need to work constantly to align U.S. and Israeli actions in a region where threat perceptions and potential alliances are constantly in flux.
Implications for U.S. Policy
In a region increasingly under stress, the interaction of these four countries—with both divergent and complementary interests—will be the key to stability in the region. U.S. policy will need to take careful stock of these shifting internal balances and adopt policies that advance U.S. interests in an increasingly complex and constantly evolving security environment. Moreover, outside actors, such as Russia and China, will simultaneously be taking steps to promote their interests and expand their influence—often at the expense of the U.S. All four emerging poles of regional power—Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel—are actively seeking improved relationships with both Moscow and Beijing. All parties undoubtedly are exploiting these contacts both as a hedging policy given perceptions of U.S. disengagement from the region and as an additional source of leverage seeking even stronger U.S. backing to prevent just such a realignment. Meanwhile, all parties see economic benefits in improved relations with Beijing as an important outlet for regional energy exports and as a potential source of foreign investment linked to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Given the tremendous uncertainties surrounding the region’s future, U.S. policymakers should adopt a hedging approach—building diverse coalitions-of-the-willing to confront challenges as they emerge and avoiding large one-sided investments in any single country or partner.
America’s traditional military advantages and dominating presence in the region alone will no longer be enough to secure advantage in this competition for regional influence. Increasingly, foresighted American diplomacy and skillful employment of positive and negative economic leverage will be key to securing U.S. regional interests.
First and most easily, the U.S. should seek to capitalize on the convergence of Israel and Gulf Arab interests in contesting Iran’s growing influence in the region. Continuing the tradition of extensive U.S. conventional military assistance to both of these countries provides a strong foundation for deterring overt Iranian aggression. However, new approaches will need to be created to more effectively deal with threats from Iran’s ballistic missile program and advances in Iranian cyber capabilities. Beyond military assistance, U.S. policymakers should also explore potential measures involving regional and international arms control agreements, monitoring systems aimed at improving transparency and communications between all regional states, and international maritime patrol operations ensuring freedom of navigation through critical choke points in both the Hormuz and Bab al-Mandab Straits. The U.S. should also be careful of relying too much on Israel and Saudi Arabia as proxies to confront Iran. Ongoing Israeli airstrikes into both Syria and Iraq as well as the costly Saudi intervention into Yemen demonstrate that both of these partners are capable of instigating larger regional conflicts into which the U.S. could easily be drawn.
Second, the U.S. relationship with Turkey needs to be modified in response to Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic tendencies and demonstrated courting of Russia and Iran. In addition to suspending Turkey from the F-35 program, U.S. policymakers should consider limiting all military sales to Turkey unless Erdogan relents in his purchase of advanced Russian missile defense systems and abides by his agreement with the United States regarding future intervention in Syria. Congress has already taken steps in this direction by passing legislation sanctioning senior Turkish officials, banning most U.S. weapons sales, and condemning the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide. At the same time, the United States should use all of its diplomatic, economic, and military power to keep Turkey in the NATO Alliance, while working behind the scenes to curb its autocratic and expansionist tendencies. While U.S. policy should seek to drive wedges between Moscow and Ankara, this will need to be calibrated carefully in order to avoid pushing Turkey into the arms of Russia, Iran, China or other actors working at cross-purposes with American interests.
Last, the U.S. counter-terrorism campaign must move away from a military-centric fight to one that engages a diplomatic and economic campaign aimed at addressing the root causes of frustration, alienation, and disenfranchisement that fuel violent radicalization. Reconstructing war-torn societies in the region will be a critical and necessary task for U.S., regional, and global leaders if the “forever wars” are to be brought to any semblance of a successful conclusion. Resilient, tolerant, and prosperous civil societies will take different shapes and forms depending on local circumstances and traditions in the region. But American leadership will be key to forging and coordinating the monumental international effort required for this heavy, but essential, lift. In doing so, cooperation from other regional competitors including Iran, Russia, and China should be welcomed when it is constructive and advances this shared agenda.