The foregone conclusion of the United States reliance on its allies in the West Asian region is on resurgence. But the alliance network does not work in a vacuum. Factors such as energy imports, defending the choke points and the geostrategic location of West Asia highlights the reasoning behind American support to a few countries in the region. Since the 9/11 attacks, the character of support has altered to ‘war on terror’ or a war against terrorism. A few scholars believe that the fight against terrorism highlights the United States interests in keeping the region stable i.e. away from the influence of non-state actors such as terrorist networks. However, attributing the instability to terrorism does not allow the US administrations to eschew away from the sustenance of binaries within the region.
The US support to Iraq against Iran in the first Gulf War in the 1980s, the second Gulf War in 1991 and the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, highlights its self-seeking actions in the region which created more instability than perhaps, a non-state actors could create. The consistent support to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel despite them being involved in supporting proxy wars in the region is one instance of prejudiced policies of the United States. The inter-state conflicts have generated conflict and produced rivalries which have had a spill-over effect in the region. Furthermore, the spill-over effects have led to increasing role and support to non-state actors, thereby creating an environment of insecurity.
Moreover, the Americans have assisted countries in West Asia which have had a turbulent history of human rights violations and repressive authoritarianism. Israel with its motif of gaining more lebensraum has been looked at as an apartheid state due to its violation of natural rights of the Palestinians. In the past, the United States has vociferously supported the two-state solution between Israel and Palestine. But the stance has changed since the arrival of President Trump in 2016. An instance such as the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital with minimal support from world community highlights the inequity in the foreign policy of the United States. In its attempt to reach a deal with the Palestinian leadership without formation of consensus, the Trump administration has reinforced its dependency on the alliance structure in West Asia.
Not following the Western model of democracy, Saudi Arabia is alleged for dehumanization of citizens, averse to the monarch’s policies and model of governance. The brutal killing of Jamal Khashoshgi in Turkey, a Saudi citizen living in exile, underscores the severity of the regime. Though the global community criticised Riyadh’s alleged role in crimes against humanity, the American leadership refrained from doing so. Another reason behind the Washington’s support to Riyadh is the dominance of the latter in the region. This median was reinforced by President Trump’s first official visit to Saudi Arabia in 2016, after winning the US elections. The US has also been a part of Saudi-led coalition in Syria and Yemen wars, supplying million dollars’ worth arms and ammunitions. These developments have paved way for a significant strategic opposition against Iran by the connexion of Saudi-US-Israel, leaving the US foreign policy in a muddle.
The US President’s unilateral directives such as moving out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018, has carved a binary-led stance in West Asia. Moreover, the United States have taken provocative actions against the Iranian regime by applying sanctions on the government, sanctions on the Foreign Minister and Supreme Leader, and recognising IRGC as a terrorist group. Under the CAATSA act, Washington is willing to impose secondary sanctions on countries which have trade involvement with Tehran. On the other hand, Iran has deliberately reached out to countries such as China and Russia and has threatened the European Union to take a firm stand against the sanctions imposed by United States. During the recent G20 summit in 2019, French President Macron met Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on the side-lines of the summit, underlining France’s displeasure with the unilateral policies of the United States.
With the departure of Former National Security Advisor John Bolton, President Trump will find it extremely difficult to get out of the adversarial environment positioned by erstwhile hawkish policies. The foundation of the alliance was based on status-quo but recent developments in West Asia signify the utopianism of the US foreign policy under President Trump. Israel and Saudi Arabia are facing their ‘jewels of hitches’, with the former mired in electoral commotion whereas the latter has received significant backlash in the proxy wars in Yemen and Syria. There are chances of Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, not securing a majority in Knesset or perhaps, losing the ongoing elections.
The influence of Saudi Arabia is increasingly been challenged by other powers within the region. In the past, Riyadh has been unable to coerce Qatar through a failed blockade, the ramifications of which could be witnessed by the diminishing of Saudi’s dominance in the region. Despite having suffered major losses in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is reluctant to get out of the war. The differences within Saudi-led coalition in Yemen have changed the character to a multi-faceted war. Instead of supporting the government forces, U.A.E. has backed Southern Transitional Council to try to gain control of Southern Yemen’s Gulf of Aden. The recent airstrikes by Houthi rebels on Riyadh’s Aramco oilfields highlighted the weakness of the political leadership in defending its territory with a loss of approximately 5.7 million barrels of oil and the temporary shutdown of the two oilfields. The mistrust between U.A.E and Saudi Arabia will have a significant impact on the United States influence in West Asia.
The threats received by Iran from Trump administration’s war-prone provocations such as ‘locked and loaded’ and ‘the destruction of the identity’ of Iranians has led to Tehran taking measures which have the capacity to reinforce the suspicions of the United States. Actions like airstrikes on oil-tankers, threatening to disrupt trade via the Gulf of Hormuz and the recent ‘Gilbralter’ crisis have produced concerns regarding the major choke points through which 80% of the energy trade takes place. Instead of trying to stabilize the region, President Trump and his allies have destabilised the region by applying more sanctions on Iran, trying to delegitimize the Iranian government, and incidentally allowing the far-right radical groups to occupy positions of power by sustaining pressure on the government.
On the other hand, in its efforts to maintain the legitimacy of the government within and to counter the threats emanating from the region, Iran has been successful in containing the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen through military and monetary support to the Houthi rebels, the head of which met the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in August 2019. Iranian President Rouhani’s visit to Iraq in early 2019 signifies the improving bilateral relationship between the two countries. Iran’s support to Russia-led coalition in support of President Basshar-al-Assad has allowed it to maintain cordial links with Syria. In consideration of these major developments, Tehran has built up a much more accommodative attitude towards China. President Rouhani’s support for Belt and Road Initiative is an opportunity; Beijing would try to gain the most from.
Despite suffering the most from sanctions put by the US, Iran is making inroads in the Gulf region by partnering with countries which are at present challenging the unipolar world led by the United States. Tehran has tried to circumvent the sanctions put forth by the United States through the application of its CAATSA policy by developing transactional relations with China and Russia. More open in its foreign policy, Tehran, breaking away from the past, has criticised India’s abrogation of the Article 370 and conveyed concern over human rights violations in Kashmir valley. Notwithstanding, the recent attacks on Iranian border by Pakistan sponsored terrorist groups which killed more than 30 IRGC soldiers, Tehran welcomed Prime Minister Imran Khan’s bilateral visit highlighting the vicious circle of security marked more by concern of countering Saudi Arabia’s hegemony in the region than uplifting terrorism related issues.
The change in Iranian policy has been reactionary in nature. The submission of the United States allies most importantly India, has bereft Tehran from other alternatives but to develop cordial linkages with countries which have mutual interests in the region. The fear of the US sanctions led to India completely abandoning Iran from the ambit of oil imports, thereby pushing Iran to find partner which could help in sustaining its economy. Iranian Ambassador to New Delhi has lately implied disparagement towards the latter being unable to maintain its historical linkages with Iran and generated concern on the inefficiency of India’s involvement in the Chabahar project. During the budgetary session of Indian Parliament, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a reduction from USD 60 million to USD 45 million in its allocation to Chabahar project, thus creating a suspicious perception within Iranian leadership towards India. President Rouhani has indicated his interests in linking Chabahar to the Gwadar port, a further blow to India-Iran relations. Tehran has permitted the China-Iran-Turkmenistan railway network which would benefit Beijing by reducing its reliance on Saudi Arabia for oil imports
Conversely, with tumultuous crisis of cooperation and the failure of the US foreign policy, Beijing has benefitted most from the relative-sum gain situation in the Gulf region. Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted the Crown Prince of U.A.E. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed on 22nd July, 2019. The bilateral summit transpired to boost comprehensive strategic partnership and trade between the two nations. The Crown Prince assured Abu Dhabi’s support in maintaining Chinese core interests in the region and termed the Middle East as an ‘Oasis of Security’ instead of ‘Source of Turmoil’. Furthermore, U.A.E reinforced its assistance to China’s One Belt One Road project, emphasising the industrial capacity cooperation zone’s success and cooperation in the energy sector. The increasingly better relations with China could have acted as a catalyst in Abu Dhabi turning hostile to Saudi-backed government forces in Yemen.
The dependency model in West Asia based on Israel and Saudi Arabia in US foreign policy is disintegrating. Due to the dynamic nature of international system and the unpredictability of the US, Trump administration is unable to influence its European allies which have a major say in the politics governing the region. This has generated perceptions of China being a responsible partner or a lesser evil in the region. From being dismally involved to galvanising its position in West Asia, China has gained more from Trump’s enmity with Iran. The old days have vanished when intra-regional conflict was a key stimulator of relations between major powers. China is making inroads in the Middle East based on free-riding on the breakdown of the long cherished ideals of multilateralism and cooperation. The United States needs to pay much more attention to the unflinching disputes with Iran and need not allow the perception of its allies to gain a foothold in its foreign policy. From U.A.E to Iran, China is rising and the slogan of ‘Make America Great Again’ is antithetical to the actions of the United States.
Image credit: The White House from Washington, DC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author is a Research Officer at Chennai Centre for China Studies. He has completed his Masters in Political Science from the University of Hyderabad, Telangana, and Bachelors in Political Science (Hons) from Delhi College of Arts and Commerce, University of Delhi. His areas of interests include Theories of International Relations, Indian Foreign Policy, Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations, Geopolitics and Security Studies.