One thing Obama got right: They’ll have to share the Middle East

For the US, its allies and Iran the alternative to sharing the region is a futile and destructive pursuit of dominance.

Obama iran Reuters
US President Barack Obama delivers a statement on Iran at the White House in Washington, January 17, 2016 [Yuri Gripas/Reuters]

In an April 2016 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic, President Barack Obama outlined his views on US Middle East policy in brutally frank terms. His obvious impatience with Middle Eastern affairs and his unconcealed disdain for regional partners – “freeloaders” is how he described them – aroused much criticism in the US and across the Middle East, where he was already viewed with considerable contempt by several Arab states, as well as Israel, for his Iran and Syria policies.

One of Obama’s less barbed and more sensible comments also proved controversial. He was criticised for saying that “our friends as well as … the Iranians … need to find an effective way to share the neighbourhood.” His detractors charged that he was abandoning the region, relinquishing America’s position, enabling revisionist powers like Russia and Iran, alienating allies and so on. 

Many saw this as a naive policy, a form of appeasement, or even betrayal. Opprobrium was especially forthcoming from Saudi Arabia which, alongside Iran, was the obvious target of Obama’s comments.

Veteran Saudi diplomat Turki al-Faisal replied to Obama in an op-ed in Arab News saying: “You add insult to injury by telling us to share our world with Iran, a country that you describe as a supporter of terrorism and which you promised our king to counter its ‘destabilizing activities’.”

A Saudi analyst with ties to the ruling family likewise described the suggestion that Saudi Arabia should share the Middle East with Iran as, “patently absurd“, while hawkish American analysts and lobbyists opted for alarmist conclusions: “Saudi Arabia must now indeed share the neighbourhood – not only with its archrival Iran but with the two aspiring superpowers of Russia and China… the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.” 

Sharing the region is anything but a straightforward proposition. There are powerful vested interests and ideological dispositions in all the capitals concerned that would oppose a sharing of the region except on their own terms. In Washington, it is not just neoconservative hawks who would object. Liberal proponents of American exceptionalism and the dogmatic belief that the US is a moral force for good are also likely to bristle at the thought of accommodating a revisionist power that ideologically positions itself against US dominance in the region.

There is also the mandatory political genuflection to America’s commitments to Israeli security, which, despite its patent impregnability, is consistently framed as one Qassam rocket away from collapse. That’s to say nothing of the billions of dollars tied up with America’s weapons sales, security contracts and military foothold in the region that are directly dependent on Middle Eastern insecurity.

Likewise, in Tehran, there are those who refuse to accept normalisation with the US and rival powers on anything but their own terms. For hardliners, such a move needs to be a concomitant of victory and a validation of their ideology of resistance rather than a product of compromise and a pursuit of peace. Riyadh and Tel Aviv likewise have their own ideological drivers of intransigence and enmity that cannot countenance any accommodation with Iran absent a victory that bends it to their will.

Across the region, there is a strong feeling that the strategic gains made by Iran since 2003 cannot and should not be tolerated. Many believe that the priority is, therefore, not to share the region with the Iranians but to reclaim it from them. However, concern about the expansion of Iran’s strategic reach cannot be decoupled from the conflicts that have simmered and raged in various parts of the Middle East since 2003 – conflicts that all concerned regional and international powers have at times helped exacerbate.

Those who obsess about Iran’s malign behaviour cannot do so while ignoring the fracturing of several authoritarian states in the region and their descent into civil war over questions of political rights, identity, social and economic justice and competing claims to the state.

Whatever countries Iran has established a foothold in – Iraq, Syria, Yemen and in Lebanon, as far back as the 1980s – it has done so by exploiting the chaos of the civil wars that engulfed them. Iran did not create these civil wars but it fully utilised them to its own advantage.

The lesson here is that regional stability cannot be divorced from the stability of individual states. Regional conflict has been mediated through and facilitated by local conflicts which is why those who ignore the ongoing struggle over political, economic and social rights in the Middle East do so at their own peril. Those wanting to roll-back Iranian influence in the region would do well to invest in the political, human and economic development of the region’s most vulnerable states and communities.  

Clearly, vested interests, ideology and the battered landscape of the 21st-century Middle East preclude straightforward normalisation between Iran and the US and its allies. That being said, the region, nevertheless, desperately needs a course correction that can contain the above contradictions even if it cannot eliminate them.

If normalisation is unattainable, then something other than a perpetual pursuit of dominance is required – in other words, something that can contain conflict and enable rivals and adversaries, none of whom can be vanquished outright, to share the region. 

Today’s seemingly open-ended contest between Iran and the US and its allies is characterised by more intransigence and hawkishness than ever. The unilateral US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” have triggered a chain reaction that is pushing the Middle East ever closer to a regional conflagration.

Nearly two decades of conflict and internationalised civil wars across the Middle East, along with Iran’s skilful exploitation of these, have blurred the lines of contestation to a dangerous extent. The Islamic Republic has relentlessly pursued its forward defence policy to create a situation whereby the front lines in any conflict with the US and its allies will not just be on its territory but potentially in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Israel and the Gulf as well.

The danger in such a situation is the risk of escalation on one front inflaming the others and engulfing the Middle East in a region-wide conflict with global implications. Even absent such a major conflagration, the proliferation of front lines has seen tit-for-tat demonstrations of military capacity in an increasing number of Middle Eastern countries. Recently, Israel struck targets in three different countries in a single week.

In the absence of any attempt at dialogue, red lines are constantly being tested in a Sisyphean pursuit of dominance. This perpetual game of brinkmanship between Iran and its proxies and the US and its allies cannot last forever. The seeming lack of strategic thinking means that we are only one miscalculation or overreaction away from a major conflict with global implications. 

This brings us back to Obama’s suggestion that regional powers find a way of sharing the region (complete with a US buy-in). Whether or not it is naive or unrealistic depends on what one imagines “sharing” to look like.

The best point of departure might be to first recognise that Iran’s relations with the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia are adversarial and will remain so. There will be no Camp David moment with Iran, no Oslo, no peace in the Middle East photo-op.

But adversarial is not the same as belligerent. The Koreas have been adversaries for the better part of a century but their relations have rarely involved direct belligerence beyond the Korean war (1950-53) and episodic border clashes and covert operations at the height of the Cold War.

Today, the two countries have better communication and a better grasp of each other’s red lines than the US and its allies have with Iran. In other words, unlike the Middle East, in Korea, adversaries are sharing the peninsula. 

Given the role of ideology, the depth of conflict and geopolitical competition in the Middle East, sharing the neighbourhood will never be a model of amicability. Rather than another EU or ASEAN, what is being suggested here would look more like Pakistan and India’s coexistence on the subcontinent: adversarial, tense, mutually suspicious, with episodic crises and violence but nevertheless managed, with better communication, greater predictability and a greater degree of mutual understanding than is the case with the Middle East today.

Indeed, there are parallels from within the region that are worth pondering: Israel and Syria between 1973 and 2011 or the UAE and Iran. Yes, they were adversarial, prone to episodic crises but neither as unpredictable nor as belligerent as the region is today. 

Bedevilling the issue and the conversation surrounding policy towards Iran is a lack of clarity which perpetuates intransigence on all sides. What is the ultimate goal of maximum pressure?

If regime collapse is the aim then proponents should be careful what they wish for. State collapse in Iraq upended the Middle East for the better part of two decades. An Iranian collapse would have far greater consequences – and defenders of the Islamic Republic have gained more than enough experience through their involvement in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen to ensure that this becomes the case.

Formulaic allusions to Iran’s malign behaviour are likewise unhelpful: what, specifically and achievably, is being demanded of Iran in that regard? That Iran should pack up its assets in Iraq, for example, or abandon its footholds in Syria and Lebanon is simply not going to happen, absent either long-term structural change in those countries or a catastrophic war that would likely make us yearn for the days when “malign behaviour” was the issue.

Any regional vision, including one that seeks to share the region, must be based on the reality of the landscape as it is rather than what we might wish it to be.

What about Iran? At what point does forward defence achieve its purpose? At what point will Iranian security concerns be satisfied? At what point will we stop hearing about “the ghosts of the Iran-Iraq War”?

Will a lifting of the economic embargo and a resumption of the JCPOA – or a modified version thereof – do the trick? Will that consign Iran’s pursuit of “resistance” to rhetorical hot air? Put another way, would that turn them into Cuba?

Again, full normalisation is not on the cards – the “Great Satan” and the “rogue regime” are not going anywhere – but what might create stabilisation even if adversarial? Is there a medium at which Iranian deterrence capability can be sufficient for Iran while tolerable for the rest of the region?

Again, if we think of the Koreas, and if we put ideological cul-de-sacs (Iranian, American, Saudi, Israeli, etc) aside, the search for such a medium can at least form the basis of a negotiated de-escalation towards that elusive sharing of the neighbourhood. 

The same question needs to be asked of all interested parties and it should be done so in concert. All sides to this issue have security concerns, all want influence in the region and there are competing regional visions at play. This will not change.

But what is the bottom line of these security concerns, what is the mutually tolerable minimum and how can ideological and strategic contradictions be best managed?

Simply referring to Iran’s malign behaviour or to American imperialism sets the region up for failure and the perpetuation of conflict. Whatever else one might say about the JCPOA and whatever its flaws, at least it had the merit of being specific and actionable without trying to reinvent the nature of opposing states.

In the absence of negotiation, and with hawkish intransigence ascendant everywhere, red lines are constantly being tested and the worst is routinely assumed. The recent attack on Saudi oil infrastructure, and US and Saudi talk of a retaliatory strike on Iran are the inevitable result.

The Aramco attack significantly upped the stakes and those stakes will continue their upward trajectory towards war absent a search for a mutually tolerable geostrategic balance. Whatever else one thinks of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, he was right in arguing that, “unpredictability will lead to mutual unpredictability, and unpredictability is chaotic,” – if only he recognised his own country’s role, alongside that of its adversaries, in creating and sustaining both the unpredictability and the chaos. 

Rather than perpetual conflict, achievable demands not maximalist bluster are what is needed from all concerned. For good or bad, the US’s role in the region is structural and Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and others have conflicting strategic priorities and security concerns. This will not change.

But adversaries can still bargain and negotiate. A reworked JCPOA with GCC involvement in return for a ceasefire in Yemen; sustained behind the scenes meetings to establish mutually tolerable spheres of influence (for these unfortunately exist and will continue to do so whether we like it or not); living with Iranian ballistic missiles while strengthening the deterrent capabilities of regional powers; de-escalating tensions with an eye towards increasing economic integration even if it is in the shadow of political competition. Better minds than mine can strategise more frameworks for negotiation.

As is abundantly clear today, the alternative to sharing the region – to accepting some sort of balance – is a futile and destructive pursuit of dominance. It is futile as no regional or international actor can unilaterally have their way.

Ultimately, whatever derision one aims at the idea of sharing the region, it is an inevitability: none of the players are leaving the Middle East nor are they leaving the regional chessboard. Relations will continue to be securitised and the many interests that are served by this endless geostrategic competition will continue to prosper because, unfortunately, the actors in question will remain adversaries, come what may.

Nevertheless, they have no choice but to share the region and the aim should be the formulation of a framework that creates a measure of mutual understanding and establishes mechanisms for containing and regulating rivalries.

This, rather than a woolly and regrettably unachievable peace, is the best alternative to an otherwise destructive pursuit of dominance. The question is, can the actors concerned reach this conclusion and begin working towards a mutually tolerable modus vivendi before being forced to do so by a cataclysmic regional war?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.