August 7, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: The Middle East’s Shifting Politics
The July 14 “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 (United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China) has begun to reshape strategic alignments and calculations in the Middle East. Key U.S. allies in the region, particularly Israel, Turkey, and the GCC states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman), have significant concerns that the sanctions relief provided by the agreement will revive Iran’s economy and enhance its regional influence, as well as that of its allies and proxies. Some U.S. allies, as well as the United States itself, have begun to shift policies in order to counter any enhanced Iranian influence in the region.
Among the most notable strategic shifts since the finalization of the Iran accord is the U.S.-Turkey partnership to combat the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Turkey is now allowing U.S. combat aircraft to utilize Incirlik Air Base for strikes against the Islamic State, potentially enhancing the effectiveness of U.S. efforts significantly. Turkey, for its part, hopes to use this enhanced partnership to draw the United States more deeply into the Syrian civil war against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, with some early success. The U.S. indicated in early August that it will conduct strikes to protect U.S.-trained anti-Islamic State rebel fighters—not only from attacks by the Islamic State, but also from those by Assad’s forces. The United States, Turkey, and the Gulf states appear to sense an opportunity to ease Assad from power after his recent significant losses—a sense which has been compounded by emerging Russian flexibility. Syria was the subject of key talks between Secretary of State Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, and Saudi Foreign Minister al-Jubeir in Doha in early August. Turkey also perceives an opportunity in this enhanced partnership with the United States to contain anti-Turkey Kurdish forces operating in both northern Syria and Iraq.
The Iran agreement has also spurred an expansion of the GCC military effort against the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen. The GCC military campaign, which receives logistical support from the United States, is intended to turn back what the GCC says is an Iranian effort to expand its influence on the Arabian Peninsula. The GCC action has until now consisted mostly of airstrikes. Since the Iran nuclear agreement, however, the UAE has sent a ground combat brigade into Yemen which, along with some Saudi special forces and GCC-trained Yemeni forces, has made progress turning back Houthi forces in and around the city of Aden. These gains might convince the Houthis to negotiate a restoration of the government of President Abdu Rabbuh al-Hadi.
The United States is also taking direct steps to bolster the GCC’s defensive capabilities to help them counter Iran’s “malign activities.” The U.S.-GCC summit at Camp David in May resulted in the formation of U.S.-GCC working groups on counter-terrorism, cybersecurity, maritime security, and special forces training and drills, as well as a U.S. pledge to increase arms sales to the GCC. Several significant sales have been announced since. In June, the United States lifted a 2011 “hold” on a sale of Humvees and TOW anti-tank weaponry, which had been placed in May 2011 due to Bahrain’s crackdown on the Shi’a uprising that began there in February 2011. With a restive Shi’a majority, Bahrain is considered a prime target of Iranian destabilization activities, even though Iran has not played a large role in the Bahrain unrest to date. In July, Saudi Arabia bought $5.4 billion worth of Patriot missile defense equipment. The new U.S. arms sales commitments are particularly significant to the GCC because the nuclear deal will result in a lifting of the UN ban on arms sales to Iran in five years.
In early August, the United States also resumed its “strategic dialogue” with Egypt and delivered eight F-16s, signaling that U.S.-Egypt differences over the military’s ouster of President Mohammad Morsi have been—at least for the moment—put to rest. The repaired relationship with Egypt serves several purposes. First, the military aid will assist Egypt’s efforts against a growing threat from an affiliate of the Islamic State called Sinai Wilayat. Second, the renewed U.S.-Egypt partnership also reassures the GCC states—particularly Saudi Arabia—which recoiled at the speed with which the United States accepted then-President Mubarak’s downfall.
Even as the United States and its Gulf allies take steps to blunt Iranian regional influence, the nuclear agreement opens new opportunities to enlist Iran in efforts to resolve regional conflicts. U.S. officials indicate that, once the nuclear deal goes into effect in the fall, they might invite Iran to renewed talks on a political solution in Syria. Previously, the United States had excluded Iran from the Geneva process. The U.S. and its allies calculate that Iran might be more flexible on Syria in order to consolidate the benefits of the nuclear agreement and salvage Iran’s interests in the event Assad falls. In Iraq, the United States has already begun cooperating with Iran-backed Shi’a militias. These shifts are in spite of comments by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that the nuclear deal will not cause Iran to change its regional policies.
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