Shifting sands: Obama tips the balance of Mideast power in Iran’s favor for unclear reasons

In these strange and unstable times in the Middle East one surprising and superficially positive event is ironically also a new major cause for concern. Iran and the United States of America, longstanding enemies, would appear to be close to lasting rapprochement.

Rather than producing greater feelings of security and stability, such a new found ‘friendship’ might well add to the general uncertainty in the region. The results could swing in quite contradictory directions: it might prompt other countries to follow suit and pursue better relations with each other, or it might encourage major players in the region to seek greater leverage in the shaky balance of power.

Several countries, for instance, are concerned that Iran may use such a rapprochement to consolidate its leading position in the Middle East. Not only does Iran have the largest population in the region, it has consistently sought to spread its Islamic revolution beyond its borders.

Relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States have been strained for quite some time now. The U.S.’s handling of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ has been resented by the Saudis, especially their courting of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Naturally enough the Arab Spring has made countries such as Saudi Arabia nervous that revolution might spread.

The Saudis are also angry at Obama’s reluctance to take clear direct action to support the rebels in Syria. The Syrian government, whose use of chemical weapons has been highly controversial and criticized, is, according to many, being propped up by Iran and Russia, who are keen on retaining an important ally in President Assad.

Moreover, Iran has great influence among Shia populations in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, as well as in Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen.

Even Iraq’s new regime under Nouri Al-Maliki, a Shia, seems well disposed towards Iran. Taken together these developments suggest that Iran is in a strong position to dominate the Persian Gulf, and Saudi Arabia sees rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran as unnecessary encouragement for one of its main rivals in the region.

Saudi Arabia fears that an Iran no longer at loggerheads with America over the issue of nuclear weapons would be better placed to try and dominate the Persian Gulf.

In contrast to Saudi Arabia, Turkey has lost momentum in recent months. Not so long ago Turkey was being heralded as the new shining star in the region, a major bridge builder between west and east and between the various warring factions within the region. Turkey’s charismatic prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogen, was widely praised for his pro-democracy diplomacy and forward thinking economic policies. In particular, he gained a reputation as a mediator among Israelis and Syrians. Now, however, he is not only under heavy pressure at home in Turkey but is the focus of major criticism by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

Most pressingly, his handling of the Syria crisis has been slammed. The war there has come close several times to spilling over into Turkish territory. Moreover, Turkey’s outreach to its neighbors seems to have opened the door to jihadists, who have been flooding into Syria, and who would threaten to destabilize any post-Assad Syria, should it ever happen Clearly, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the U.S. are concerned about the risk of Iranian supported groups taking over in Syria and then spreading the Shiite movement.

Until recently the U.S. had been Israel’s strongest supporter and protector in the region. Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been scathing in his characterizations of the U.S. deal with Iran over Iran’s nuclear capabilities, despite the fact that it seems to reduce the likelihood that Iran would attack Israel or vice versa.

Netanyahu’s open criticism of the Obama administration has been unprecedented. He went so far as to say that the interim deal was a “historic mistake”. Israel may regard it as ironic that although the immediate danger of nuclear attack may have been removed, its preeminent position in the region might be weakened by any legitimacy Iran gains. Nevertheless, U.S. friendship with Iran may, from an Israeli point of view, be the least worst of two evils.

As for the U.S., the rapidly changing situation in the Middle East has necessitated a review of longstanding aims and goals in the region and how best to achieve them.

  • For a long time it was essential that the U.S. secured oil supplies in the region and so its action radius and choice of allies was heavily dictated by the need to ensure supply. This is no longer so urgent with the growth of the fracking industry in the U.S.


  • Secondly, and allied to that goal, the U.S. tried to ensure the security of key allies – Saudi Arabia and Israel – but given changes in the balances of power in the Middle East, new strategies and broader alliances may work better.


  • Thirdly, the U.S. sought to protect Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the region and to restrict the spread of jihadists. They may now find that without Iran the second of those hopes is impossible. This might explain their agreement with Teheran on Iranian nuclear ambitions.

Moreover, despite Saudi Arabian, Egyptian, and Turkish dependency on American weapons, the U.S. will never have the ability as it did decades ago to pick and control its allies and proxies. Iran coming back from sanctions and isolation into the regional and International arena could well open new possibilities in other conflicts. Former enemies might find not common ground but mutual interests. For instance, Iran might indeed find it pragmatic to help bring an end to the conflict in Syria, even if it means abandoning support for Assad if it means that Salafist radicals do not gain a strong foothold on power there.

The problem in the end may well be a lack of time. As senior diplomat Assad Homayoun has suggested: “If the cause of war in 1914 was Balkan Nationalism the war of a larger scale starting from the Middle East could be nationalism, ethnic, terrorism, political, religious and border conflicts.”

This article was written by Dr. Fariborz Saremi  for the opinion page of World Tribune on February 5,2014. Dr. Fariborz Saremi is a strategic analyst based in Hamburg/Germany. He is a regular contributor to World, and Defense & Foreign Affairs.


The Iran Project is not responsible for the content of quoted articles.