Helplessness and Cynicism:Choices by the West in the Middle East by Priyanka Moonesinghe

This commentary is informed by the Security Salon on the “Saudi-Iranian rivalry and the new security landscape in the Middle East”, conducted by visiting scholar to the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL), Professor Matteo Legrenzi, on the 27th of October 2017. The Salon highlighted the new Middle East Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as the proxy-wars being fought by these two regional powers in Bahrain, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Syria. The speaker illustrated the fact that security in the Middle East is a contested concept and that military power is not always fungible in the region. Professor Legrenzi went beyond the sectarian framework that informs much of the debate on the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, to show how extra-regional powers and external manipulation play a significant role in determining regime security in the Middle East. It is on this latter strand of thought that this commentary seeks to elaborate on.

Firstly, ‘the West’ will be construed as predominately being U.S foreign policy in the Middle East, to illustrate the sphere of influence the U.S has in the region. The author will critically analyse different foreign policy themes in the region and argue that the West’s policy decisions with regards to the Middle East are based on its own liberal security interests and that this is especially true of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. 

The Middle East has long been of geo-strategic interest - given that the region produces 40% of the world’s energy and 96% of world transportation energy - with sale of the commodity of oil. In fact, 66% of global oil reserves are in the hands of Middle Eastern countries (25% with Saudi Arabia) (OPEC, data source).  However, oil is not the main factor that drives U.S foreign policy in the region. As the comparative charts below illustrate, more than half of U.S oil comes from its domestic oil industry compared to Japan and China, which are much more reliant on the Middle East Region for crude oil imports. 

In fact, China has taken an interest in the region for this very same commercial reason, such that it is seen “free-riding on the American security role” in the region while benefitting commercially by increasing its energy security. This is also evidenced by the above pie chart that shows that China’s crude oil imports amount to 16% from Saudi Arabia alone.

If we look at the Middle East region as a whole, we can see that the rise of political Islam and its contention with Western liberal values as well as the decade long ‘War on Terror’ are the main driving factors of the West’s engagement in the region. The U.S military presence since the Gulf War has also meant that the West has had a historic intervening presence in the region. This view point is consistent with the depiction of the region at the Security Salon, where it was argued that for the foreseeable future when it comes to military security “the off shore balancer in the Gulf is the United States of America”. This led GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries to depend on American support and leverage the American presence in the region for security in the past.
Let us first look at the case of Israel and U.S foreign policy in supporting Israel historically. The U.S has always been a key ally of Israel, especially since the Six Day War in 1967. Israel is also the largest annual recipient of direct U.S economic and military aid since 1976, receiving approximately $2.5billion per year – 1/5 of U.S foreign aid- encompassing mostly military aid (The Cost of Conflict Study Team, Rand Cooperation).  In general terms, the relationship shared between Israel and the U.S means that the U.S turns a blind eye to the Israeli nuclear weapons programme and has led the U.S not to recognize the Palestinian state, unlike an increasing number of European countries.  John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have an interesting insight into the American “Israel Lobby” (LRB, March 2006). They stated that “the thrust of US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel lobby’…[which has] managed to skew foreign policy [like no other interest group]”. President Trump’s announcement that the US will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel at the time of writing this article is testament to this fact. Mearsheimer and Walt’s main argument however, is that the US relationship with Israel is contrary to US strategic interest. This argument has some strength because Israel can be seen as a strategic burden in the context of the Gulf War, Lebanon, Palestine and the opposition to the two-state solution. 

The threat of Iran is arguably the most important actor that dictates the West’s interest in the region currently. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, which saw the rise of Ayatollah Khomeni and the ousting of the US-backed Shah after the CIA sponsored coup in 1953, was a watershed moment in US-Iran relations. This is because the Revolution was succeeded by the 1979-1981 Hostage Crisis, which saw retaliatory economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. The deterioration of U.S-Iranian relations has also had a value-laden aspect to it because the U.S has since branded Iran as having links to the terrorist organisations of Hezbollah, Hamas and the PLO and during the Bush Administration - links to Al Qaeda.  Nevertheless, the Obama administration attempted to have a serious dialogue and engagement with the Iranians on their alleged nuclear programme. This represented a proactive policy decision of the West in engaging with Iran, without immediately resorting to military might. However, the resultant JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) is now being undermined by the current US President. This is evidenced by Trump’s move to expand sanctions against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Tehran is also a fundamental actor in solving both the Syrian and Yemeni crises and is crucial to American foreign interests in the Middle East. Yet thus far, the present U.S Executive has only shown cynicism and deep mistrust of Iran.

The situation is further catalyzed by the fact that the Gulf region is transitioning power from Saudi Arabia to Iran and arguably recalibrating eastward. Power relations in the region increasingly depend on non-Arab states: Iran, Turkey and Israel. Hence, Saudi Arabia has come under increasing pressure to reassert its regional dominance and maintain the status-quo thereby culminating in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. The American position has been one of weakness in this regard. It has sought to provide assurances to its Arab allies (including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates), through a sustained maritime presence in the Gulf and also to amplify tensions with regards to supporting Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries in accusing Qatar of propagating terrorism. The lynchpin of the West’s helplessness in the region is Iran as it represents an increasing presence with its militant clients (including Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, and the Houthis in Yemen). Deterring Iran and its proxies is thus central to the West’s objectives in the Middle East. 

Given more than a decade of the War on Terror framing the security agenda; the Middle East as a region has been established as a permanent threat narrative within the Western and more specifically, U.S foreign policy. Hence, the institutionalization of Middle East policy within the current security agenda renders the region as a permanent sphere of influence for the Western powers. The security landscape of the Middle East today has shown us that the West’s choices have resulted in an array of conflicts and threats emanating from the region – thereby rendering the U.S – both cynical and helpless.
The Author Priyanka Moonesinghe is a Research Analyst at the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL). This article does not reflect the stance of INSSSL or the Government of Sri Lanka.