Following President Obama’s decision against taking military action in Syria, some U.S. regional allies together with the hawks in Washington began voicing their concern over what they called a shift in the United States’ foreign policy. The recent interim nuclear deal with Iran has caused greater furor and the partisan frictions have been intensified.
These allies will reportedly turn to other powers, mainly Russia, in order to guard their interests; granting Russia a more influential role in the Middle East. This realignment will lead to a rivalry with the United States, some experts predict. Although most analysts share the belief that such circumstances will not resemble the Cold War era, they nevertheless believe it can cause additional disputes and further competition between the two.
These speculations should be regarded, however, with caution. Tensions between the United States and Russia hardly seem like news. In the past decade alone there have been many issues that have caused serious public disputes between the two governments, from Russia’s opposition to the United States’ missile defense program and the Iraq war to the more recent issue of Edward Snowden. Nonetheless, in the Middle East today the two powers may in fact find more interests in common than anytime before in the past few decades.
Pondering on the possible answers to a few questions will make the current state of affairs clearer: Why are some of U.S. Middle East allies worried about the future of U.S.-Iran relations? Will supporting their cause serve Russia’s interests? Why has President Obama decided to pursue diplomacy unlike his predecessor? And what are the mutual interests of Russia and the United States in the Middle East?
The first wave of criticism of the White House foreign policy came when Barack Obama decided to embrace the Russian diplomatic solution to the Syrian problem. Not only did this decision offer the lead role to Russia in solving the crisis, but also it went to show that Iran’s role and influence in the region could not be ignored. In addition, the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been a factor in tipping the balance of power in the region in Iran’s favor. But what other choice did President Obama have?
Although Barack Obama became U.S. president on a key campaign platform “to end wars, not to start them”, but he has in fact authorized military action during his years in office. Furthermore, neither the full-scale wars of Afghanistan and Iraq nor the surgical and limited air strikes in Libya can be called successful. In Afghanistan, after over a decade, President Karzai’s government is too weak and corrupt and is still struggling with the Taliban and terrorism. Iraq is torn by sectarian violence and has had its worst year since 2008, with over 7,000 civilian casualties and 950 Iraqi security forces killed. Libya has also fallen in the hands of radical Islamic groups, a multitude of renegade militias and warlords. It is evident that such interventions are neither too appealing nor necessarily beneficial. That leaves diplomacy as the only other viable option. In Syria reaching and implementing a diplomatic solution can hardly be imagined without the cooperation of Russia and Iran.
Understandably, in matters regarding Syria, it seems that the United States, Russia and Iran share more or less the same view, which is to avoid the fall of Syria into the hands of radical Sunni-Islamic groups whom are backed by U.S. regional allies. As it appears, over the future of Syria, U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf do not see eye to eye with Russia either. Under these circumstances, how could a new alliance with Russia serve their purpose?
Iran’s interim nuclear deal too makes another diplomatic solution to a decade-long problem possible. Even more, it offers a possibility for rapprochement and maybe a breakthrough in the relations between Iran and the United States after over three decades of mistrust and suspicion. This time, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf together with Israel, U.S. closest ally in the region, publicly and bluntly criticized and attacked President Obama’s approach.
Throughout the past few years Russia and Iran have formed close political and economic ties, mostly as a result of the sanctions imposed on Iran. Yet recently some analysts have suggested that if sanctions are lifted and Iran emerges from this isolation she might distance herself from Russia. Therefore, proposing that it may be in Russia’s interest to prevent a comprehensible nuclear deal between Iran and the West. However, so far Russia has sustained support for Iran and the interim deal.
As with the Syrian situation, there is not enough evidence suggesting much, if any, divergence between Russia and the United States’ goals regarding the future of an Iran nuclear deal or Iran-U.S. relations. This will lower the chances that Saudi Arabia can turn to Russia instead of the United States for military aid. The two countries follow different if not opposing goals in the region, which will make a shift of allegiance less likely.
On the other hand, regarding Israel, Netanyahu’s objections have been called overarching even inside Israel. In addition, over the years, Israel has invested so heavily in the United States and its policymakers and has become too dependent to simply want to look away and reach out to Russia or perhaps any other single country in order to replace the United States.
In Afghanistan too, despite the fact that most U.S. troops will leave by 2014, previous experience will cause Russia to be extremely cautious about any involvement. Egypt is the single relevant case to these speculations. Egypt is expanding ties with Russia after 40 years, while simultaneously looking at the United States with ever more suspicion. Nevertheless, this should come as no surprise, in international relations alliances change and shift; Iraq was a close ally of the United States before it became an archenemy.
The geopolitics of the Middle East today is undoubtedly facing change. New alliances will be formed and an important factor in this realignment will be the stability of the region. Therefore, those who back radical forces may not find themselves included in the new order. In the case of Russia and the United States’ rivalry speculations, there will definitely be disagreements, as there have been in the past; but recent events have demonstrated that they share many common interests in the Middle East and such speculations are to be regarded warily.
Fereshte Pezeshk is a research assistant at San Francisco State University.
Subscribe to our RSS feed to stay in touch and receive all of TT updates right in your feed reader