The geopolitics of the Middle East are being re-written before our very eyes, yet no one is truly at the helm.
The Iranian nuclear deal is all but signed, and it may be time to look at its implications. Indeed, it may well be past time, given that Saudi Arabia and allies have already played the Yemen card in the lead up to a deal.
The geopolitics of the Middle East are being re-written before our very eyes, yet no one is truly at the helm. Iran may believe it is, some Arab states are floundering in an attempt to be, Turkey has given up after a series of failures, and the US is doing its utmost not to be. But, the simple reality may be that no one party runs this “Game of Thrones”, and all are captive of short-term objectives, opportunism and the politics of spite.
But first, the good news. An Iranian nuclear deal with the P5 +1 will begin to put to rest an animosity that had run for over four decades. A superpower and an important regional power may settle in to a new, if undoubtedly, complex relationship.
Zero sum game
Moderates in Iran will be empowered, as will the extensive and talented Iranian expatriate community. These are all positive elements because they mean a greater probability for cooperation instead of conflict, as well as new directions for the evolution of the Islamic Republic, whose revolutionary zeal is now old.
However, in the Middle East zero sum game, everything is viewed to be at the expense of someone else. One group’s gain is inevitably seen as a loss for another or, at a minimum, generate a large harvest of spite. The Iran nuclear deal will be seen by Israel and some key Arab countries as a geopolitical loss, with consequences rising therefrom.
Of course, it does not help that Iran is involved to various degrees in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and possibly even Yemen. Whether that is seen as a necessary Iranian defensive strategy or a legitimate and sophisticated game of influence, it is perceived as a drive for hegemony by actors ranging from the president of Turkey to the king of Saudi Arabia, to many in between.
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Beyond these perceptions, which are relevant because they will drive political action, what could events in the Middle East look like in the post-nuclear deal era? Iran is certainly well positioned to maintain primacy of influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, i.e. the northern tranche of states.
It will not have an easy time in any of these countries, but its successful security nexus with Hezbollah, Shia militias, and a US focus on destroying ISIL will mean greater influence than others, certainly more than the fragmented and disunited panoply of Sunni actors.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has shown that Yemen is a red line and, although total Saudi or GCC control of Yemen is unlikely, the rush for Houthi control of Sanaa and Aden may well have been arrested. This combined with the situation in Bahrain, and an incipient alliance with Egypt, Turkey, other Gulf states, means that southern tranche of countries in the region will be under the greater influence of Saudi and its key allies.
The greater reality for both Iran and Saudi Arabia in this two-tiered Middle East will be that, ironically, they will have many problems wherever they hold greater influence. Iraq and Syria will not settle down and, most likely, nor will Yemen. In the game of spite, the two Middle East cold war powers will do their best at annoying each other through proxies and destabilisation, and the people will suffer.
There is a chance that Lebanon and Jordan may escape the full thrust of these games. In Lebanon, the memory of civil war still holds people back from conflict, and there seems to be a understanding that no one wants to open yet another front of the regional cold war.
The endless Lebanese dialogue process, disguised as governance, will have its ups and downs, but, with Iraq and Syria boiling, Beirut may remain at a tepid temperature. Jordan, despite vulnerabilities, may simply be too important a base for the US (and buffer for Israel) and already too much of an efficient security state to boil over anytime soon. These two small states can play a role as outlets and quasi-safe havens for the messy situations around them.
Wild card in the game
The wild card in the game remains Israel and its reactions to a new role for Iran. Suspicions are deep and Israel may not stand by and simply watch as the region is reconfigured. The recent clashes and attacks on the Golan may portend trouble; Israel may wish to send signals of strength and deterrence by fights on the northern or southern fronts, i.e. Gaza or Lebanon. But, at the end of the day, even such actions, like the conflicts in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, will only increase destabilisation and misery.
The best-case scenario is that, over time and with US involvement, some kind of balance of power framework, implicit or explicit, can be achieved, each key power with its zone of influence, and despite troubles, there will be relative stability.
However, even this effort may be undermined by deeper problems: instability and poor governance within almost every single country in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Iran themselves.
Indeed, the greatest mark of the region is not the geopolitics that gets all the attention, but the fact that the citizens there remain captive to the greed, corruption and hallucinations of all their leaderships, bar none.
From the crass manipulations of Netanyahu’s electoral politics, to Iranian readiness to use threats and militias under the table, to the disastrous relationship between citizen and government in almost every Arab country, the Middle East is defined by unhealthy governance, tragic to the majority of people seeking normal lives.
The Iran nuclear deal may well mark the beginning of a new relationship with the US, improved relations with Europe and a slow re-entry of Iran into the larger community of nations. All this can present new and positive opportunities, including a potential lucrative exit for Iran from the quicksand of the Middle East.
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However, in the region itself, all nations, including Iran with its presumptive rise, may well find that, despite the appetite for and illusion of control, they will be victims to a greater law: no one in the Middle East will agree to be ruled by another, and the instincts for detecting this are finely honed, bordering on the paranoid. No one can sit on the throne for long, and certainly not comfortably.
The “Game of Thrones” and all its attendant wiles, chatter, and analyses, may appear attractive on television, and in the halls of regional power, but it’s a loser in the real world. This is especially the case in an era where economic, technological and cultural development, rather than control over your neighbour, defines influence and power.
The reality, beyond the game, is that the 21st century is rolling forward without the Middle East, its geopolitics, and its victimised people.
John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as Political Adviser to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.