The balance of power in the Middle East is perceived like the proverbial glass; it’s either half-full or half-empty. For the US, the unraveling of Iraq and Syria are clear indications that the glass is only half-full. Sunni radicalism has deflected the Shia crescent, putting at risk what America believes to be the region’s equilibrium. After 9/11 and the devastating war in Iraq, the battles in Anbar, US actions against al Qaeda have convinced the administration that the number-one enemy in the Middle East today is Sunni extremism. But America’s staunchest allies in the region view the glass far differently. For Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan and Israel, the balance of power between Iran and the region proves the glass to be draining and half-empty.
So where does the elusive balance of power lie? From 1953 (the overthrow of Mossadegh) until 1979 (the overthrow of the Shah) the balance was an American-Soviet nuclear understanding. Pro-Soviet, Sunni led Iraq was constrained by Moscow. Meanwhile, Shia Iran under the Shah was protected by the US. In other words, the balance in those days was never really tested. Client states of the two superpowers were held in check by the extreme risk that proxy war could lead to a nuclear confrontation. The example of the Arab-Israeli 1973 War comes to mind. American nuclear forces had been put on the highest alert to warn the Soviets that any direct involvement in the war would create an environment for supreme escalation. This was a dangerous game not to be repeated. Hence, within the client-state Cold War context, both Shia Iran and Sunni Iraq were held in an untested, out-of-region balance of power.
With the overthrow of the Shah, the Middle East political situation was altered. The new Islamic Republic was superpower neutral. The Ayatollah Khomeini perceived both superpowers to be equally evil. But perhaps the US in Iranian eyes was just a bit more evil. Meanwhile, under Saudi prodding, Saddam Hussein of Iraq opened a door to the US and its Baghdad ambassador. Here the true nature of the story becomes murky. But for whatever reason, it was Saddam’s understanding that the US had given him the green light to attack the Islamic Republic. The bottom line turned out to be a non-proxy Middle East war between Sunni-led Iraq and Shia Iran. At the time, the Soviets were bogged down in Afghanistan. However, they probably welcomed Saddam’s aggressive action against Iran.
American foreign policy under President Jimmy Carter had been thrown into disarray by the Shah’s abdication. The Carter Doctrine was established in order to warn any potential adversary that the Persian Gulf was a vital American interest. The US sent a rapid deployment force to the region to back up its threat with concrete action. The US Central Command was created and remains active to this day.
The Iran-Iraq War was a horrible stalemate. The casualties were horrendous. But in Arab Sunni eyes, a rough balance of power was established. However, Iraq under Saddam was a Bath Party secular power. Although Sunni dominated, Iraq was not necessarily sectarian in nature. So in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam invaded his little neighbor, Kuwait. The Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, could do nothing to roll back the invasion. For the Arab Sunni monarchies, a friendly conservative Iraq strong enough to hold off the Iranians but without hegemonic designs on the Gulf itself, would be the only regional balance worth supporting. But Saddam didn’t fall into that category. Only the Americans could stop Saddam. Only the Americans could secure the Middle East balance of power. The Carter Doctrine was alive and well.
Because of US power, Saddam withdrew from Kuwait. The 1990’s saw President Clinton maintain the same policy as his predecessors. Then came the events of 9/11 and the US overthrow of the Sunni power structure in Baghdad. By 2006, the Sunni-Shia Iraq Civil War was in full swing. Once again the Middle East balance of power was being tested. With the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, the US has declared its intention to empty the Central Command of any ground forces. While naval and air assets continue to patrol the Gulf, the US has become highly reluctant to engage directly in the Levant to maintain some semblance of a balance. With the Syrian rebellion of 2011 morphing into a full scale regional sectarian proxy war, the issues now closely resemble those of 1980. What is the true regional balance of power? Are the Sunnis on the ascendancy, like the administration believes? Or, is the glass half empty, like Israel and the Sunni Arabs believe? Most importantly, what will be the result for the region of a US-Iranian nuclear deal and the lifting of the global sanctions on Iran?
It’s extremely difficult to understand the Obama-Kerry thinking. The very idea of an achievable, regionally-led balance of power in the Middle East is a proposition that has yet to be proven. Since the demise of the Ottoman Empire, outside powers have always maintained the balance. The very existence of the Central Command belies the administration’s assertion that a balance can be created. In fact, the magnitude of the region’s current turmoil is testimony to the ambiguous nature of the balance and the absence of a reliable outside power. If anything, US willpower to engage is doubted by both Iran and its enemies. Whatever the nature of the Iranian nuclear deal, the lifting of the sanctions can only cause an intensification in the current conflict. As the Sunni Arabs and Israel perceive the glass to be half empty and draining, more resources will be thrown into the conflict. Meanwhile, Iran is not about to walk away from either Syria or Iraq. It is quite possible that an American-Iranian detente could backfire completely. Instead of a regional balance of power, US policy could risk either a direct Israeli-Iranian confrontation or a Saudi-Iranian confrontation, or both. Certainly the Sunni-Shia balance in Syria and Iraq will continue to be tested. The prospect of US policy leading to a failed-state Balkanization is also a serious possibility.
Another confusion is the administration’s simplistic notion that an Iranian-American normalization is possible in the current Israeli-Iranian climate. It is almost certain that sooner or later another round of Israel-Hezbollah fighting will ensue. Is the US Congress going to allow American oil companies the privilege of Iranian investment without a massive containment of the Islamic Republic’s regional and global terrorist policy? To think that Congress and the American people would stoop to such blatant, self-serving hypocrisy is wrong-headed. Is President Obama so enamored of his legacy that he fails to see the extreme irony of his actions? Or is it only Sunni terrorists that concern the president? The US has spent well over a trillion dollars fighting its “War on Terrorism”. Will it now turn a blind eye to Iran?
The US strategy in the Middle East has been to go it alone. Over the recent years France, Russia and China have been excluded from US designs. Most of these designs have backfired terribly. However, the new Obama idea of a US-Iran rapprochement will most likely prove the most unrealistic of all. The hegemonic nature of the history of the modern Middle East is the reason for the struggle of the last thirty-five years. The likelihood of a permanent balance of power within the region without an outside structure is remote. If the US can no longer play the role that it has historically played, a new structure must be sought. A nuclear deal without a regional “Zone of Peace” is an absurdity. The Middle East glass is either half-full or half-empty. Either way, it is not balanced.