Beyond the issues surrounding the Iranian nuclear development program there is a larger struggle for regional power and influence. This struggle has pit traditional Gulf powers, led by Saudi Arabia, the Israelis, and the Iranians in a regional race for influence and leverage against one another. The divisions between these regional powers are influenced by deep political, cultural, and religious divisions. While the majority of the headlines and commentary have focused on the threats exchanged between the Israelis and Iranians, the Gulf States have also been actively and aggressively engaged in countering Iran at every opportunity. The recent international negotiations regarding Iran’s proposed nuclear weapons program have had a profound effect on the dynamic between the rivals with significant implications going forward.
There is an ongoing proxy war between the regional powers that could have serious impact of the possible success of any nuclear negotiations between Iran and major foreign powers. Understanding the significance of the proposed international deal to stem the Iranian nuclear weapons program requires an appreciation of the strategic environment. There is a broader and more complex strategic environment from within which the actions and counteractions regarding the Iranian nuclear development program are continuing to develop of which the nuclear issue is just one feature. This environment has a complex network of regional stakeholders and is significantly influenced by deep historical, cultural and religious dimensions. It is within landscape and through the prism of the regional geopolitical dynamic that the impact of any negotiations or actions must be analyzed.
The Saudis and Gulf States
The divisions between the Saudi and the Iranian regimes have the deepest and most complex origins and narratives in the region. These divisions have manifested themselves in a series of ongoing bloody sectarian battles throughout the region including in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. These proxy wars have been fought by patchwork network of extremist organizations and Islamist militants to counteract one another. Whereas, the Saudis have also previously been able to rely on their interest more succinctly aligning with those of the US, they have perceived this to increasingly not be the case. The Saudi’s have been increasingly critical of western positions, especially those of the US, on Syria and Iran. This has led to increased sectarian proxy wars carried out by sub-state and non-state actors leading to assassination attempts, bombings, and arming sectarian militias.
The Saudi’s were further rebuffed when their demands for a seat at P5+1 nuclear negotiation were rebuffed. The apparent Saudi loss of strategic ground in the power politics of the region has led to the creation of a new alliance with the Israelis. While the Saudis had previously expressed support for Israeli direct action against Iran, these sentiments were always shared with the US as the intermediary. However, this new alliance may be a move to ensure Saudi interests are promoted without a reliance on direct US involvement, especially as they pertain to Iran.
The Israelis have been very clear regarding their positions on political and security matters throughout the region, especially regarding the Iranian nuclear program. They have long reiterated their unwillingness to have any nuclear capacity in Iran and reserved their right to strike if necessary. As with the Saudis, the Israelis have also been publicly opposed to the ongoing negotiations with Iran and are increasingly critical of western involvement, or lack thereof, in the region. The Israeli stance has been challenged directly with Iranian demands for disarmament of all regional powers in negotiations which may explain the new Saudi-Israeli alliance.
The emergence of an alliance, even if just against Iran, could have serious implications for the region. As international negotiations with Iran have progressed the Israeli government has found itself increasingly on the outside. This Israeli security dilemma has been coupled with the increasing instability on its borders in Lebanon and Syria. Additionally, Israel has had to navigate a good but changing relationship with Turkey which has recently adopted a more hard-line stance on regional issues.
In recent years the geopolitical dynamic has been further complicated by the reemergence of Turkey as an active participant in the regional security and political affairs of the Middle East. The legacy of the Ottoman Empire provides Turkey with a powerful legitimizing narrative to support greater regional involvement. Turkey has launched into regional affairs with noticeably differing objectives which have put them at odds with Saudi and other Gulf States. In fact, the Turks have taken a far more aggressive and strategic approach to relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel. However
In the past year the Turkish government has taken actions in direct opposition to the interests of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The Turkish government expelled Saudi intelligence officials from Turkey and allegedly reported a number of Israeli intelligence assets in Turkey to Iranian officials, resulting in a significant loss to both countries. Moreover, Turkey has openly opposed Saudi positions in Egypt and Syria increasing tensions the two countries. These actions are in addition to Turkey’s more aggressive approaches towards Palestinian territories in Israel. Turkey’s relationship with Iran has been mixed but far better than that of Saudi and Israel. The significance of Turkey’s newfound position was best captured in the inclusion of President Erdogan in President Obama’s top five international leader friends; a list which excluded both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.
The Strategic Implications
The international community has thus far largely failed to fully appreciate the complexities and nuances of the geopolitical dynamic in the region in negotiating the Iranian nuclear deal. The struggle for regional power and influence in the Middle East is an inescapable reality that has direct bearing over the ongoing nuclear negotiations. As such, there are several possible reactions to the P5+1 negotiation that western powers would be wise to monitor. First, if proxy warfare is allowed to escalate, groups like the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Syria could increase the threat of international terrorist in the region. Additionally, any unilateral actions on the part of Israel could potentially plunge the region in a far larger conflict.
In attempting to find a peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear issue foreign powers should be wary of the implications to regional power balance. This is especially true since geopolitics in the region between the primary actors is often seen as a zero sum game. Moreover, while the reemergence of Turkey as a prominent geopolitical entity can possibly provide much needed balance, western powers should appreciate that all the regional powers will ultimately act according to its own strategic interests. In such a complex environment there is as much potential for negative outcomes as positive.