Why is the Middle East so dangerous

Working papers

Joe Biden's election victory raised great hopes for foreign policy in Germany and Europe. Last but not least, many politicians and commentators expect the new US president to reverse his country's withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. However, this is likely to turn out to be more difficult than expected, as the conflict between Iran and its opponents has intensified over the past five years. Not only did US President Trump apply old and new sanctions to Iran, repeatedly threatening war, classifying the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization and having their general Qassem Soleimani killed without further ado.

Even more important is the fact that the dispute between Iran and its regional adversaries Saudi Arabia and Israel has come to the fore. Since the Arab Spring of 2011, the decades-old conflict has escalated into a downright Cold War in the Middle East, which culminated in the Iranian attack on the Saudi oil facilities on September 14, 2019. The cause is the Iranian expansion policy in the region, which led to increased armaments efforts in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and prompted Israel to fight Iranian targets and Iranian-controlled militias in Syria and Iraq. The fact that some Gulf states and Israel even concluded peace agreements recently is an indication that Iran's regional opponents are forging an alliance. Even if negotiations between the US and Iran should resume under President Biden, a return to the nuclear deal in its earlier form is unlikely. Rather, the conflict has the potential to worsen further. Germany should therefore critically review its interests in the region and prepare for crisis scenarios.

Iranian expansion: nuclear program, missiles and militias

The cause of the worsening conflict is primarily the Iranian expansion in the Middle East. Iran's policy is no longer as strongly ideological as it was in the first years after 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers made the "export of the Islamic revolution" a priority and a takeover of power by Shiite Islamists in Iraq and the Gulf states dreamed. Rather, ideological motifs are today combined with an almost classic hegemonic policy aimed at enforcing Iranian supremacy in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. To this end, Iran is relying on a revision of the regional order, which since the 1990s has been primarily determined by the strong presence of the USA. The leadership in Tehran wants the Americans to withdraw, which would weaken their allies in the region so badly that Iran could assume a hegemonic position. The revisionists in Tehran have a particular aversion to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In order to assert itself in the conflict with the USA and its regional opponents, Iran has relied on a military nuclear program, the sometimes related missile armament and the support of pro-Iranian militant groups for the past two decades. The latter organized themselves in a kind of Shiite international, an alliance led by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which includes the Lebanese Hezbollah, Shiite militias in Iraq, the (albeit non-Shiite) Palestinian Hamas and the Yemeni Houthi rebels. This alliance used the turmoil and civil war that followed the Arab Spring to expand its positions in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen to such an extent that at least Iran’s military presence in the four countries seems secure for years.

Iran's main adversary, Saudi Arabia, has faced the greatest threat in recent years from Yemen, from where the Houthis are bombarding the kingdom with ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and drones supplied by Iran - an unintended consequence of the war Saudi Arabia has been fighting since March 2015 leading the Yemeni rebels. But when the US dramatically tightened sanctions against Iran in spring 2019, Tehran's Revolutionary Guards attacked the Gulf states directly. Acts of sabotage on oil tankers around the Strait of Hormuz were followed by direct attacks on the Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure. The most important attack took place on September 14, 2019, when Iran used drones and cruise missiles to attack the Abqaiq and Khurais oil plants and thus the heart of the Saudi Arabian oil industry. In doing so, Iran emphatically demonstrated that it is in a position to cut the kingdom's economic lifeline at any time. Although the Houthis confessed to the attack, it quickly became clear that the missiles had been launched in Iran.

The central conflict in the Middle East

The Iranian hegemonic policy of the last decade represents the latest phase of a conflict that has been simmering since 1979, in which the Islamic Republic competes as a Shiite-Islamist and revolutionary-anti-imperialist power with the Sunni-Islamic and conservative-pro-Western Saudi Arabia. While Tehran is aiming to revise the regional balance of power, Riyadh is aiming to preserve the status quo, because under the protection of the USA, the kingdom has not only become a major oil power, but also the leading power in the Arab world. That is why the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia today is the central power-political conflict in the Middle East - a systemic conflict that is therefore particularly bitter and long-lasting.

Iran is likely to be the somewhat stronger military power, which has much larger armed forces at its disposal, but in the conflict with its neighbors it relies primarily on ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and drones as well as on alliances with pro-Iranian militias and terrorist groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Yemeni Houthis. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, can only bring highly fragmented and weak armed forces into the field, which are hardly suitable for a war against external enemies. Even armament purchases worth billions have not changed anything in this regard. The most important exception is the state-of-the-art and numerically strong air force, which the Iranian military would have little to do in the event of a conflict. The same applies to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is closely allied with Saudi Arabia and whose military is smaller than the Saudi one, but better trained, more professional and more powerful.

After a period of relaxation in the 1990s, the Iranian-Saudi Arabian conflict intensified again from 2003 onwards. The most important reason was the American invasion of Iraq, which led to pro-Iranian forces taking power in Mesopotamia in 2005 and Iran's influence there increasing rapidly. In the years that followed, Saudi Arabia tried with only moderate success to limit Tehran's growing power in the Arab world. But when Iran was able to further strengthen its positions as a result of the Arab Spring and the unrest, uprisings and civil wars that began in Syria, Iraq and Yemen from 2011, Riyadh reacted with great determination and aggressiveness. Up until 2015, the focus was on the civil war in Syria, where Saudi Arabia, mostly together with the USA, supported insurgents in their fight against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which is allied with Tehran. From 2015, Yemen became more important, where the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels took the capital Sanaa and Saudi Arabia intervened alongside the UAE.

Aware of its own military weakness, Saudi Arabia relied on its allies in the fight against Iran. This policy was also promoted by the USA from 2017; the Trump administration tried to organize the pro-Western regional states into an anti-Iranian alliance. This "Middle East Security Alliance" (MESA) initially got stuck in the early stages because Egypt withdrew in April 2019. But instead, Saudi Arabia and the UAE moved closer to Israel. From the perspective of the Gulf states, improved relations with the Jewish state are not only particularly important because it is the strongest military power in the region. Israel has also been waging an undeclared war against the Shiite International in Syria and Iraq since 2017, where the Israeli air force has flown over a thousand attacks against Iranian and allied targets. Israel is even more attractive for the Gulf States because with actions such as the targeted killing of General Mohsen Fakhrizadeh - who was considered the key figure in the Iranian nuclear program - in November 2020 it showed that it is ready and able to mobilize all of its resources, to prevent Iran from being armed with nuclear weapons. Against this background, the fact that the UAE and also Bahrain concluded peace agreements with Israel was an affirmation of the alliance against Iran. Saudi Arabia was not on the list of contracting parties, but the kingdom made it clear on several occasions that it approved the rapprochement with the former archenemy.

The "withdrawal" of the USA

The new unity between Saudis and Israelis is also a reaction to US policy in the Middle East. Since the end of the Bush era in 2009, the view had prevailed in American politics that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had prevented the United States from devoting the necessary attention to its major global competitor China. President Obama expressed this stance by calling for a pivot to Asia, and in 2011 withdrew all US troops from Iraq. The 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran also served the goal of solving the most important global political problem in the Middle East - the impending nuclear armament of the Islamic Republic - in order to be able to deploy more resources elsewhere. How distant the US president was from the governments in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv / Jerusalem became apparent before the end of his second term when Obama asked them to “share the Middle East with Iran and to grant something like a cold peace create."

In line with this affront, the Saudi Arabian leadership was delighted when Donald Trump, a declared enemy of the Islamic Republic, took over the presidency in 2017. Enthusiasm grew when the new president's first trip abroad took him to Riyadh. Trump had already announced an aggressively anti-Iranian line during the election campaign, which took shape in 2018 when the US unilaterally abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal and reintroduced old sanctions and imposed new ones. Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo coined the term “maximum pressure” on Iran, which primarily affected oil exports, so that the Iranian economy, already weakened by corruption and mismanagement, was on the brink of collapse in 2019. Iran responded with attacks on its neighbors' oil industries, culminating in the September 2019 attack on oil facilities.

At that time, however, it became clear that the Saudi Arabian leadership had not understood the Trump administration's calculations. This did not want a new war in the Middle East because Trump - like Obama before him - had promised his voters the return of the American military from the “endless wars” in the region. The US president reacted to the Iranian attack with sharp rhetoric, but avoided an open military counter-attack; the US military limited itself to a cyber attack. The events made it very clear that Trump supported the regional allies in their conflict with Iran by making the Middle East Security Alliance his project and also gladly equipping the partners with weapon systems. But his goal was to equip Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other states so that they could take on Iran without the involvement of American troops. The lack of a counter-attack in September 2019 showed the allies that the will to withdraw from the region had become a constant in American politics, even if Obama and Trump apparently proceeded so differently. It is to be expected that the new President Joe Biden will pursue a similar policy.

Nuclear programs on both sides of the gulf

The events of the past ten years have given rise to the realization in Riyadh that the USA is no longer the guarantor of Saudi Arabian security that it has been reliably since 1945. Perhaps the most dramatic consequence is that Saudi Arabia is also showing interest in a nuclear program. According to official reports, this is a purely civil project, but the Saudis' insistence on their own uranium enrichment suggests that they do not want to obstruct the option of military use from the outset. Since the US has so far refused to supply technology under these conditions, Riyadh now appears to be relying on China's help. Saudi Arabia already has modern Chinese missiles that could possibly also transport nuclear warheads.

Against this background (and after the experiences of the four years of Trump) it will be even more difficult to convince the leadership in Tehran to give up their desire for their own bomb and to make substantial concessions in new negotiations with the USA. Above all, the Islamic Republic is unlikely to be willing to cut back on its missile program and support for militant groups in the region, as these are two fundamental parts of Iran's military strategy. However, following the experience with the attacks on the oil plants (which also caused horror in Israel because of their accuracy), the inclusion of the two topics should be even more important for the regional allies of the USA than in 2015 - when they were extremely upset that the Obama- Administration concluded an agreement that also affected their security without their involvement.

Should the Biden government proceed similarly in negotiations and - contrary to previous announcements - once again exclude the Iranian missiles and Shiite militias, the resistance from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel will be much more violent than in 2015. Above all, they will become their allies in the Mobilize Congress, which can be found in both political camps. In addition, the killing of Fakhrizadeh has shown that at least Israel has other options if it wants to disrupt a détente between Washington and Tehran.

German politics, German interests

German politicians shouldn't believe that there could be an easy return to the original Iran nuclear deal of 2015. But if negotiations are started, Germany should stand behind the Biden government, which has already announced that it will also make the Iranian missile program and the regional expansion of Iran the subject of talks. In order to make a more comprehensive agreement - which is also in the German interest - possible, there must be no disagreement between Europe and the USA that Tehran could take advantage of.

In addition, the German government should prepare for the more likely scenarios in which there will be no or no early negotiated solution and in which Iran continues to advance its nuclear program and missile armament and continue to support militias and terrorist groups. In this case, it is necessary, together with the USA, to prevent Saudi Arabia from starting a military nuclear program. In addition, the allies would have to develop a strategy of long-term containment of Iran that can only work if the US, its European allies and the pro-Western regional states work closely together. This also includes the arms deliveries to problematic states such as Saudi Arabia or the UAE, which are often criticized in Germany.

In preparation for the coming months and years, it is also advisable to rethink the previous German definition of interests. Politicians, diplomats and academics have often argued in recent years that the primary aim is to prevent a military conflict between Iran and its opponents. But the Federal Republic's even more important interest should be to prevent regional states from being armed with nuclear weapons. In extreme cases, it could be a necessary consequence of this definition of interests to also support a military strike by the USA and / or Israel against Iran, if this should become necessary to prevent the country from being armed with nuclear weapons. A clearer formulation of this interest could also serve to increase pressure on Iran, which has tried all too often in recent years to stir up disagreement between Europe and the US.

Dr. Guido Steinberg works for the Science and Politics Foundation in Berlin. His new book has just been published: War on the Gulf. How the power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia threatens world security (Droemer 2020). The author gives his personal opinion.