The Next US Move in the Middle East: A ‘Balancer’ or ‘Pax Americana’?

    The Middle East is, once again, the scene of intriguing moves. From a Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iran rapprochement to Assad’s return to the Arab League and rumours of a growing kerfuffle between the Saudi and Emirati leaders, the region is abuzz with developments. Speculations are rife about an imminent breakthrough in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. 

    While some commentators emphasise the US retrenchment from the region, others foresee Biden’s next moves that would constitute his legacy for future generations. What could be the contours of this legacy is the one-million-dollar question. But strategists already know it is about a long-lasting power play.

    Balancing the scale with Iran

    From a realpolitik point of view, Washington’s central strategy lies in preserving the regional power balance. The key objective is to prevent any state in the Middle East (except Israel) from becoming a formidable force capable of controlling the region. Like a weight on the opposing side of a scale, Tehran has long filled this role. During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, the US initially favoured close ties with Saddam. Then, Washington gave a lifeline to Tehran via the Iran-Contra affair, followed by a period of dual containment, in which the Clinton administration weakened Iraq, and dented Iran with sanctions while bolstering its military presence in the Gulf countries. In the realm of strategy, Washington’s move is called offshore balancing. By backing one power bloc against another, the US was a ‘balancer’ or ‘holder of the balance,’ which ensured its dominance with much lesser resources. 

    Fast forward to the present, Washington was not enthusiastic about China becoming a mediator between the Gulf states and Iran. This situation suggests that the US is retreating from the region. Other signals, such as Saudi Arabia’s lukewarm attitude towards the Western-led support to Ukraine and Riyadh’s growing cooperation with Russia within the OPEC+, have created some misapprehension between the Saudi leaders and US decision-makers but also with the UAE. 

    The growing prospects for a return to the nuclear deal and the intensification of closed-door negotiations could indicate that the Biden administration is about to make its next move for the region. Despite denials from Iran quarters, it is evident that neither Chinese investments nor strategic relations with Russia are sustainable strategies for Iran in the long run, considering the dire state of the Iranian economy. As Washington contemplates a revival of the JCPOA for lifting international sanctions, Tehran seems more committed to this than it appears. In the West, there is not much reluctance either. 

    The Gulf’s economic engagement with China, Riyadh’s rapprochement efforts with Tehran, and the rift between MBS and MBZ are all part of a media spectacle that constitutes useful diversions. However, for US strategists, the goal is to stay aware of such details and to keep a solid grip on the region’s affairs. At the adequate time, Washington will make its moves that would remind all that “I am here, and I am not going anywhere.”

    Many anticipate that Saudi Arabia is the side that would soon face the balancing act, given its antagonistic relations with the Biden Administration and the high threshold Riyadh requires in exchange for normalising with Israel, such as a NATO-like security guarantee from the US, despite a challenging Congress barrier and expert objections

    The change in the balance of power can only occur by revitalising the nuclear deal with Iran. Latest updates about the negotiations indicate that diplomats continue to iron out minor details of the JCPOA. This position suggests that if the deal were to happen, this endeavour would be purely a foreign policy tool to strengthen Iran and alter the balance in the Gulf rather than mere details about installing IAEA cameras and monitoring mechanisms.

    Thus, the US holds a significant card in its hand and already has a track record of making similar moves in the past. 

    Palestine was left behind again.

    Changing the balance of power in the Gulf will leave winners and losers. The Palestinians will be, as usual, among the losers. Like previous rhetorical exercises, Saudi Arabia’s call for a two-state solution is merely lip service. Like Trump’s Abraham Accords, Biden’s efforts for normalisation won’t bring a panacea to Palestine’s ordeal. Israel, under the ultranationalist Netanyahu government, is unlikely to make concessions. While MBS might seek alignment with Tel Aviv, whom he has already described as a potential ally, any agreements won’t address the injustices on the ground. It’s a sobering reality that the entire region grapples with, consciously or not. 

    The Middle East resembles Ursula Le Guin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” where joy and happiness come at the cost of a suffering child. Those in the region face a choice: ignore the ordeal of the victims across the region or stand for justice and peace, just as the name “Omelas” read backwards closely echoes “Salem,” connotating peace.

    This article originally appeared in the opinion section of the website Daily Sabah.

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