Conflict in the Middle East
PhD Law Candidate, King’s College London
Visiting Lecturer in Law, Queen Mary University School of Law
The world is in crisis. The political, social and cultural cohesion of communities around the world are at risk, as global problems such as climate change and overpopulation are accelerating, much less being managed by domestic and international governance regimes. However, the ongoing crisis that stands out is the crisis in the Middle East, especially the US-Iran relationships.
Dr Christos Iakovou, Director of the Cyprus Research Center, expert in the geopolitics and the Middle East, has stated that the Middle East has moved from ‘democratisation’ attempts to chaos. In 2003 as U.S. troops were overthrowing Saddam Hussein, neoconservatives of the Bush administration intended to expand in the Middle East. It was felt, at least among the US political elite, that since the Islamic regime of Iran had being overthrown and same in Syria, the Palestinians, observing the prevalence of US-led democracy in Iraq, would accept any deal with Israel. Things turned out differently, however. U. S. troops were overwhelmed by the resistance of the Sunnis in Iraq. Chaos ensued in Syria and Libya after the invasion in Iraq, and the Arab spring probably increased the number of Islamic volunteers who send themselves to death to attack the stability in Middle Eastern states and also of the West. Regimes of Syria and Iran appear to be domestically more powerful now than they were in 2003, while Israelis and Palestinians remain as far from peace as they were in 2003. Incidents of terrorism are increasing.
Can someone trace the point where all the existing narratives of Islamic politics in the Middle East can be reversed? In other words, the question that troubles Middle Eastern studies and political analysts the last 70 years is this: What renders the Middle East incompatible with Western ideas? Dr Iakovou maintains that the Middle East does not consist of a unified region, but it is determined by its relationships with the West. In the western world, it is argued that the obvious lack of understanding of the threat as posed by the September 11th attack, in combination with unrealistic expectations by the U.S. government which handled it, as well as the manner in which general unrest in the Arab region (e.g. the Arab spring) has been perceived in the West, have contributed to the tensions that we find today. Many of the liberal ideas for the creation of a New Middle East, advance of democracy and human rights, were based on illusions with inevitable geopolitical consequences.
Since 1950, the U.S.-Iran relationship has been a key determinant of configurations across the Middle East. The ongoing crisis between the U.S. and Iran stems from Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. military forces from Iraq in 2011. From 1980-1989, Iran and Iraq had engaged in an eight-year war which cost about a million victims and five billon USD in overall. After the end of the war, Hussein overestimated his role in the area, invading Kuwait, creating the first Gulf war (1991). From the beginning, Iran regarded that the control of Iraq by the Sunnis, who are a minority in Iraq and at the same time a religious opponent, constituted a serious existential threat. However, the US invasion in Iraq took a different course. On one hand, the US did not allow Shia ambitions to spread, and on the other hand they engaged in a military opposition with the Sunnis. The US found itself pressured by both. Obama decided to reverse the situation, planning to withdraw most but not all US troops, and to create an Iraqi army comprised of both Shia and Sunnis, friendly to the US. As expected, Iran opposed this plan. Obama’s decision coincided with the civil war in Syria and the expansion of the Islamic state, which forced the US to maintain troops in Iraq.
The U.S. invasion in Iraq in 2003 did not meet any resistance from Iran. On the contrary, there was a covert support. The Islamic regime saw the assassination of Hussein and overthrow of his regime in a positive light, since his fall would create a power vacuum, giving the chance for Iran to increase its influence across the region. At that time, the U.S. and Iran cooperated to weaken the Islamic State. That cooperation was limited however, because of Iran’s nuclear aspirations and the pressures from Israel. Tehran’s nuclear aspirations had again led to the U.S. imposed sanctions, leading to a deterioration of relations. This development renewed the need for U.S. troops to remain in Iran by the new Trump administration.
On the one hand, Trump publicly declared that he wanted to reduce U.S. military presence in the Middle East, but on the other, he did not hide his wish to facilitate regime change in Iran. This obvious contradiction was manifested in the logic of military withdrawal of the US from the Middle East. Thus, for the Americans, Iran’s resistance geostrategically dictated the direct control of Iraq. This was facilitated by Iran becoming more powerful than in the past because of the successful war against the Islamic State and the reduction of US military forces in Iraq. Notably, Tehran maintains good relations not only with the Assad regime but also with Iran-friendly paramilitary groups in several parts of the region, including Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.
In other words, Iran had taken advantage of several crises in the region, and in combination with the withdrawal of the US military forces it created a great region of influence stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean. The increase of influence of Iran in Iraq facilitated a powerful geopolitical enhancement of the country in the Gulf, together with a group of Iranian military officials who belonged to the inner circle of the Islamic regime which included the recently assassinated Qassim Soleimani.
Due to the new situation in Iraq, the Iranian regime took more efficient action in Iraq. The special QUDS Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was called to action, head of which was Soleimani. He was assigned the mission to train and maintain Iran’s allied forces abroad. After arriving in Iraq, he initially attacked U.S. military installations with the intention of undermining U.S. military capacity after their failure in Syria. At that point in time, the assassination of Soleimani was a military necessity for the US.
With the assassination of Soleimani, the U.S. sent the message that they do not intend to engage in prolonged military activities in the area. The U.S.’ new geostrategic policy is based on economic sanctions and the support of local powers. Iran continues to expand its sphere of influence up to the Mediterranean. For Iraq, it is of the highest priority to eliminate any Sunni threat and stabilise the country through Shia powerbases. Today, Iran intends to not allow Iraq to become a bastion of anti-Iranian forces, but at the same time the U.S. have set the limitation that it cannot conduct a conventional war against the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As such, there is no other choice for Iran but to use what it has used effectively in the past: special and covert operations, through Iranian-friendly paramilitary groups.
Based on this current political situation, an unstable Iraq will become de facto the new battlefield for violence between the U.S. and Iran. Unlike issues like the Russian proxy wars which raise the tensions between Russia and the West, the instability and tensions in the eastern corner of the Mediterranean are of different kind, including direct military involvement. Turkey, claiming a predominant role in the region, is trying to reduce the effects of the East Med (Israel-Cyprus-Greece), it is violating Hellenic territorial waters and airspace in the Aegean, the exclusive economic zone of Cyprus and on the 6th January Turkish troops began moving into Libya, days before a ceasefire agreement between Turkey and Russia, who is supporting Haftar. In this unstable environment, the military and political influence of Iran can be a determining factor for the turn out of events in other parts of the world, starting from the Mediterranean. It is unclear what alliances can be formed. Iran’s reaction is often response in its relationship with the U.S. Thus, the U.S.-Iran relationship remains the primary threat to world peace and security as we begin the new decade.
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