A Polar Reorientation In The Mideast (US-Iran)?
Moscow has teamed up with Tehran to kick-start a new round of Syrian reconciliation talks, and it’s working with Riyadh in an effort to get the latter to agree to its inclusive (Syrian-government-incorporating) anti-ISIL initiative and hopefully withdraw its support for terrorists in the country. As involves the US, Washington just struck a monumental deal with Tehran that paves the way for a rapprochement between the two sides, which of course has scared Riyadh to no end and somewhat motivated its cautious redirection towards Russia. No matter how complicated the larger situation appears, however, it’s unmistakable that two main trends have emerged – Russia and Saudi Arabia are getting closer with one another at the same time that the US and Iran are doing the same. This makes for a very peculiar state of affairs at the moment that needs a thorough and clarifying elaboration, a categorical comparison of its two main components, and a forecast for its evolution in order to help make sense of it all.
The first two parts of the article looks at the specifics of the US-Iran relationship and the Russian-Saudi one, explaining how they came into existence and the complex cause-and-effect interconnection between both of them. Part III picks up where the previous two left off and compares the perceptions and motivations surrounding each pivot, categorizing them into eight primary tracks. Finally, Part IV contains a phased scenario forecast that concludes the series by using the prism of these two pivots and their respective explanatory logic to help predict a couple visions of what the Mideast’s coming future might look like.
A Geo-Strategic Double-Think In The Desert
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia appearing to have be rethinking their traditional geostrategic relationships, in what could either be described as an embrace of multipolarity directed against no one (which in Iran’s case would be a walk-back from its previous Resistant and Defiant policy) or a potential pivot on behalf of, or against, someone else. This piece deals with Iran while the subsequent one addresses Saudi Arabia, so let’s begin by taking a look at what underlies Tehran’s recent geopolitical reevaluation towards the West.
One could say that ‘it’s all about the atoms’ when discussing what’s behind the US and Iran’s renewed diplomatic engagement, but that’s just part of it, despite being a crucial component. The Iranian nuclear negotiations were essentially a trust-building exercise between the US and Iran that was mediated by Russia, which undertook the role of making sure that Iran’s position was heard and accommodated by the West. On the reverse end, having experience in negotiating with the US at the highest levels since the beginning of the First Cold War, Russia also sought to help Iran understand the full consequences of everything that was being discussed and proposed by the American side, hoping that this could help offset any forthcoming legal and/or strategic surprises that the US might try to pull (even in a post-sanction environment). Out of its goodwill efforts, Russia expected for Iran to billions of dollars from its unfrozen funds to mutual ally Syria, as well as promise that it wouldn’t exploit its post-deal circumstances to overload the global energy market and crash commodity prices to its advantage.
The following section will contain a critical evaluation of the Iranian nuclear deal, but the reader must be reminded that the only reason it occurred was because Iran was the one who wanted to negotiate and resolve the dispute. Had it not taken the prerogative to do so or thought that it wouldn’t be in its best interests (as understood by its sovereign and internationally recognized authorities), Russia and China, in this New Cold War context, could have very well stood by its side and supported its decision. However, since the Iranian government earnestly wanted to clinch a deal no matter what (despite the serious consequences that this entails for its sovereignty), Russia helped facilitate its ally’s wish and respected its independent choice, and it did this no matter how disadvantageous the signed agreement might possibly end up being for its own long-term interests if Iran’s intentions towards it change and/or it decides to violate the unwritten pact between them to not compete in the energy sphere.
Iran Takes A Loss…
Quite a few analysts have argued that Iran took quite a strategic loss in signing the nuclear deal, although they differ somewhat in their explanations for why it ultimately agreed to it in the first place. To speak on the agreement’s critics and cautionaries, these include the likes of Peter Lvov, Christopher Black, and Eric Draitser. Lvov says that the arrangement places Iran in the Western strategic camp and is a major loss for Russia, which Black seconds. They say that the Islamic Republic was coerced into embarrassing nuclear energy restrictions and oversight, as well as the continuation of “terrorism”- and ballistic missile-related sanctions out of combined fear of a conventional strike and/or Color Revolution. Draitser is less critical in his assessment and sees it mostly through a business perspective, but he does caution that it could have catastrophic long-term consequences for Eurasia’s multipolar future.
The author’s own analysis on this matter was written back in November when it first seemed like all sides would seal a deal, and it’s actually quite relevant to the current post-deal strategic situation. Overall, it’s argued that while Iran might see certain economic, military, and soft power benefits in the agreement, it’s put itself in a position to be exploited by the US further down the line and end up losing everything that it had earlier thought it gained. To expand on that piece for the current realities, it does seem like Color Revolution fears definitely motivated Iran’s leaders. For one, the ‘Kurdish test run’ from early May could have made them realize their vulnerability to a transnational Kurdish uprising, which might be the reason the government is officially neutral in the current Turkish-Kurdish War and has temporarily closed its border with its northwestern neighbor.
Another point to be made is it’s not just Kurds who are at risk of becoming Color Revolutionaries, but regular pro-Western Iranian youth of any ethnicity. To many of them, the Islamic Revolution is a national tradition, but not one that they enthusiastically or actively support (which isn’t the same as saying they reject it). It’s kind of like baseball for most Americans – it’s boring, but they still go to a game every once in a while to show their patriotism and as something to simply do with their time, but they’re by no means ‘baseball fans’ (or anti-baseball, for that matter). Also, President Rouhani does appear to have very strong liberal shades much like former Russian President Medvedev, and since he’s officially running the show (just as Medvedev was during his tenure), Khamenei (reluctantly) supports him just as Putin did Medvedev when it came to UNSC 1973 that the West ultimately used to escalate the War on Libya. In both instances, it can be argued that the ‘man behind the throne’ didn’t fully approve of what his formal representative was doing, but still had to go along with it regardless in order to avoid a public government split that could easily be taken advantage of by international forces and their affiliated media outlets (as well as be the trigger for a [premature] Color Revolution attempt).
…So ‘Everybody’ Wins (Except Russia)
Here’s a quick overview of the dividends that all 6 negotiating partners are expected to receive once the deal begins to be formally implemented early next year:
Tehran is eager to unfreeze the billions of dollars of seized funds that it had in the West, hoping to redirect them to its Hezbollah, Syrian, and Houthi allies as soon as possible. On the domestic front, it’s courting Western investment, capital, and expertise with the expectation that this will help facilitate an economic boom in the country. The Iranian market unquestionably has all the qualities for success (highly educated, resource-rich, very large, etc.), but the sanctions put an unexpected halt to its growth over the past decade.
As written about articulately and soberly in Draitser’s analysis, the US is looking for a strategic partner that can help it indirectly extend influence into the heart of multipolar Eurasia, which explains Washington’s surprising turn-around when it comes to dealing with Iran. Building upon this assessment, it can be suggested that the US wants to encourage newly assertive and rightfully confident Iran to take things a step further by expanding its soft power influence along the southern flank of the former Soviet Union (Caucasus, Caspian, Central Asia), which could make the country an uncomfortable rival to traditional Russian influence there. One should recall a fleeting, yet important, detail mentioned almost as an afterthought in the Hoagland-Blinken Doctrine, where the strategic opportunity is held out for the US to support Iran’s possible post-sanctions role “as a gateway to Europe, as a gateway to India” for the Central Asian region.
These countries are mostly concerned with the economic and energy consequences of the deal, since they all want in on the coming riches. It was just described why Iran is ripe for an economic renaissance, so focusing on its energy potential, there are 3 complementary opportunities that Iran. The first two deal with gas export to the EU via either an Iran-EU and/or a Turkmenistan-Iran-EU pipeline, while the other is to China through the Iran-Pakistan-China route (with an additional Iran-India project being planned as well). The combined effect of all this gas on the market could predictably depress prices, and this would be compounded by the opening of Iran’s underutilized oil reserves as well (with the gas price being indexed to oil). Iran is used to surviving sanctions and ‘living on less’, so to speak, so it and its budgetary interests can easily absorb the relatively miniscule profit margins associated with low oil and gas prices since such expected revenue is still better than whatever Iran would be receiving if the sanctions were still in effect. Beijing, Paris, Berlin, and London are always in favor of the cheapest energy imports possible, so it would obviously be to their advantage to see all of these projects come to fruition (not just the LNG ones) to advance their mutual price-lowering objectives, and as just said, Iran looks to be supportive of this scenario despite reassurances that it may have previously given to Russia.
Russia’s position is arguably a lot weaker than all of its co-negotiators’ when it comes to the expected windfalls following the Iranian nuclear deal. Of course, it theoretically has the same market opportunities as the others, but given that Russian businesses don’t have that robust of a presence in Iran as it is, they’re not really at a competitive advantage, and their rivals have the international scaling experience necessary to rapidly accelerate investments and drive out them out if it comes to it. This means that Russia’s expected economic dividends in Iran might not be as big, let alone as certain, as some pundits allege. Also, as was mentioned, the US may use Iran (with its witting or unwitting compliance) as a springboard for projecting destabilizing influence along Russia’s strategic southern periphery in the Caucasus, Caspian, and Central Asian. On top of that, it was just detailed how Iran could disrupt global energy prices to Russia’s detriment, and this would assuredly have serious long-term reverberations for the country’s budgetary and economic considerations. All in all, aside from some possible military and mild energy investment deals, it doesn’t seem like Russia directly gains anything at all from the Iranian nuclear agreement (except that billions of dollars of unfrozen funds could assist mutual ally Syria), and it actually looks to lose quite a bit of strategic leverage as a result of it (or at the very least, be confronted with a host of strategic uncertainties that can complicate its policy applications in Eurasia).
But Did It Really Understand What It Was Doing?
Iran radiates the vibe that it’s confidently in full control of everything that it’s unleashed with the nuclear deal, but how well does it really understand (or even properly recognize) some of the more far-reaching consequences associated with it? Here’s a quick checklist of the positives and negatives as they relate to Iran and the West in three key categories:
+/- Economic Opportunities
This is an immediate win-win for both sides (especially the West and their energy interests), but further down the line, it could be used as an element of pressure against Iran depending on how the Iranian-Western relationship matures. The deeper the US and its Western allies can entrench themselves in Iran’s post-sanction economic recovery, the more influential they’ll become, and thus, the more needed they’ll be by the government in order to keep economic growth solid. This could create national security implications if those same ‘Western partners’ decide to ‘suggest’ certain political actions that Tehran doesn’t agree with, and worse if they do so under the implicit threat of returning to the sanctions regime under the false auspices of Iran “returning to nuclear weapons research”. With growing pro-Western influence and likely even associated NGOs operating in the country by that time, it’s questionable to what degree Tehran would be able to reject their decrees without being subjugated to a new round of Color Revolution destabilization (especially if the mere threat of sanctions is enough to trigger a pre-planned anti-government campaign by co-opted citizens).
+/- Nuclear Checks
The meticulous detail to nuclear checks (which it must be said, no other country in the world has to humiliatingly go through) contained within the agreement is beneficial to the West, which by no means ever wants Iran to develop a nuclear deterrent, but it’s against Iran’s strategic interests for a couple of reasons. Foremost of these is that it eliminates the possibility that Iran could change its mind if the bilateral situation ever deteriorates to the point where it’s once more threatened by the US and its allies. In such a scenario, Iran could of course renege on the deal, but then it could lose out on future economic cooperation when the sanctions snap back (although previously agreed-upon deals will remain in force). Like Black noted in his previously cited piece, Iran has essentially surrendered any future nuclear deterrent or threat thereof, which ironically makes it even less safe than before because the omnipresent American/GCC military threat never went away when Iran’s nuclear sovereignty did (although the US’ current motives are not to strike), but Iran is now unable to use the nuclear card to its defensive advantage if such threats ever rise again.
- “Race To The Finish”
It was earlier written how Iran will likely send some of the billions of dollars of unfrozen funds it receives next year to its Hezbollah, Syrian, and Houthi allies, and this has thus opened up a ‘race to the finish’ between the US and Iran. The general idea is that Washington must bring its regional wars to a ‘favorable’ conclusion before Tehran’s truckload of treasure arrives to the battlefield and buffets the defensive potential of its partners, thereby rendering the US’ attempts at ‘victory’ all but useless and completely changing the regional dynamic. While there are certainly positive opportunities for Iran and its allies to be found in this reality, it does create a very unpredictable scramble by the US to urgently secure its militant and regime change interests before it’s too late (hand-in-hand with Turkey, it must be reminded), and in hindsight, this scramble and the fear it inspired in Saudi Arabia is one of the partial reasons for Riyadh initiating its nascent partnership with Moscow (which is being viewed negatively in Tehran).
US-Saudi Energy Scheme Backfires
The oil price plunge that marked the end of 2014 wasn’t incidental, as it was really a calculated move by the US and Saudi Arabia to bring Russia and Iran to their knees. F. William Engdahl wrote about this back in late October, and his article on the topic painstakingly describes the strategic thought that went into this massive asymmetrical offensive against dual Russian-Iranian interests. Another piece released around that time also draws attention to what a foolhardy gambit this entire venture is, since it risks blowing up the US’ shale oil bubble and precipitating fears of a resultant economic collapse. The geopolitics of 1986, when such a move was first attempted against Moscow, are different than those of 2014-2015, and no matter how ‘well thought out’ the plan was, however, it failed to be the economic ‘knockout punch’ that the US and Saudi Arabia hoped it would be for both Russia and Iran.
It was at this point that the US likely asked the Saudis to reverse the plan and return back to pre-plot production levels, but somewhat surprisingly to some, Riyadh refused, and instead increased output to record levels (before scaling down just slightly) in order to ostensibly meet growing demand and widen its market share. But what’s really happening, Engdahl writes, is that the Saudis have turned on the US and are out to destroy their shale oil competitors, using their nearly $800 billion in reserves as a far-reaching buffer to any resultant social and economic problems associated with this policy. On the other hand, it could be that the US is the one on the economic offensive, seeing the entire situation as a game of chicken in forcing the Saudis to blink first. The US could, if it comes to it, print more money and ‘indefinitely’ prolong its shale oil loans (an unsustainable band-aid ‘solution’) so as to ward off the same negative consequences that Saudi Arabia would inevitably experience if it keeps bleeding tens of billions every year and running a budget deficit. The reason behind this asymmetrical aggression against a tried-and-tested American ally might be that Washington wants to establish more control over its client state as a run-up to geopolitically engineering its collapse per the Ralph Peters’ model.
No matter what the reason behind the American-Saudi oil war, it’s clear that it represents a classic (energy) security dilemma. The US fears that lower oil prices could eventually burst the shale credit bubble, while it believes it stands to gain by continuing their levels for now in order to capsize the Saudi economy and create avenues for more American control over the country. Looking at the Saudis, it’s the inverse – the potential for their economic decline is a negative that they’ll deal with for now, but it’s being sucked up in order to crash the US’ shale oil companies. Both sides, however, have a mutual fear over what the effect of Iran’s full return to the global energy market will be, but as was previously stated, the US can ‘indefinitely’ prolong its fake ‘remedy’ for dealing with this, while the Saudis will eventually run short of money sooner or later, which could lead to real repercussions for its economic, social, and eventually, political stability. One of the unstated but obvious aftereffects of the American-Saudi oil war is that Riyadh critically damaged its relations with Moscow because of it (since low energy prices inflict real damage on the Russian budget and economy), which is why this single issue, by itself, did not bring the Saudis to talk, let alone turn, to Russia. However, when combined with two other simultaneously occurring ones that will be examined right after this, the Saudis’ suspicions of American intentions towards them reached the boiling point where they spilled over and compelled Riyadh to enter into secret talks with Moscow, Washington’s New Cold War foe.
The ISIL Boomerang
Concurrent with the oil competition between the US and Saudi Arabia, ISIL struck back at one of its creators by bombing Saudi mosques in May and at the beginning of this month. Attacks had been threatened even before then, but the first mosque bombing really opened the Saudis’ eyes to the fact that their spawn has grown out of control and might even have been strategically corralled by the US into attacking the Kingdom directly. In the beginning, Saudi Arabia might have thought that ISIL would remain a loyal proxy actor in between Syria and Iraq, but the miscalculated War on Yemen that the new king commenced proved to make fertile breeding ground for the terrorist group’s newest nest of operations along the country’s exposed southern border. Approaching ISIL from the standpoint that it’s an American-Saudi proxy gone bad, and that the US currently exercises the greatest degree of power in ‘guiding’ the group towards targets of mutual benefit, then it makes sense that Washington would deploy such asymmetrical pressure against Saudi Arabia in the midst of the heated oil war just like it does against the Syrian Arab Army during the ongoing regime change war.
The Saudis are already a paranoid lot, seeing conspiracies everywhere (especially those of an Iranian-Shiite nature) even if they don’t really exist, so they’re receptive as it is to any possible indication of a plot against them. Given this preconditioning, it’s understandable why they’d view ISIL’s threats and attacks as being part of an American plan, especially since it coincides with a period of publicly distrustful relations between the two (motivated by the oil war and the Iranian nuclear deal). The Saudis aren’t alone in this assessment either, since some Russian analysts also agree that this is the case and that the US has finally decided to move forward with Ralph Peters’ plan for taking down the Kingdom. It looks like the US wants to cripple, control, and then usher in the collapse of Saudi Arabia, and that it may have decided to initiate this power move since it saw a favorable window of opportunity with the rise of the ‘Alzheimer King’. It’s known that others are really behind the scenes (and shuffling things up while they’re at it), but still, the US might have seen the ascension of an incoherent king and the palace infighting and further successionist intrigue this would lead to as the destabilizing trigger for unleashing their long sought-after plans for the Saudis (although it’s not yet known how committed they are to this or how far they’ll ultimately go).
The existential threat that Saudi Arabia is facing from its fellow American-driven Wahhabist co-confessionalists (even before their first attack in May) was likely what drove the Kingdom into pondering a Russian outreach, but they refrained from doing so right away because breaking the country’s fake “isolationism” would have really upset the US even further than it already was, and it might have created the energy/terrorist security dilemma that it wasn’t yet sure was actually in existence. However, the decisive moment that made the Saudis want to reach out to the Russians came when they saw that the US was insistent (practically begging) to reach a deal with Iran. Feeling strategically abandoned by their decades-long ally (despite the billions in military hardware that the Kingdom bought from it over the years and the complex interdependent relationship between the two [similar on a smaller scale to US-China]) and under the foreboding threat of an economic/terrorist assault against it by its former friend (however ironic this might be), the Saudis felt that it was time to finally make a turn towards Russia and see if they could salvage their relatively deteriorating geopolitical situation for the better.
Iran Deal Leads To Secret Talks
It was around the springtime that Saudi Arabia realized that the US really wanted to seal a deal with Iran, and this was the final straw that pushed it past the edge and into initiating secret talks with Russia. The Saudis know that they are tied much too close to the US via their military and surface political relations to ever think about abandoning this relationship right now (no matter how tense and ugly it gets), but their main objective in speaking with Russia was to see what kinds of strategic benefits it could gain by doing so (other than making the US ‘jealous’). It’s likely that nothing was off the table and that the talks were very comprehensive and actually quite fruitful, since their secrecy was publicly dispelled during the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum 2015 when both sides announced major deals with the other. Russia will help Saudi Arabia build nuclear power plants (remarkably symbolic since the Iranian nuclear crisis was actually all about Tehran’s pursuit of the same), the Saudis will invest $10 billion into the Russian economy, and both sides’ highest leaders (President Putin and King Salman) will exchange visits to the other. It can thus be inferred that this secret round of diplomacy, unbeknownst at the time to the rest of the world, was successful enough to have set the stage for these goodwill agreements, and that the current relationship can be built upon for further mutual benefit (as recognized by Lavrov himself).
Let’s use educated reasoning to deduce the most probable topics and content of their talks:
Saudi Arabia Clarifies The Energy War Gone Wrong:
The elephant in the room is obviously the oil war, so this was likely the first thing that Russian and Saudi diplomats thoroughly and honestly discussed once they entered into secret contact with the other. The article earlier explained how something went terribly wrong with the US/Saudi oil war against Russia/Iran in that it now turned its two protagonists against one another, so the Saudis must have had some explaining to do to the Russians in detailing how this came to be (if they disclosed its origins, that is).
At any rate, the two sides obviously discussed the oil war to some level of depth, and this could have very well included a conversation about Russia’s resiliency in the face of Saudi Arabia’s offensive against the US (example: how long can Russia hold out for in order to sink the US’ shale oil industry once and for all?), if indeed it is the Saudis that initiated it. Should they be on the ‘victim’ receiving end of things, then they correspondingly held a probable conversation about what both sides can do to help the other out in the name of shared budgetary/economic interests.
Somewhere in the mix of things, it was then decided for the Saudis to invest $10 billion in Russia’s economy, which given the examined discussion scenarios, could either be interpreted as a goodwill gesture of trust (to stick it out with the Saudis while they work on tanking America’s oil dreams) or as a symbolic token of ‘guilt’ for helping initiate the energy war that they’ve both fallen victim to. After getting past their mutual oil differences (which the $10 billion investment sure helped happen), the two sides likely turned the conversation towards talking about how they’ll deal with Iran’s future energy disruption once all of its resources eventually reach the global market.
If the topic was brought up in the first place, then it would have of course touched upon what both sides plan to do if the US risks the pyrrhic victory of sinking its own shale oil industry in order to have Iran emerge as the world’s main energy disruptor and be the reason for permanently offsetting Russia and Saudi Arabia’s budgetary and economic forecasts. The US can sustain this somewhat self-inflicted wound a lot better than energy-dependent Russia and Saudi Arabia, so the scenario of Washington pushing Tehran to pump the world full of cheap resources in order to bring down both of their economies must definitely scare them and is by all means an issue of mutual interest.
Collaborative Anti-ISIL Measures Discussed:
Saudi Arabia is so afraid of ISIL that it’s constructing a massive 600-mile-long wall along the Iraqi border in order to keep the terrorist group from formally expanding its ‘caliphate’ into the Kingdom, but its main oversight was that it never occurred to it that: it could be flanked from the Yemeni side; and ISIL can ‘spawn’ its own cells within the country via internet social networking. When the first attack happened in May, it threw the Saudis into a mild panic, and they finally woke up to the problem they’ve created. It doesn’t mean that they’ll stop supporting other terrorist groups, but that they’re done doing so with ISIL, especially since it could be that the US is now strategically ‘guiding’ it towards attacking Saudi Arabia. With such a mindset, it makes sense for Riyadh to entertain Moscow’s notions of an anti-ISIL coalition, even if they don’t agree with one another about Syria’s formal participation. However, because it’s been clarified during the joint meeting of Russia and Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministers that Russia is more interested in coordinating presently existing anti-ISIL activity and not creating a brand new coalition, it’s possible that Saudi Arabia could play some passive role in this format by withdrawing its support for regime change terrorist groups in Syria, which will be expanded on more below.
Syrian Resolution Talks/Iranian Nuclear Deal:
The capstone of the secret (and ongoing) negotiations and the aspect most relevant to the Mideast’s geopolitics deals with the interrelated topics of resolving the War on Syria and Riyadh’s response to the imminent (now actual) Iranian nuclear deal. Saudi Arabia is fully cognizant of the “race to the finish” in wrapping up the Wars on Syria and Yemen, and assessing its interests (as it defines them) back to back, it recognizes that it’s much less likely to ‘succeed’ in the former during that timeframe but has a more heightened chance of doing so in the latter. Also, Saudi Arabia really wants to parade its new partnership with Russia in front of Iran and the US, believing that this can make a strong statement in a post-sanctions reality that sees the US chumming up with the Kingdom’s ideological and geopolitical rival. Thus, if pressed to choose, the Saudis could ‘trade’ their failed War on Syria (i.e. withdrawing their support of regime change terrorist groups) in a ‘face-saving’ manner in order to ‘win’ a publicized and positive relationship with Russia, as well as resources and time that could be ‘invested’ into ‘winning’ the War on Yemen before the “race to the finish” ends in six months’ time.
Before dismissing such talk as ‘speculation’, one should consider the recent shuttle diplomacy Russia’s partaken in to save Syria, as well as a couple other strategic facts that further this thesis. Firstly, Syria has obviously become a quagmire for the proxies that are fighting against it, and Saudi Arabia clearly can’t ‘win’ (or secure its ‘win’ from being taken over by Turkey) in this relatively short timeframe. From its perspective, it’s much better to cut its losses and focus on Yemen instead, and Russia could help ‘sweeten’ the deal by offering to throw in some (discounted) advanced weapon systems to calm the Kingdom’s fears about the Islamic Republic. Russia, after all, is known for juggling its military relationship with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, fierce enemies, while still retaining positive ties with both, so it’s foreseeable that it might think of attempting something similar (albeit on a much more grand scale) with Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Also, it must be pointed out that the BRICS Ufa Declaration doesn’t contain a single word whatsoever pertaining to the War on Yemen, despite addressing lesser significant conflicts such as the unrest in Burundi, the civil war in South Sudan, and the situation in Somalia, and given Russia’s UNSC history of supporting the Hadi government as it is, it’s probable that it already has ‘all its ducks in a row’ to facilitate this ‘grand bargain’ to save Syria at Yemen’s expense. But, before detractors accuse Russia of ‘multipolar treason’, they must first consider to what extent Russia is even capable of influencing the on-the-ground course of events in Yemen to the Houthis’ favor in the first place, and whether or not swapping Saudi Arabia’s failed War on Syria for Russia’s failed support of the Yemeni people is actually quite pragmatic (if unethical to some) in terms of the bigger geopolitical picture.
Perceptions & Motivations
The third part of the series deals with the perceptions and motivations behind the possible polar reorientations. Much can be discussed in terms of these broad topics, but for comprehension’s sake, they’re split into eight separate themes:
Energy Market Disruptor:
Iran has the very real potential to be the world’s greatest energy disruptor, provided that all of its oil and gas eventually gets to market (and it’s predicted that the Europeans and Chinese will be working at a feverish self-interested pace to expedite this). If it comes to pass, then Russia and Saudi Arabia would receive major blows to their budgetary and economic forecasts, possibly even resulting in some sort of social destabilization as a forerunner to US-planned political unrest, which is why these two actors have the most to lose if Iran decides to disrupt the system (for maximum economic benefit to itself). Strategically speaking, Russia is actually even worse off than Saudi Arabia because it has the most to lose in terms of its regional influence and grand strategy if Iran builds pipelines to Europe (and even more so if it assists Turkmenistan with doing the same). If Iran’s energy riches are largely directed towards feeding the hungry Asian market and invested primarily in LNG, then Russia and Saudi Arabia would both have substantially less to lose, but they’d still be facing a strategic loss regardless.
Cycle Of Suspicion:
The current situation can be summed up with the following dilemmatic axiom: the closer that the US and Iran move to one another, the more suspicious this makes Russia and Saudi Arabia; likewise, the closer that Russia and Saudi Arabia move to one another, the more suspicious this makes the US and Iran. In both instances, each pair feels compelled to continue moving in their newfound direction out of fear that failure to do so would place it in a comparative disadvantage vis-à-vis its primary rival’s engagement with its thought-to-be ally, as such is the nature of this strategic security dilemma.
The Wars on Syria and Yemen hold an important place in guiding the interests of the four examined players, and here’s a very cursory look at what significance they have for decision makers;
Russia and Iran want to save Syria, while the US wants to destroy it. The Saudis had attempted to crush the country but obviously failed, and now they seem possibly open to a deal (likely conducted bilaterally with Russia) to enact a ‘face-saving’ pull-out to focus on their efforts on ‘winning’ the War on Yemen. If Russia and Saudi Arabia reach such arrangement, then that would leave the US and Turkey as the only two significant actors to be continuing the War on Syria, which of course could make the battlefield situation much more easier for the Syrian Arab Army (provided that the US and Turkey don’t launch a conventional invasion first or in response to Saudi Arabia’s retreat).
Iran is in favor of the Houthis, while the US and Saudi Arabia are fighting to restore ousted President Hadi to power. Russia is pretty much on the sidelines in this entire mess, powerless to enact any real change in the situation except to possibly reach a deal with Saudi Arabia for it to transfer its proxies from Syria to Yemen in exchange for advanced weaponry and deeper bilateral cooperation. Yemen has become something of an obsession for the Saudis, so it’s probable that they would be interested in any likeminded Russian proposal, but of course, even though this would save Syria, it could also enrage Iran, which might see Russia as having conspired against Iranian interests in the southern Arabian Peninsula for what it may feel is no necessary reason (or even worse, an opportunistic one).
American Anti-Russian Blowback Turns Against The Saudis:
In the 1980s, the US and Saudi Arabia created Al Qaeda to fight the Soviets, and they also cooperated with one another in waging the first oil war against Moscow. The effects of this twin-tracked anti-Russian campaign was for the US to eventually be attacked by the same terrorists that it once supported, but neither they nor the Saudis ultimately received any lasting negative impact from the oil campaign. In 2014-2015, despite the strategic template for American-Saudi geopolitical sabotage being similar, the consequences of strategic blowback couldn’t be any more different. The US and Saudi Arabia helped created ISIL, but it turned around to attack the Kingdom twice, and the oil war that the two were cooperating in somehow spun out of control to inflict damage on both of them and turn the two partners into fierce energy rivals. All of this, it appears, is to the Saudis’ detriment and less so to the Americans’.
Saudi Arabia and Iran couldn’t have more divergent motivations for their possible reorientations. Saudi Arabia fears economic sabotage by the US due to the oil war; feels itself under asymmetrical pressure by American-guided ISIL; and is experiencing what it seriously views to be a strategic rejection by the US in favor of Iran. On the opposite side of understanding, Iran thinks that it secured itself from conventional and Color Revolution attack (the latter always being a threat, whether Tehran realizes it or not); stands on the cusp of an economic bonanza from investment, pipelines, trade, etc.; and feels vindicated and proud that the West recognizes it as a Great Power. To sum up their differences, Saudi Arabia has everything to fear, while Iran has everything to be excited about (or so it believes), and these spectrum-opposite ‘emotions’ (if one can personify these states for a moment) are the primary motivations behind their respective outreaches to Russia and the US.
New Silk Road:
Iran is a key node on the New Silk Road, and if it becomes a focal point of rapid Western investment there (which is what both sides want), then it would consequently become a Western outpost along the main non-Russian New Silk Road continental chokepoint. The West could ‘play nice’ in the interest of mutual profit and ‘let the good times roll’, but as explained in Part I, if the proper political motivation comes up to return to sanctions to at least threaten to do so (e.g. Iran doesn’t follow the West’s ‘advice’ to aggressively promote its interests along Russia’s southern former Soviet frontier), then they’d be turning their investments into strategic disruptors not only in the heart of Iran, but also in the heart of the New Silk Road. Iran sincerely thinks that it can have the best of both worlds and deal equally with the West and the New Silk Road, but the Chinese and Russians have never invested anywhere and then pulled out or threatened to do so, but the West has, and their lengthy history of sanctions (not least against Iran itself) testify to this fact. If forthcoming Western investment can get Iran to establish a tight enough economic dependency with it, then they can exploit this process at any time of their choosing for the chosen geopolitical reason (“activate the time bomb against Iran to harm Russia/China”).
The Southern Front:
The US awaits the day that it can use Iran as an indirect proxy of destabilizing influence against Russia’s southern former Soviet periphery. Part I touched upon this possibility in citing the Hoagland-Blinken Doctrine for Central Asia and how it holds open the prospect of strategic collaboration with Iran in penetrating that region. While short in words, it’s big in implications, and with Iran feeling rightfully confident and newly assertive as a result of its nuclear ‘victory’, it could very well be guided into a ‘Northern Pivot’ of influence projection along the Caucasus, Caspian, and Central Asia if ‘properly’ manipulated. This would relieve Saudi Arabia of whatever ‘pressure’ it feels and ease some of its anti-Iranian paranoia, which could help the US convince them that the deal wasn’t ‘so bad’ for its interests and thus work to reverse the Russian reorientation to a certain degree. This would leave Russia as the biggest loser, since it wouldn’t really have anything to show for its advances with Saudi Arabia, and it would also have a heated rival in Iran (which would be behaving that way both for its own ‘self-interested’ reasons [supported by the US, directly or indirectly] and perhaps even to pay Russia back for its prior relationship with Riyadh).
One of the main factors at play here is that President Putin needs to walk a fine line in his country’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran. He must balance the changing nature of the Mideast’s strategic reality with both Russia’s new (Saudi Arabia) and existing (Iran) interests, but the US wants to pressure Russia to ‘take sides’ so that it can set itself up for a strategic trap of ‘double isolation’ (burning both bridges at the same time as a result of failed diplomacy, per what was just discussed in the above theme). Moscow has taken to exercising masterful diplomacy in the past couple of years, but the stakes in managing relations with such large, important, mutually rival states as Saudi Arabia and Iran are historic and a lot more difficult to handle that that of Armenia and Azerbaijan, and could literally be a make-or-break moment for the Mideast that sees Russia promoting/losing its overall influence there with the resultant peaceful/disastrous consequences. Also, if played perfectly right, then a reasonable scenario could develop where the US ends up as the big loser, falling into its own trap of ‘double isolation’ and finding itself squeezed out of the region that it once controlled so firmly.
All of the previously acquired information from the three earlier parts allows one to form four phased scenario forecasts that help predict the contours and consequences of the US-Iran and Russia-Saudi Arabia ‘reorientations’. The first one is essentially a reading of the present state of affairs, with the second and the third being the two most likely realities that they can branch off into. The main variables deciding which direction they go are the geopolitical and diplomatic adroitness of Putin’s balancing act, and the US’ success at forcing a Russian-Iranian split. Finally, the fourth scenario presents the logical full pivot end game, but it’s presented as a two-in-one reading that details the opposing futures within the same section.
1. Blurred Lines
The present situation is characterized by a growing difficulty in describing clear-cut geopolitical ‘loyalties’ and ‘allied’ affiliations, with the previous template’s clarity (US-Saudi Arabia, Russia-Iran) becoming blurred because of the initiatives taken by the Mideast states under discussion. The Iranians are still aligned with Russia, but they’re moving closer to the US; as a result, the Saudis are still aligned with the US, but they’re moving closer to the Russians. None of this has to be a zero-sum game, but the Saudis are making it out to be, and this is in turn making the Iranians cautious of Russia to an extent that they haven’t ever been before. There is thus a state of flux and semi-confusion that creates a strategic situation which the actors themselves might not even be fully aware of, nor might they understand the full extent to which their actions impact on events and shape the other sides’ perceptions of them. All of this therefore exacerbates the strategic dilemma at play here and leads to this period being one of regional geopolitical transition, albeit with a yet uncertain direction for how it relates to the unipolar and multipolar worlds.
2. New Cold War Battlefield
In the scenario branch more beneficial to unipolarity, the New Cold War’s geopolitical intrigues migrate to the Mideast and hasten the reorientation dynamic taking place. The region’s two main hegemons – Iran and Saudi Arabia – become the main pieces in Russia and the US’ ‘grand chessboard’, which is precisely what the US is pushing for, and incidentally, what the two Mideast countries have (unwittingly?) gotten themselves into through their rival reorientation initiatives. The US wants to speed up the strategic divide between Russia and Iran, knowing full well (as was earlier explained) that Saudi Arabia will still maintain some level of complex interdependence with the US no matter what happens, but Russia doesn’t enjoy this same privilege with Iran and can end up losing all of the political capital it’s invested there. Moscow and Tehran mostly enjoyed strategic coordination during the last decade of Iran’s ‘international’ (Western) isolation, but neither Russia nor Iran feels as though they “owe” the other side anything or is concretely attached to it aside from their collaborative efforts in Syria. The same certainly can’t be said for the US and Saudi Arabia, which despite the growing divide between them, still retain deep conventional military relations between the Pentagon and the GCC, especially in the case of Yemen.
Due to the complex and overlapping processes taking place, especially in the condition of a major trust deficit between the two reorienting pairs, Iran may begin probing ways to assert its renewed confidence northwards, which would surely create a chill between it and Russia. On the Saudi front, the US might seek to exploit the Kingdom’s paranoia (perhaps using an ISIL false flag) in order to provoke it into a brutal crackdown against the Shiite population, but unlike in previous instances, Iran’s strong condemnation of the Saudis’ actions will likely be joined by the US as well, which would symbolically take Tehran’s side in order to publicly demonstrate its commitment to the reorientation. Russia, however, wouldn’t take anyone’s side in this situation, opting instead to invoke “state sovereignty” to say that Saudi Arabia should resolve its acknowledged internal divisions without external interference. Moscow might be calculating that this would both promote its ideology of non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state and score it soft power points with Iran because it stops short of fully supporting Saudi Arabia, but here, it would likely face a lose-lose: the fiercely sectarian Saudis would be upset at their new partner’s reluctance to publicly and unambiguously support their crackdown; and the Iranians, already infused with American-backed confidence to pivot northwards, wouldn’t step away from their strategy simply because of a half-hearted statement from Russia that could ambiguously be understand as being either for or against the subjugated Shiites.
As time carries on, the faint outlines of a major Mideast reorientation will take on substantial clarity, but the new arrangement will be somewhat illusory. While the US and Iran would have objectively moved closer to one another in this scenario, the same couldn’t be as robustly said for Russia and Saudi Arabia. Despite working together to counter the US and the effects of the forthcoming Iranian energy disruption, they might be unable to reconcile their ideological differences (worsened by American- and Iranian-sponsored information operations against both sides), which would generate a degree of mistrust between them that hampers their forthcoming cooperation and weakens their partnership. Still, pressed by both sides (the US and Iran), they’ll still continue to remain close out of mutual geopolitical self-interest, but their ties will increasingly take on the defining characteristic of completely being a (indefinite) ‘marriage of convenience’ and nothing more substantial than that.
3. Multipolarity Builds Muscles In The Mideast
This scenario is much more positive for multipolarity, and it begins to take shape as Russia’s balancing act between Saudi Arabia and Iran becomes perfected. In this vision of the future, Russia is able to successfully clarify its relationship with Saudi Arabia to Iran, and Iran also avoids the US’ temptations to see this as a zero-sum game explicitly aimed against it. Iran may take issue with the increasing intimacy between Russia and Saudi Arabia, but mutual confidence-building measures through their coordination in saving Syria would reinforce trust. Just as Putin is trying to fulfill a “miracle” in bringing Syria and Saudi Arabia ‘together’ (not in the public/strategic sense, but in getting the Saudis to withdraw from Syria), it might also try to do the same in being a conduit for secret talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran. If the US can reach agreements with its decades-long enemies of Cuba and Iran, the logic goes, then what precludes the Iranians and Saudis from doing something similar in a strategic sense, and in this age of multipolar diplomacy, what better of a mediating conduit to do so than Russia?
It’s not to be naively optimistic and suggest that there’d be any concrete results in this proposed initiative, but if there ever were to be any secret talks between the Saudis and Iranians (indirectly or indirectly), the most realistic way they’d occur would be through Russia, which is balancing between them both right now. In terms of the grand strategy at play here, the point wouldn’t be for any of them to necessarily agree on anything, but for Russia to use this platform as a means of enhancing its trust and credibility with both partners, which could allow it to manage the dilemmas between them that pose the greatest threats to multipolarity and regional stability. Specifically, one of Russia’s aims would be to have Iran hold back from a geopolitically motivated northwards pivot and instead concentrate its energy on an east-west one between Turkey/EU and Pakistan/China/India that is of an exclusively economic nature. At the same time, however, Russia would do its best to convince Iran to refrain from flooding the market with its energy exports and see the greater economic benefit it could procure by phasing its output in order to strategically set higher global prices in coordination with Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Regarding Saudi Arabia, Russia’s goals would be to have it retreat from pursuing regime change in Syria (no matter how loudly it proclaims that this is still its ‘official’ goal in order to save face) and to enact some sort of ‘cold peace’ with Iran in the Gulf. Yemen, as spoken about in Part II, would be a completely different matter, since part of the ‘grand bargain’ for Saudi Arabia’s retreat from Syria would be for it to increase its activities against Yemen. This would certainly rub Iran the wrong way, but in the larger context of the “race to the finish” that was extrapolated upon in the previous pieces, Saudi Arabia’s intensified offensive operations in Yemen might ultimately be seen as ‘fair game’ since Iran would simultaneously be increasing its defensive support to Syria. Differences in outlook will certainly persist between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but Russia’s guiding motive in managing its relations with both of them (and between one and the other) is to get Iran and Saudi Arabia to reach some sort of détente-like understanding amongst themselves (with Russian mediation) after the “race” is over. The more active of a role that Russia can play over this process or in attempting to even achieve it, the less diplomatically relevant (but no less militarily significant, of course) the US becomes in terms of the regional security architecture, which would create the context for the next phased scenario development.
4. Full Pivot Of Problems Or Pragmatism?
Both scenario tracks ultimately result in a full pivot taking place, although the nature of what this encompasses is drastically different in each case. The ‘Pivot of Problems’ is the preferred unipolar track, while the ‘Pivot of Pragmatism’ represents the multipolar equivalent:
Pivot Of Problems:
This final phase sees the geopolitical reorientations as a fait accompli, and such a reversal would not be completely unprecedented. The Ogaden War in the late 1970s saw the USSR and US switching proxies midway through the conflict, but in the Middle Eastern case of the New Cold War, much bigger and more important players than Ethiopia and Somalia are being ‘traded’. The Pivot of Problems largely aligns the US-Iran against Russia-Saudi Arabia, although the US still maintains some vestige of influence over Saudi Arabia that threatens to undermine Russia’s relations with it. By splitting Russia and Iran through the encouragement of Tehran’s Northern Pivot, and also sowing the seeds of possible discord between new ‘partners’ Russia and Saudi Arabia, it can be said that the US’ divide and conquer policy is working quite well.
Problems are aplenty in this scenario, not least among them the heightened rivalry brewing between Russia and Iran in the Caucasus, Caspian, and Central Asia. The US has successfully swayed Iran to commence its Northern Pivot into its ancient sphere of influence, which puts it in conflict with the more recent and established Russian sphere of influence in these areas. As part of the New Cold War, the US uses the country as a launching pad for destabilizing Russian interests there, both directly (goading Iran into overly asserting itself against Russia) and indirectly (suggesting that Iran host NGOs that are unfavorable to Russian influence). Further afield in the Gulf, the US’ ISIL war against Saudi Arabia poses a serious risk to the Kingdom’s actual disintegration, the fear of which succeeds in spiking energy prices and saving the US’ shale oil industry (to say nothing of the astronomical prices that would appear if Saudi Arabia actually did collapse). On both ends of the partnership spectrum, the US and Iran are on the strategic offensive while Russia and Saudi Arabia struggle to defend their interests and avoid a falling out amongst themselves.
Pivot Of Pragmatism:
A completely different end game scenario is the Pivot of Pragmatism, which represents the fulfilment of multipolarity in the Mideast. The retreat of American influence is the main theme of this scenario, and it sees the US contained to the geostrategic but relatively less important countries of Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain (with Israel assumed to be a perpetual ally in spite of the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership’s inroads with it). Skillful Russian diplomacy has engendered this reality by balancing Iran and Saudi Arabia amongst themselves and helping to bring the two into (secret) dialogue with one another, especially when it comes to coordinating energy prices. The ‘cold peace’ that sets over the Gulf provides little for the US to directly exploit, since both Mideast powers agree to freeze their competing interests in Bahrain and the Shiite-populated Saudi provinces for the time being. Nevertheless, it must be pointed out, the War on Yemen (by this point, likely engaged in a national liberation war against Saudi and/or pro-Saudi proxy occupation) and/or a successionist crisis in Oman (between pro-Saudi elements favoring a GCC political union and traditional pragmatic forces advocating against it) could untangle the multipolar matrix and reignite Saudi-Iranian tensions.
Overall, however, the US’ role has marginally decreased in the Mideast by this point, and although no real antagonism exists between Riyadh and Washington, Saudi Arabia has realized that it can live without the US and instead rely on the “miracles” of Russian diplomacy to help keep the strategic balance with Iran. Additionally, seeing the benefits of non-Western investment in Iran, Saudi Arabia becomes attracted to BRICS and the multipolar world in general, seeking its own similar investments and strategic partnership in order to emulate the explosive real-sector growth that the Islamic Republic is expected to have in the coming future. The Russian-mediated moderation of Saudi-Iranian tensions helps promote multipolarity in the Mideast, with only the US and Turkey remaining as the significant spoilers (the latter possibly too bogged down in Kurdistan to do anything by that time). Israel, as mentioned in the preceding paragraph, would still be an American ally, but the growing interactions that it has with the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership and the New Silk Road could result in its leaders recalculating the benefits of regional destabilization and opting instead to cooperate and profit within the new arrangement (but one of course shouldn’t get their hopes up for this). Pragmatism comes to define the regional order, and the US’ traditional ‘policy of problems’ that it so successfully applied in keeping the Mideast divided in the past becomes ever more irrelevant in affecting the course of events.
Saudi Arabia and Iran’s reorientations towards Russia and the US, respectively, have geopolitical repercussions that will surely reverberate throughout the region for years to come. Each country is going along with these two undeniable trends for a complex variety of reasons, but mostly, they come down to economic opportunism (on the part of Iran) and strategic insecurity (for Saudi Arabia). Both Mideast powers’ movements towards one or the other New Cold War protagonists has created an obvious security dilemma that’s accelerating the reorientation process and widening the gap between Russia and Iran on one hand, and the US and Saudi Arabia on the other, with all the resultant implications for their bilateral relations both with themselves and their twinned counterparts. Despite that, an atmosphere of heightened tension between both groups of partners (let alone the clear-cut reorientation that creates both ‘camps’ in the first place) isn’t imminent, since Russian diplomacy holds the key to bridging the growing divide and actually reversing it to the strategic favor of the multipolar world. Should this come to pass, then it would severely impede the US’ ability to manipulate the region to its advantage, and quite possibly signal the beginning of the most wide-scale strategic retreat since the Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe.
Text originally written Oriental Review