As the title of this article indicates, there is a reordering taking place in the central lands of the Middle East, certainly in the ancient lands of Mesopotamia. But the lands of the two rivers have previously gone through many metamorphoses of kingdoms, rulers, geography, religions and cultures — all of them painful and destructive before emerging into different entities.
It is happening again. Like the previous transmogrifications the current changes will also be painful. But like any “great shaking out” different forms emerge, and one has to hope they will be more acculturated to the region’s inhabitants and needs than the previous ones.
The largely US-led wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003 have showed the fragility of the post-World War I and World War II structures of Iraq and Syria, and perhaps other states, as well as the brutality and misguidedness of superpowers. I want to make it clear that states of the Middle East were no more artificial than scores of other states established after these two wars, and they will probably persist. But the military intervention of the US (and its allies) at a time in which the wars occurred was more than the existing structures could bear.
Since the US was largely responsible for the two wars, it is reasonable to ask what now is the US’s position toward not just Iraq and Syria but also toward the Arab countries and towards the three — Iran, Turkey and Israel — non-Arab countries of the region?
A starting point of such a discussion is to try and assess why the P5+1 (Britain, France, the US, Russia, China and Germany) thought it necessary to come to an agreement with Iran after years of animosity between them.
It should be clear that the principal reasons for the July 14 agreement were not Iran’s nuclear programs. Iran’s desire seems that of being able to possess the ability to make and, if necessary, to construct nuclear weapons, if there is to be little change in the P5+1 positions toward countries of the Middle East, especially those surrounding Iran. There was/is the possibility that agreement will be achieved and could continue to serve as a springboard for further geo-strategic and geopolitical change in the region.
Some of the preliminary consequences of the July 14 agreement are already emerging with regard to the US-led “war against terrorism,” especially in Iraq and Syria.
As a result of the July 14 agreement, the P5+1 and the coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) will now acquiesce to Iran’s active participation in the diplomacy of Middle East countries. Tehran will no longer be a diplomatic hostile outlier. It will be a rivalrous competitor and recognized as such by the US, Europe, Russia, China and, reluctantly, by the states of the Middle East, including the Gulf Arab countries.
Contrary to the alarmist bellicosity of opponents, the agreement promises over the next decade or so to result in more stability in the Middle East.
Other reasons for optimism are that the agreement raises strong possibilities that state boundaries will be preserved. This is its most important contribution. ISIL’s challenge to the boundaries of Iraq and Syria raised the possibility that boundaries between Iraq and Syria, between Syria and Turkey and between Turkey and Iraq would be challenged. The coming military defeat of ISIL indicates this will not be the case.
Despite the now nearly five-year-long war against ISIL and the needless political duplicity engaged in by all of the participants, Iran’s participation in global diplomacy will bring some coherence to the jockeying for geopolitical power in the Middle East.
It is clear that the US, Europe, Russia and China, all for different reasons, also see such developments in their interest.
There will be losers and winners. Radicals, dissenters, ideologues, nationalists, etc., will be weakened; conservatives, statists, pragmatists, capitalists and globalists will be winners, as will non-Arab states such as Iran, Turkey and Israel. Minority challenges to states and their borders will now be weakened.
The new reordering of the Middle East will keep the Westphalian ordering of states while retaining new configurations within current state boundaries. Transnational nationalist, ethnic and religious challenges will take place but within state boundaries. This is also true for transnational economic cooperation. Movements such as ISIL will be less tolerated. Non-state actors will be challenged, some of them strongly such as Hamas, Hezbollah, Alawites, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Houthis. Indeed, we can see that the latter is already happening.
The “great shakeout” taking place is a state shakeout by conservative states with conservative ideologies. Iran is not an outlier in this company. It is now an accomplice but a rivalrous and competitive one, and that is what provides some hope.
Certainly rivalry and competition are better than the wars, ethnic cleansing, flight, killing, rape, malnutrition and barbarism of the past five years.
Robert Olson is a Middle East analyst based in Lexington, Kentucky.
This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman. Click here to go to the original.