US military presence in the Middle East: less is more


It may not have been planned or coordinated, but the efforts of Middle Eastern states to ease tensions serve as an example of what happens when the interests of the great powers coincide.

It also provides evidence of the potentially positive fallout from a lower US profile in the region.

Afghanistan, despite the chaotic withdrawal of the United States, could emerge as another example of the positive impact when global interests coincide. This is whether the Taliban shows itself willing and able to control militant groups to ensure that they do not strike beyond the borders of the Central Asian nation or against embassies and other foreign targets in the country.

Analysts credit US President Joe Biden’s coming to power with a focus on Asia rather than the Middle East and growing uncertainty over his commitment to Gulf security for efforts to reduce tensions of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt on the one hand and on the other hand, Turkey, Iran and Qatar. These efforts culminated in the lifting earlier this year of the economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

Doubts over U.S. engagement have also played an important role in efforts to consolidate or formalize alliances such as the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel by the UAE and Bahrain.

For its part, Saudi Arabia has de facto recognized its links with the Jewish state even though Riyadh is not on the verge of formally establishing relations. A sign of the times, that didn’t stop then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from visiting the kingdom last year.

To be sure, the changes in Washington’s priorities have an impact on regional defense strategies and postures given that the United States has a significant military presence in the Middle East and is its sole guarantor of security.

Yet what sounds the alarm in the Gulf capitals is also raising concerns in Beijing, which depends to a large extent on the flow of its trade and energy from and through the waters of the Middle East, and in Moscow with its own security concerns and geopolitical aspirations.

It’s no surprise that Russia and China, each in their own way and independent of the United States, echoed the United States’ message last year that the Middle East must pull itself together.

Eager to change rather than reform the world order, Russia proposed a whole new regional security architecture modeled after the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) adding not only Russia but also China, India and Europe.

China, determined to secure its rightful place in the new world order rather than fundamentally change it, has sent smoke signals through its academics and analysts who have sent a double-barreled message. On the one hand, China suggested that the Middle East was not high on its agenda. In other words, the Middle East should act to climb Beijing’s totem pole.

“For China, the Middle East is still very far removed from China’s strategic global strategies,” said Niu Xinchun, director of Middle East studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), the think tank most prestigious in China, during a webinar. Last year.

Prominent Chinese scholars Sun Degang and Wu Sike provided a carrot months later to accompany Mr. Niu’s stick. Taking the opposite path, they argued that the Middle East was a “key region in great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics in a new era.”

Chinese characteristics, they said, would involve “finding common ground while reserving differences,” a formula that involves conflict management rather than conflict resolution.

On this basis, suggest the two academics, China’s engagement in Middle East security would seek to build an inclusive and shared regional collective security mechanism based on equity, justice, multilateralism, global governance and control. differences.

In the final analysis, Chinese and Russian signals that there was a tacit consensus of the great powers likely reinforced the American message and gave Middle Eastern states a further boost to change course and demonstrate their willingness to control the nations. tensions and differences.

The tacit consensus of the great powers implied not only the need to reduce tensions, but also the projection of a reduced, not eliminated, American presence in the Middle East.

While there has been little real reduction in US forces on the ground, just talking about it has apparently opened up avenues. This changed the weight of the United States in the equation.

“The United States is used to seeing itself as indispensable to regional stability in the world, when in fact their intervention can be very destabilizing because it becomes part of the local equation rather than sitting at the bottom. above, ”noted Raad Alkadiri, international risk consultant. .

While important, the United States’ willingness to step aside does not guarantee that the talks will do more than at best avoid conflicts that are spiraling out of control.

Saudi and Iranian leaders and officials have sought to put a positive spin on several rounds of direct and indirect talks between the two rivals.

Yet more important than speeches of progress, expressions of willingness to bury the axes of battle and the mitigation of rhetoric is the insistence of Saudi King Salman in his remarks last month at the General Assembly. United Nations on the need to build trust.

The monarch suggested that Iran cease “any kind of support” to armed groups in the region, including the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and pro-Iranian militias in Iraq.

The potential wrench is not only the improbability of Iran making any meaningful concessions to improve relations, but also the dwindling odds for a resumption of the 2015 international agreement that held back the country. Iranian nuclear program.

“We must prepare for a world where Iran will not have constraints on its nuclear program and we must consider options to deal with it. This is what we are doing, hoping they will come back to the deal, ”said US negotiator Rob Malley.

Already, Israeli politicians, unhappy with the initial nuclear deal and the Biden administration’s efforts to revive it, are taking a more alarmist view than what may prevail in their intelligence services.

In Washington this week, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan that Iran “is becoming a nuclear threshold state.” Back home, Yossi Cohen, a close confidant of Mr. Netanyahu, who resigned in June as head of the Mossad, said at the same time that Iran was “no closer than before” to endow nuclear weapons.

There is no doubt, however, that the two men agree that Israel retains the option of a military strike against Iran. “Israel reserves the right to act at any time in any way,” Lapid told his US interlocutors as they sought to resolve disputes over how to deal with Iran if a resumption of the deal was elusive.

Meanwhile, the preliminaries of the fallout from a possible failure to secure a nuclear deal are unfolding on several fronts. Tensions are mounting along the border between Iran and Azerbaijan.

Iran considers Azerbaijani-Israeli relations to be closer as part of an effort to surround it and fears that the Caucasus state may be a staging post for Israeli operations against the Islamic republic. Iran and Azerbaijan agreed this week to hold talks to reduce friction.

At the same time, Iran, Turkey and Israel have engaged in a ghost boxing match in predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq, while a poll has shown that half of Israeli Jews believe attacking Iran early on rather than negotiating a deal would have been a better approach.

Taken together, these factors cast a shadow over optimism that the Middle East is pulling back from the brink. They suggest that the coordinated leadership of the great powers is what could make the difference as the Middle East balances between forging its way to stability and waging an ongoing and potentially open covert war.

A research program from Johns Hopkins University in Iran has suggested that a return of the United States to the nuclear deal could be the catalyst for cooperation with Europe, China and Russia.

“If the United States refuses to join the agreement following sufficient attempts by Iran to show flexibility in their negotiating position, Russia and China will intensify their economic and security cooperation with Iranian” a way fundamentally opposed to American interests, ”says the program. warned.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh announced this week that Russia and Iran are finalizing a “Comprehensive Iran-Russia Cooperation Agreement” modeled after a A similar 25-year deal between China and the Islamic Republic last year, which has yet to take shape. .

Despite this, Iran scored an important victory when the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), in which China and Russia have a prominent place, agreed last month to process the application for membership of the Iran.

This article originally appeared on The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer website.

James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is Senior Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, union columnist and author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog. A veteran and award-winning foreign correspondent whose career has focused on ethnic and religious conflicts, James focuses at RSIS on political and social change in the Middle East and North Africa, the impact of change in the Middle East and in North Africa on South East and Central Asia and the nexus between sport, politics and society in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.


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