Fri 24 Nov 2023 7:40 am - Jerusalem Time
The War That Remade the Middle East. How Washington Can Stabilize a Transformed Region
By Maria Fantappie and Vali Nasr
Before October 7, 2023, it seemed as if the United States’ vision for the Middle East was finally coming to fruition. Washington had arrived at an implicit understanding with Tehran about its nuclear program, in which the Islamic Republic of Iran effectively paused further development in exchange for limited financial relief. The United States was working on a defense pact with Saudi Arabia, which would in turn lead the kingdom to normalize its relations with Israel. And Washington had announced plans for an ambitious trade corridor connecting India to Europe through the Middle East to offset China’s rising influence in the region.
There were obstacles, of course. Tensions between Tehran and Washington, although lower than in the past, remained high. Israel’s avowedly right-wing government was busy expanding settlements in the West Bank, prompting anger from Palestinians. But U.S. officials did not see Iran as a spoiler; it had, after all, recently restored ties with various Arab governments. And Arab states had already normalized relations with Israel, even though Israel was not making meaningful concessions to the Palestinians.
Then Hamas attacked Israel, throwing the region into turmoil and upending the United States’ vision. The militant group’s expansive assault from the Gaza Strip—in which its fighters broke through a high-tech border wall, rampaged across southern Israeli towns, killed roughly 1,200 people, and took more than 240 hostages—made it clear that the Middle East is still a deeply explosive region. The attack prompted a ferocious military response by Israel that created a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, with large numbers of dead and displaced Palestinians, and raised the risk of a wider regional war. The plight of the Palestinians is again front and center, and an Israeli-Saudi deal is infeasible. Given that Iranian support accounts for Hamas’s resilience and military abilities, Iran’s own regional military capabilities now seem quite powerful. Tehran also seems newly assertive. Although not keen on a broader conflict, Iran has still basked in Hamas’s show of force and, since then, upped the ante as Israel exchanged fire with the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and as other Iranian-backed groups lobbed rockets at U.S. troops.
The influence of the United States still looms large over the Middle East. But its support for Israel’s war has decidedly compromised its credibility in the region. (That support has also damaged Washington’s standing in the global South more broadly, especially as Israel’s claim of self-defense turned into collective punishment of Palestinian civilians.) This means the United States will have to craft a new strategy for the Middle East, one that contends with the realities it has long ignored. Washington, for example, can no longer neglect the Palestinian issue. In fact, it will have to make resolving that conflict the centerpiece of its endeavors. It will simply be impossible for the United States to tackle other questions in the region, including the future of Arab-Israeli ties, until there is a credible path to a viable future Palestinian state.
Washington must also address Tehran’s rising power, which has rattled the Middle East. If the United States wants to bring peace to the region, it must find new ways to constrain Iran and its proxies. Just as important, the United States must reduce their desire to challenge the regional order. It will especially need a new deal that halts Iran’s march to achieve the capability to make nuclear weapons.
To achieve these aims, the United States does not have to discard all that it has worked for. In fact, it can—and should—build on elements of the order it previously envisioned. In particular, Washington must anchor its new plan for the region in its partnership with Saudi Arabia, which has working relations with Iran, Israel, and the entire Arab world. Riyadh can use its expansive influence to help revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and help the United States strike a nuclear agreement with Iran. And together, Riyadh and Washington can create the Middle Eastern economic corridor the United States needs to balance against China.
This new grand bargain will not be as straightforward as the deal the United States was negotiating before October 7. It will not begin with Israeli-Saudi normalization, and it will not end with an Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran. But unlike past agreements, this new framework is achievable. And if done right, it will lower regional tensions and establish lasting peace.
It is easy to see why the United States believed it could step back from the Middle East. The Arab-Israeli conflict appeared to be ending, even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dragged on. Iran had struck an effective bargain with the United States to limit the advancement of its nuclear program and had normalized ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. The region seemed to be taking care of itself, freeing Washington to focus on Asia and Europe. But Washington had overestimated the stability of that situation, and it had underestimated the forces arrayed against it. U.S. President Joe Biden, for example, appears to have given little thought to how he would earn Senate approval for a defense treaty with Saudi Arabia, even though the treaty could entail providing the kingdom with advanced weaponry and civilian nuclear infrastructure. The United States also wrongly assumed that other Middle Eastern countries would not protest as it boosted Riyadh’s quest for regional hegemony. Washington figured that Tehran, for example, was too eager to normalize ties with Arab states and too busy with domestic unrest to interfere with U.S. plans. In reality, of course, Iran was continuing to strengthen and nurture its armed proxies.
But Washington’s biggest miscalculation was thinking it could ignore the Palestinian issue.
Its tentative agreement with the Saudis, for example, was premised on the assumption that Riyadh could normalize ties with Israel and not prompt widespread backlash, even though it was unlikely that any deal would involve major concessions to the Palestinians. The United States did know that, despite the promise of de-escalation, the shadow war between Iran and Israel continued to simmer. But it did not foresee that war converging with the Palestinian issue, and to devastating effect.
As October 7 showed, Washington’s beliefs about the Middle East were completely incorrect. And yet so far, the United States has not updated its thinking. Instead of pushing for a limited military campaign that might salvage Israel’s reputation, Washington’s overarching response to the war in Gaza has been nearly unequivocal support for a brutal military assault. The result has been both anti-Israeli and anti-American outrage across the Middle East. Jordanian King Abdullah II and his wife, Queen Rania Al Abdullah, for example, have publicly condemned the Israeli military campaign, criticized American support for it, and made it clear that in this war, Jordan does not stand with the West. Both Jordan and Bahrain have recalled their ambassadors to Israel and frozen diplomatic ties. When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Arab leaders held a meeting in Amman in November, they could not even produce a perfunctory joint communiqué.
Washington’s beliefs about the Middle East were completely incorrect
The United States has tried to compensate for its pro-Israel position by supporting pauses in the fighting to get humanitarian aid into Gaza. It has also cooperated with the government of Qatar, which has close ties to Hamas, to secure the release of hostages. And Washington has lobbied to have the Palestinian Authority govern Gaza at the end of the war, instead of subjecting it to a prolonged Israeli occupation.
But these modest steps are unlikely to stabilize the region. In fact, they are doing the opposite: creating a vacuum that the Arab world’s other actors will use to advance their own interests. Israel has made destroying Hamas its immediate goal, but without U.S. pressure, it will also look to convince its citizens and the region of its invincibility by dealing incalculable damage to Gaza to deter potential adversaries. Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority will want to minimize internal and external threats to their power, so they will try to make sure any postwar diplomacy suits their economic interests and bolsters their regional standing. Gulf countries, too, will use the conflict to vie for influence. Qatar is already leveraging its relationship with Hamas to make itself into an indispensable regional player—one with more influence than both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Turkey, meanwhile, wants to find a role in resolving the conflict so it can get Washington to sell it F-16 fighter jets and back away from supporting the Kurds in Syria.
But the state that has already gained the most from the war is Iran. The resurrection of the Palestinian issue has focused regional attention once again on the Levant. The “axis of resistance” that Iran leads, which in addition to Hamas and Hezbollah includes the Assad regime, Shiite militias in both Iraq and Syria, and the Houthis in Yemen, has shown it can change the direction of Middle East politics, escalating and de-escalating regional conflicts at will.
By offering unwavering support for Hamas, Iran has also bolstered its image as the defender of the Palestinians, increasing its popularity across the Middle East. And Tehran is balancing its support for Hamas with its burgeoning relations with the Arab world to fully embed itself in regional politics. Shortly after the Hamas attacks, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi spoke on the phone with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman for the first time since the states renewed their ties in March 2023. Raisi then traveled to Riyadh in November at the prince’s invitation to attend what participants named the Joint Arab-Islamic Extraordinary Summit. Tehran has taken the idea of an Arab-Israeli axis to contain Iran and turned it on its head.
Together, these trends are driving the region toward a wider conflict. The deepening distrust of the United States, the country’s inability to lead the region to stability, and the lack of any common vision to rally around are driving different states to pursue their own short-term interests, increasingly guided by pressure from the streets and fears of a wider war. These divergent interests are prolonging the region’s crisis and increasing the chance of unintended escalation. To avoid the worst, Washington will have to revisit its core assumptions, renew its commitment to the Middle East, and lay out a fresh vision for the region.
DEAL OR NO DEAL
Washington’s most urgent task is ending the war in Gaza. As long as Israel is attacking the territory and killing civilians there and the United States is doing little to rein in its ally, governments and people in Arab countries will be too furious to follow the United States’ lead. As a result, U.S. officials must press Israel to cease waging a war on Hamas that collectively punishes civilians—as of November 16, fighting in Gaza had killed over 11,000 Palestinians and denied the territory access to food, water, and medicine. Washington must make Israel stop using unrestrained violence in Gaza and pressure it to instead pursue a peaceful, political solution to the decades-long Palestinian issue.
Once the fighting ends, Washington can begin looking forward. As it does so, it will need to take a sober view. But it does not need to throw away everything it had worked toward before October 7. The United States should still base its strategy on striking a grand bargain with Saudi Arabia. Although Riyadh may not normalize ties with Israel any time soon, it is still one of the few governments in the region that remains on good terms with every country in the Middle East and North Africa. It even has cordial, if informal, relations with Israel. It is a key broker in the region.
If anything, the war in Gaza could boost Saudi Arabia’s primacy by giving it a chance to stabilize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Joint Arab-Islamic Extraordinary Summit, which included leaders from across the Arab world, in addition to Iran and Turkey, was a first step in this direction. Unlike Egypt, Jordan, or the other states that usually mediate between Israel and its adversaries, Saudi Arabia has the credibility and regional relations needed to help strike a real peace deal. To do so, Saudi Arabia would work with Iran and Turkey, the main powerbrokers in the Arab world, as well as with Israel via the United States, to arrive at a broad framework for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process with the aim of creating a Palestinian state. Then, Saudi Arabia and its partners would work to build an overarching framework for regional security that must include rules and redlines broadly agreed to by all sides. Only an agreement like this would ensure lasting peace on Israel’s borders, close the door to radical forces among Palestinians, contain the shadow war between Iran and Israel, and rein in Tehran’s axis of resistance.
The Saudis will be reluctant to own the Palestinian issue. But Saudi Arabia’s interests rest in regional peace and security. Its grand economic vision cannot unfold if there is lasting crisis in the region. Riyadh also continues to covet regional leadership and recognition as a great power on the world stage, something that requires American support and could therefore prompt Riyadh to heed U.S. calls to broker a peace agreement.
To help Saudi Arabia, the United States would have to offer Riyadh diplomatic support to pursue broad-based diplomacy, including giving the government permission to seek Iranian acquiescence on a deal to resolve the Palestinian issue. Washington will have to corral its other Arab allies to support Riyadh, as well. And the United States must pursue the defense pact that was on the table with Riyadh before October 7. But it can no longer demand immediate recognition of Israel as a precondition. Instead, the United States should ask that Saudi Arabia lead the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Normalized ties with Israel could then be the outcome of the process.
As it puts forward a peace proposal for Israel and the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia will have to prove it can consult with Gulf neighbors and better take into account their ambitions, as well as their security concerns—which it did not do before October 7. Doing so could require that Riyadh use diplomatic energy it might be reluctant to spend. But if it succeeds at helping ease the path to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and achieving greater regional security, Saudi Arabia would acquire the diplomatic gravitas it craves. A defense pact with the United States, meanwhile, would provide the kingdom with the military capabilities it needs to solidify its status as the Middle East’s premier economic and political actor.
CONSTRAIN, DON’T CONTAIN
Solving the Palestinian issue is essential to creating a stable Middle East. But it is not the only challenge facing the region. As part of any grand bargain, Washington will need to lower tensions with Iran and use its deal with Riyadh to constrain the country’s ambitions. And by itself, a deal with Riyadh risks doing the exact opposite. There are many reasons Iran might respond poorly to a U.S.-Saudi agreement. The scale and quality of weapons that would begin to flow from the United States to Saudi Arabia, for example, will alarm Tehran. It will also see a Saudi civilian nuclear program as inherently aggressive, no matter how many restrictions Washington puts on it. Iran would also worry that a U.S.-Saudi defense treaty would lead to an expanded American military presence in the Middle East.
Tehran might therefore respond to a U.S.-Saudi deal by escalating its own weapons manufacturing, launching more proxy attacks, and advancing its nuclear program. (Egypt, Turkey, and the UAE might start to seek nuclear capabilities, as well.)If Israel and Saudi Arabia eventually normalize relations, Israel might even establish a direct military and intelligence presence in the Gulf, one that could be protected by the U.S.-Saudi defense treaty. For Iran, such an outcome would be a nightmare. Tehran would no longer be able to deter Saudi military cooperation with Israel by having its proxies attack Saudi troops or oil refineries, since doing so would provoke a direct confrontation with Washington.
Washington’s biggest miscalculation was thinking it could ignore the Palestinian issue.
Fortunately for Iran, Riyadh does not want to end its détente with Tehran, which has been a boon for the country. Since Saudi Arabia restarted ties with Iran, the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen have stopped attacking Saudi territory. Together, Riyadh and Tehran have established a stable cease-fire in Yemen after years of brutal warfare. Now, Yemen’s parties are making progress toward a permanent agreement. This newfound security has made it easier for Saudi Arabia to pursue its lofty economic goals by removing the threat of Houthi missile attacks on Saudi refineries and other infrastructure. As a result, Riyadh no longer seems to share Israel’s vision for a joint military and intelligence axis to roll back Iran’s regional influence. In fact, since March, Iran and Saudi Arabia have worked to fully normalize relations by opening embassies, easing travel between their countries, and establishing cultural exchanges. Iran had already established full relations with Kuwait and the UAE in 2022. It is in talks with Egypt and Jordan to restore ties with those countries, as well.
A U.S.-Saudi defense pact will still be a concern for Tehran. But it is less likely to react adversely to one that does not affect its diplomatic and economic relations with Riyadh and the rest of the Gulf, and that does not set up a regional security arrangement aimed at degrading its power. By engaging Iran in bilateral and regional issues as it pursues a grand bargain with the United States, Saudi Arabia can minimize Iranian resistance to a U.S. deal and even find ways to secure Tehran’s consent for a new regional order.
Washington may not approve of Riyadh’s efforts to keep Tehran on board by using diplomatic concessions and economic benefits. Iran is one of the United States’ principal adversaries, and it is Israel’s main enemy. But the United States cannot stop the normalization of ties between Iran and its Arab neighbors. As Iran’s axis of resistance has grown stronger, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE have all decided that Tehran must be integrated into the region to keep themselves safe. They have decided that they can better protect their security if they engage Iran and if Tehran has a vested interest in bilateral ties with them. Nor should the United States try to stop normalization. If the Arab world’s approach is successful, it will serve American interests by de-escalating regional tensions, freeing the United States to focus on Asia and Europe.
The United States should therefore use the Middle East’s new order to cage Iran’s ambitions, instead of trying in vain to create an anti-Tehran alliance. To do so, Washington should encourage Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to deepen their diplomatic and economic engagement with Iran in order to secure Tehran’s acquiescence to a permanent settlement for the Palestinian issue and de-escalation in the Levant.
A solution for the Palestinians will be difficult to arrive at without at least tacit Iranian agreement—and any deal will be far more resilient with it. Such a solution would also deny Iran the ability to exploit the issue, cost radical Palestinian voices their influence, and provide political space to the Arab world to establish better ties with Israel.
BACK FROM THE BRINK
There is one issue that Israel, the United States, and most Arab countries still agree on: Iran’s nuclear program. They all believe that the program’s continued expansion is one of the most destabilizing developments in the Middle East. As Tehran gets closer to producing nuclear weapons, Israel might step up its covert attacks on Iran. If Tehran appears to be on the cusp of nuclearization, Israel could attack the country outright—an act that could quickly draw the United States into a direct conflict. Should Riyadh and Washington sign a defense treaty, Saudi Arabia might also become a party to any war. That war would then unfold in the Levant, as well as the Gulf, with devastating consequences for both regions and for the global economy.
Iran and the United States have tried, and failed, to strike a new nuclear accord since Biden took office at the beginning of 2021. And at first, the October 7 attacks might seem to make a new agreement virtually impossible to reach. But Tehran and Washington had worked carefully to de-escalate before October 7, and their quiet agreement has largely held steady. The informal nuclear deal, for example, appears to remain in effect. Iran’s proxies launched rockets at American bases, but there is little indication that either side wants to fight the other—those attacks are more designed to show support for Gaza and to warn the United States against scuttling the informal deal than to do real damage. Washington’s own sporadic strikes are similarly about posturing, carried out to appease domestic audiences agitating for a response to the Iranian attacks.
For Washington, escalation with Iran would divert military and diplomatic resources away from its competition with Beijing and Moscow. Iran’s leaders, meanwhile, do not want to risk a conflict that could devastate their economy—and possibly bring down their regime.
This relative calm will likely hold at least until the U.S. presidential elections in November 2024. But the possible return to office of former U.S. President Donald Trump means Tehran and Washington do not have much time to strike a new agreement. Even if Biden is reelected, the two states must resolve their nuclear standoff before October 2025, when the ability of any signatory to reinstate UN-approved sanctions under the 2015 nuclear deal (which Trump withdrew from) expires. If the United States and its European allies do not reinstate the UN sanctions before then, they may never be able to implement them again; China and Russia will likely veto any future restrictions, which must pass through the UN Security Council. But if the West does opt to reimpose these restrictions, Iran has warned that it will leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—a very public precursor to building a weapon—precipitating a major international crisis. Washington and its allies, then, want a new agreement before they make up their minds.
To create a new deal, Iran and the United States should pick up where they left off in Vienna in August 2022: the last time the two countries held nuclear talks. Despite the fighting in Gaza, their objectives remain the same. The United States wants to limit the amount and purity of uranium Iran can enrich—thereby extending the time Tehran needs to produce enough fissile material to make a nuclear weapon—and to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is subject to rigorous international monitoring. Iran, for its part, still needs relief from crippling economic sanctions.
But unlike in 2022, the United States should closely coordinate its nuclear talks with Saudi Arabia’s own efforts to reduce tensions with Iran. The two are, after all, linked. Success in nuclear talks that reduce tensions between Iran and the United States will help Saudi talks achieve the same with Iran; success in talks between Riyadh and Tehran, meanwhile, will give Iran more reason to trust a nuclear deal with the United States, particularly if such talks are encouraged by Washington. And the United States will have to ensure that any nuclear deal it makes with Saudi Arabia contains limits and restrictions that resemble the agreement it strikes with Iran. Otherwise, the two states could enter an escalatory spiral, as whichever state is granted inferior nuclear capabilities will work hard to catch up.
In the near term, Washington’s Middle East strategy must focus on ending the war in Gaza and finding a path to regional stability. But in the long term, the United States needs to look beyond just Iran and the Palestinians. Its Middle East policies must also contend with Beijing: Washington’s chief international competitor.
China’s economic presence in the Middle East has grown markedly over the past decade. The country relies heavily on the Gulf for its energy supplies, and it has used the Gulf as a gateway for its expanding trade and investment networks in Africa. China has, in turn, offered Saudi Arabia and the UAE access to knowledge—for example, about the technologies underlying green energy—that they cannot procure in the West, helping spearhead development in the Gulf. China has also made substantial direct financial investments in the Gulf, especially within Saudi Arabia. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, this commercial relationship has been folded into China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Xi has made fostering these ties part of his response to Washington’s efforts to constrain Beijing.
The United States has taken note of China’s expanding relationship with Middle Eastern states. It paid especially close attention when Xi helped mediate the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Washington believes that China wants to use its economic influence in the Middle East to become a political and security power in the region. The U.S.-Saudi defense treaty is a response: a way of arresting Riyadh’s drift into China’s orbit. Washington’s plans for a trade corridor through the Middle East are also designed to undermine Beijing’s scheme. Such a corridor would benefit the region economically, but its primary purpose is to counter the Belt and Road Initiative by anchoring the region’s economic future to India and Europe. The corridor would also bind the UAE and Saudi Arabia to Israel and integrate Israel’s economy into that of the Middle East.
The Biden administration’s most urgent task is ending the war in Gaza.
Beijing has responded warily to Washington’s proposals. When the United States talked about creating an Indian–Middle Eastern–European economic corridor, China reacted by saying it would welcome the corridor provided it did not become a “geopolitical tool,” which is, of course, exactly what the United States intends it to be. It would divide the Middle East between those that are part of the economic corridor and those that are not: an exclusionary system that runs counter to China’s regional vision. And Beijing knows the Biden administration’s push for Israeli-Saudi normalization is an attempt to match China’s own success with the Iranians and the Saudis. China is not yet in a position to foil the United States’ plans, but there are no signs it will slow its economic engagement with the region. In the current geopolitical vacuum, that engagement will continue to expand and deepen.
Saudi Arabia does not want to choose between China and the United States. But just like Israel and the Palestinian territories, Riyadh may still agree to Washington’s plans because they would bolster Riyadh’s great-power ambitions by strengthening its regional position and expanding its economic influence. These plans would improve the economies of other regional states, as well. As a result, Arab countries that might otherwise be hostile to a Saudi-centered Middle East could go along with the United States’ proposals. If they do, the result would be greater stability both within Middle Eastern countries and between them.
But to increase the likelihood that every state will buy into its proposed order, the United States may have to do more than make sure its system delivers widespread prosperity. The United States must also subscribe to a vision for Middle East security that does not divide the region into camps but makes room for all actors. That requires the United States to let the countries in its envisioned economic corridor join other economic arrangements, as well. It also requires a grand bargain to promote the security of Israel, other Arab states, and even Iran. Such security can be, in part, offered through a new nuclear deal and a regional accord between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But the United States should consider making regional pacts beyond the one it concludes with Saudi Arabia. These pacts could extend U.S. security guarantees to other states, but they must also come with restraints and redlines. Washington cannot simply continue supplying weapons to regional allies, as it did before October 7. Instead of promoting stability, this policy encouraged a regional arms race and war.
No matter what Washington does, there will be resistance to its Middle East vision. Iran will remain hostile to Israel and the United States. Saudi Arabia’s Gulf neighbors will never be pleased about the kingdom’s dominance. Israel and Turkey will also calculate what it means for Saudi Arabia to amass so much power and what the United States’ commitment to the Saudis means for their interests. They will react accordingly, and likely in ways Washington cannot expect.
But although all these countries will want more power, what they want most of all is to preserve the stability of their regimes. They want to subscribe to a vision that ends local conflicts, fosters economic growth, and otherwise reduces domestic pressure. If a U.S.-Saudi pact delivers, they will ultimately accept it.
Yet to make this bargain work, the United States will need to persuade Israel to stop engaging in what many see as the collective punishment of Palestinian civilians. Washington must tackle the plight of the Palestinians more broadly, instead of ignoring their cause, by helping create a credible pathway to a future Palestinian state. Washington’s bargain must contend with the challenge that Iran presents by freezing its nuclear program and constraining its network of regional clients, both through deterrence and by taking steps to reduce tensions. And the United States must create a trade corridor that helps cultivate the Middle East’s economies. Only then will the region be stable—and only then will Washington be free of its present responsibilities.
Source: Foreign affairs
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