A Turning Point in the Middle East Geopolitics

24 june 2012

The Arab Uprising and the Changing Reality

Kayhan Barzegar is Head of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of the Islamic Azad University. He is also Director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies (IMESS) in Tehran.

Resume: The geopolitical changes brought about by the Arab Uprising showed that there is a rivalry between regional actors (Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel) and international actors and great powers (United States, Russia, China and the European Union) to bridge geopolitical and ideological gaps.

The Arab Uprising comprises a turning point in the geopolitical developments of the Middle East. In the contemporary history of the Middle East, Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the September 11 attacks are the major turning points in the region's political-security equations. These events immediately led to geopolitical changes and ideological rivalries to fill the power vacuum in the region.

This rivalry was mainly between regional and trans-regional actors to ensure their geopolitical and ideological interests. The Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) was a manifestation of this rivalry. Secondly, the collapse of the Soviet Union created a power vacuum in Central Asia and the Caucasus, followed by both geopolitical and ideological rivalries in the 1990s, so as to fill the power vacuum and set a model for the regional and trans-regional actors, such as; Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States. Thirdly, following the September 11 attacks, in 2001, regional crises in Afghanistan and Iraq led to the rivalry between Iran, the United States, and Saudi Arabia to fill the power vacuum and ideological patterns including the West’s “sacred war” against radical Islamism and violent groups in the region. Finally, the Arab Uprising gave rise to a new kind of rivalry in the context of power balance and regional ideological models. Meanwhile, there is a rivalry between regional actors, namely, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel on the one hand and international actors and great powers including the United States, Russia, China and the European Union on the other, to bridge geopolitical and ideological gaps. This kind of rivalry has best manifested itself in the Syrian crisis.

The geopolitical changes brought about by the Arab Uprising showed that it is a dynamic region and that issues related to values and ideology are tied with the issues of geopolitics, power balance and states’ regional roles. The Arab Uprising provided a more dynamic definition of “geopolitics” by expanding its concept beyond traditional perspectives, focusing on the importance of borders, political-security, and ethnic concerns on the issues of ideology and values. These issues become more serious in a region in which great powers hold a stake and pursue their own interests. Although it may seem that great powers such as the United States are withdrawing their troops from the region (Iraq and Afghanistan), their interests in the region will widely sustain although they will attempt to change the form of their presence and extent of their influence.

IDEOLOGICAL DISCREPANCY

There are two dominant ideological trends in the Middle East developments.

First is the “West Liberalism” which defines the Western eagerness to manage the Arab developments within the framework of its own interests and leads them towards its own dominant ideology and values such as rapid political reforms, free market economy, civil and individual freedom, etc. The dominance of Western values has a long history in the world dating back to the late 19th century. Back then, the West made an attempt to institutionalize its political philosophy and way of thinking through focusing on the middle class, the bourgeoisie and the issues of globalization and harmonizing the world. Although this issue has faced strong resistance by world nations--particularly when it comes to culture and values, it still continues to be in effect.

It seems that the Western Liberalism has generated two main influential waves in the Arab World. The first is the decolonization trend, started in the 1920s-1930s and continued on ‘till the 1960s-1970s. This wave helped the formation of nation-states in the Arab World. Gradually, these states either approached the West or became dependent on it in order to acquire technology, knowledge, and wealth.

The second wave is the Arab uprising which is also known as the “Arab Spring”. In the past, the United States made efforts to shape such a development in the Arab World through raising the concept of the “Greater Middle East Initiative.” However this initiative failed due to the exacerbated regional crises in Iraq and Afghanistan and the necessity of maintaining stability in the region. It seems that the West’s policy in managing the Arab Spring is the continuation of the Greater Middle East Initiative in terms of human, social and economic development, which is perceived by the West as its basic “right” and “responsibility”.

Second is the concept of “Islamic Ideology” which is based on Islamic thoughts and values and encompasses several other waves. The dialogue of Islamic ideology sees itself as a suitable substitute for the dialogue of the Western Liberalism. As it is observed, public movements have inclined towards Islam after the Arab revolutions and their subsequent political developments such as holding general elections particularly in Tunisia and Egypt as well as assuming power by the Islamists. It should be taken into account that the two dialogues of the Arab Spring and “Islamic Awakening” (a term that is mostly used by the Islamic Republic of Iran) exist in the dominant regional trends and cannot rule out each other due to their strong values and mental bases. The most important point is the existence of a combination of the two discourses rather than pinpointing the winner or the loser. While these two dialogues have some commonalities, such as; “opposing despotism”, reinforcing “Islamic-national identity”, and “opposing Israel”, they differ from one another in placing trust in the West in terms of conducting reform, applying political philosophy and developing the developmental models. Establishing a link between ideological issues and geopolitical/governance concerns in the region, where they are considered as ideological discrepancies, affects the regional geopolitics through assigning new roles to regional and trans-regional actors. In other words, the future of power and politics in the region will be influenced by ideologies (values) and roles (issues of power balance).

 

REGIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL APPROACHES DIVERGE

The Arab Uprising has brought about serious geopolitical implications for the region. It has reinforced the regional approaches versus the international approaches or using Western solutions for resolving the crises in the Middle East. The regional crises were all triggered by the adoption of Western “solutions”, including the use of force. In the case of Iraq, for instance, the United States and the West referred to international terrorism and Al Qaeda as the gravest and the most imminent threats to international security. Iraq was attacked under the pretext of the Saddam regime’s access to weapons of mass destruction and the threat of passing the weapons to terrorists and violent Islamist groups. Although it was later proved otherwise, the West waged an eight-year war with Iraq whose detrimental impacts still reverberate. In Afghanistan, the international community (the West) attempted to resolve a regional issue by means of an international solution. Thus, the Afghani war started as a result of the country’s direct role in international terrorism. The continuation of war and tensions in Afghanistan has local roots and is related to the country’s power geopolitics. Nevertheless, the West attempts in vain to resolve this issue by adopting its own approaches and by NATO’s military intervention, irrespective of considering the regional issues and demands. Regarding the Syrian crisis, the western countries have tried to resolve a mainly regional issue with their own conventional approach by exerting political pressure or saber rattling without having to face any political risks or incurring any costs.

In fact, the uprisings in the Arab world were in a way an expression of the dynamic role of the people. In future, the emergence of independent national-Islamic movements in countries with independent parliaments based on political realities will influence the direction of power and regional politics thereby reinforcing the regional perspective for resolving regional issues. However, these Western solutions and patterns that are supported by some regional political and intellectual groups, particularly ethnic minorities, will still be followed in the region. But geopolitics decides how regional and international approaches can converge so as to balance each other. Developments in the Arab World underline the fact that it will be more sensible to resolve regional issues by means of regional and local realities. Concerning the Syrian crisis, regional solution can undoubtedly be more beneficial than NATO’s military intervention as an international solution. To this end, regional countries, such as Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, can cooperate with trans-regional and international powers like the United States, Russia, China and the European Union to reach a consensus and resolve the crisis on the basis of regional interests that will also secure benefits of the international community.

With the Arab Uprising and the subsequent political-security developments, the conventional belief that the international community (the West) has a solution to every regional issue is seriously in doubt. In many regional cases, international solutions have weakened political-security systems in the region, provoked crisis and widened regional gaps. For instance, focusing on the Western approach in solving the Syrian crisis has caused Iran and Turkey to stand against each other, which in itself is considered a strategic mistake. Discord or rivalries between these two main regional actors will wane the prospect of peace and sustainable security in the region, i.e., in Afghanistan and Iraq. Therefore, it is better to direct geopolitical changes in the region towards reinforcing regional solutions to the context that can secure the interests of all parties involved, including regional and trans-regional ones. Here, it is natural that regional actors such as Iran and Turkey, with active policies and ideological dynamics, will undoubtedly be more capable of utilizing their own approaches and also preserving their own interests.

 

REGIONAL AND TRANS-REGIONAL ROLES AT ODDS

The Arab World developments and their geopolitical impacts have redefined the role of the two kinds of regional and trans-regional actors. Active regional players include Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Trans-regional actors include the United States, Russia, China and the European Union. All these actors have come on the stage on the basis of their geopolitical and ideological interests. The Arab developments not only have affected the relations between these actors, forming the geopolitical point of view, but they have also increased their rivalries in influencing the regional politics.

Regionally speaking, Turkey has adopted a “maximalist” approach towards these developments attempting to exploit every chance to reinforce its regional and international role by means of supporting the Arab uprisings. However and in the course of the Arab developments and especially in dealing with the Syrian crisis, Turkey’s main obstacle has been negotiating on how to balance between its ideological values and domestic politics and geopolitical interests in the region. Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkey, believed that Turkey’s interests necessitate the country to establish close relations with the West, not necessarily that Turkey should be westernized. But later Turkey’s seculars used it to secure their own interests and move closer to the West, ideologically and geopolitically. This has remained as today’s challenge of Turkey in managing the regional issues. Although the seculars firmly believe that they should get closer to NATO and the West, the main challenge of the Islamist “Justice and Development” party (AKP) and Erdogan’s administration is the opposition of the seculars as well as the majority of public opinion at a national level (both Islamists and non-Islamists) against the country’s excessive involvement in the regional issues and especially the Syrian crisis. They are also against Turkey’s cooperation with the West in carrying out a military intervention in the region. They argue that AKP defines the country’s political-security and economic strengths beyond Turkey’s capacities and adopts an opportunistic approach to define and reinforce its regional role within the frameworks of Islam and Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. This policy in turn will weaken regional approaches.

Unlike some Western perspectives, Turkey is not necessarily the winner of the Arab World developments, since these changes, particularly the Syrian crisis, have created a gap at the domestic level between the Justice and Development Party and the seculars. This has made Turkey seem more conservative than the previous months and also take a more realistic approach regarding the importance of other actors’ role such as Iran and Russia in solving the Syrian crisis. Hence Turkey’s maximalist approach on the developments in the Arab World and regional issues, particularly Syria’s crisis, which has made the country come in terms with a serious challenge. On the one hand, if Turkey helps the West within the framework of NATO, it will fail to play its perceived role in the region and on the other, paying attention to domestic affairs will challenge the traditional role that the AKP has defined for itself in dealing with these issues.

Saudi Arabia has had a “minimalist” approach to the developments in the Arab World. It has attempted to slow the developments or “confiscate” these revolutions. Taking into account the realities, the Saudis moderate success cannot be overlooked. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia relying on its money, the media, lobbying in Egypt, Syria and Yemen and sometimes by means of using military tools, such as sending troops to suppress the uprising in Bahrain, has managed to maintain its regional role. This is while Saudi Arabia, which was exposed to the Arab developments itself, has speeded up the developments in Syria as it seems that Saudi Arabia considers any regime other than Al-Assad’s administration to be close to the West and Saudi Arabia. This policy can help Saudi Arabia’s conservative regime in distancing the Arab’s progressive developments from its borders. Moreover, in line with its own interests, Saudi Arabia has attempted to downplay geopolitical and ideological developments. As an example it tries to thwart the establishment of close ties between Iran and Egypt and also to reinforce the Islamic progressive values.

Tehran has adopted a “middle-way” approach towards the Arab World developments, based on the preservation of its geopolitical interests and ideological values. Regarding the preservation of Iran’s interests, the significance of these recent events is mainly due to the effects of change, foremost, the change of current governments on bilateral relations with Iran and regional stability issues related to the regional balance of power, and the role of regional and trans-regional actors. Regarding the preservation of Iran’s values, these developments are significant due to the ideals of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which aspired to support popular movements, challenge domestic and regional interference by foreign powers, and realizing the “Islamic unity.” Iran stresses on geopolitical interests as a part of its foreign policy in Syria and attempts to strike a balance between its geopolitical and ideological interests in the region. Iran is not against the reforms in Syria, provided that the resistance movements, i.e., Hezbollah and Hamas are intact. Iran believes that Syria’s crisis is a regional issue that should be tackled at a regional level and in light of its political-security realities. Iran’s approach is also supported by Russia and China to some extent. To these actors the most important issue is the clarification of the Western interference scope in regional affairs rather than opposing reforms in Syria. Such an approach will limit the scope of the West’s interference in regional issues and its one-sided outlook in line with its own interests.

Finally, Israel has adopted a pessimistic and conservative perspective on the Arab Uprising. For Israel, the four main pillars of its political-security strategies in the Middle East, i.e., relations with Egypt, Syria, Iran and Turkey have faced serious challenges. In the case of Egypt, Israel focused its political-security strategy on the basis of the “Camp David Accords”, making peace with important Arab states subsequently influencing the Arab Street to achieve the so-called “sustainable” peace. This strategy crippled subsequent to the collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s regime and the growth of the public’s role in the formation of Egypt’s national-Islamic parliament. Regarding Syria, although Israel has strived to overthrow Al-Assad’s regime, the developments are not in line with Israel’s interests. The involvement of Russia and Iran in handling the Syrian crisis has weakened the Western role and Israel’s regional role to a greater extent.

This leaves Turkey, which considers the Arab revolutions as an opportunity to enhance its role and soft power among the people of the Arab World, with no option other than distancing itself from Israel, subsequently another blow in the Israeli-Turkish relations after the “Gaza flotilla raid” in May 2010 (the Mavi Marmara incident) which resulted in the ending of the diplomatic relations between the two sides. Finally, Iran attempts to weaken Israel’s regional role by opposing any sudden changes in the Syrian regime as well as stressing Islamic values and unity. The great geopolitical impacts of this strategy in terms of power, regional policy and array of forces will be detrimental to Israel’s regional political-security strategies.

At the trans-regional level, there are also serious rivalries between powers such as the United States and the EU on the one hand and Russia and China on the other. As a result, the latter side vetoed the Security Council’s resolution against Syria’s regime in February 2012. Later during the year, Russia and China supported Kofi Annan’s peace plan to solve the Syrian crisis and in the course of the subsequent developments insisted on holding an international conference comprised of all regional and trans-regional actors concerned. Russia, China and Iran maintain that there should be a limitation to the scope of the West’s interference in the region. The Arab revolutions have created a new kind of rivalry at both regional and trans-regional levels and a new political-security bloc. They have also redefined forces and led to the formation of a new coalition between Iran, Russia and China opposing the United States, the EU, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Qatar. Here, Turkey stands somewhere in the middle. Although the developments progress in this direction, this new categorization of powers and forces will not serve the interests of the region in the long run since they impose heavy costs. Here, one should see the need for a tradeoff between maintaining interests of the regional and trans-regional actors, which can be achieved through focusing on “regionalism”.

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The Arab Uprising has brought about great geopolitical impacts on the structure of regional power and politics in terms of ideology and further politicization of Middle Eastern issues, strengthening regionalism vis-И-vis internationalism, and intensifying rivalry between actors at various levels. These uprisings are considered as both an opportunity and challenge for Iran. The Arab developments are “opportunities” as they help Iran abandon its isolated geopolitics as a non-Arab country in the region, aspiring to strengthen its ties with the Arab countries, subsequent to the formation of new national-Islamic governments, assuming a more active role in the region. Meanwhile due to the enhanced regional perspectives, Iran’s views will be closer to the region in terms of values and geopolitics. The Arab World developments also present challenges to Iran as they may cause discrepancies between Iran’s regional relations with influential regional and trans-regional actors such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States respectively. Iran’s geopolitical role is tied to its regional role. As a new emerging regional power, Iran can benefit from the Arab World developments as a strategic opportunity to consolidate its geopolitical interests, and strengthen its regional role.

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