A new Middle East in sight? Just maybe

The tide may be turning against Iran in the Middle East.

Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a campaign meeting at the Mosalla mosque in Tehran, Iran, May 16, 2017. Picture taken May 16, 2017.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a campaign meeting at the Mosalla mosque in Tehran, Iran, May 16, 2017. Picture taken May 16, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For a number of years after 2011, Iran was successfully on the offensive in the Middle East. It was building a regional Shi’ite crescent that included Lebanon, Iraq and Syria towards the Mediterranean. It also increasingly wants Yemen under its direction. This new Persian Empire was reinforced by the determination of Tehran, run by a radical Muslim clergy, security forces and military to maintain this Shi’ite Crescent in the 21st century. For many years, it saw its main regional enemy as Israel and its main international enemy as the United States.
The two superpowers were either on the side of Iran in Syria (Russia) or relatively indifferent and then trying to buy off Iran in the famous Iran Deal (the United States under president Barack Obama). The major Arab powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, went back and forth but felt relatively isolated. Israel was carefully on the defensive and deliberate in using its military advantages. It mainly tried to prevent encirclement by a hostile Iran and its allies and to destroy hostile parties in Syria.
Suddenly, in the last two years, there has been a major change as several key things happened. The Obama leadership was replaced by a more pro-Israel President Donald Trump and his strong advisers (especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton). Their negation of the Iran Deal and imposition of major sanctions that will soon impact Western companies doing business with Iran have changed the Middle East. Many American companies are already obeying the sanctions forbidding trade or investment in Iran even before they are due to take effect.
The Russians had supported Iran in trying to keep Bashar Assad in power in Syria. Now with victory in sight they have shifted to ousting regional powers, including Iran, from Syria. As the second superpower in the world, Russia can credibly threaten to push Iran or other powers out of Syria, which is to be a Russian satellite under the control of Assad.
In this, they are aided to a degree by the Israelis, who also want to rid Syria of forces such as Iran and its allies surrounding Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, building a strong relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, was a major force with his seven visits to Moscow and the Crimea to meet with Putin. So, too, was the extensive demonstration of Israeli military might in Syria. It didn’t hurt that Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman grew up in Russia and that Israel throughout its history has been influenced by Russians. The Israeli military is strong, both in terms of its offensive capabilities and its ability to destroy incoming missiles with Iron Dome, David’s Shield and Arrow 3.
WHILE THE European states are largely opposed to negating the Iran deal, their power to do things has seriously declined in recent years. The three main European powers (England, France and Germany) fewer than 800 mainline battle tanks. The British plan to reduce their infantry to a paltry 60,000 men. Most of the European Union states spend less, sometimes far less, on their military than the 2% of GNP/capita agreed to under NATO guidelines.
Similarly, the intention of European powers to continue serious trade relations with Iran seems unlikely to work. Prominent French automaker Peugeot has announced that it will abide by the American sanctions on Iran, stopping business or investment in Iran.
Finally, Saudi Arabia, led by its new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and its allies (United Arab Emirates, Bahrain) and new friends (Egypt) are all aligned in opposing Shi’ite Iran. They see the danger in letting Iran remain in parts of Syria to build a Shi’ite crescent. The Saudi Crown Prince even has said some positive words about Israel, a first in the region.
Iran has some significant weaknesses. They have four to five million emigres who have done very well abroad. Fully 1.5 million went to the United States, 800,000 to the United Arab Emirates and 200,000 to Israel. In addition, the Iranian army could not beat the Iraqi army in eight years of fighting during the 1980s.
The Iranian economy is weak, despite Iran being the fourth richest country in the world in natural resources. Nearly 20% of the population is illiterate or semi-literate. The Iranian GDP/capita is $5,100 to $5,700 – a level that places them below more than 90 countries in the world and on the same level as Jordan, Macedonia and Namibia. By contrast, the United States has $59,000 GDP/capita, Israel has a $39,000 GDP/capita, and the leading countries in Europe (Great Britain, France and Germany) are in the $40,000 to $44,000 GDP/capita range.
Iran suffers from water shortage that is serious in areas with one-third of the population. Within 20 to 30 years, upwards of 40 million Iranians (half of the population) will have to consider leaving Iran for other countries due to lack of water. Finally, Iran has allegedly been working on a nuclear program since the mid 1980s, for over 30 years. It still does not have a nuclear weapon, but now is evidently nearing the final stage of doing so.
In short, the tide may be turning against Iran in the Middle East. The semi-alliance on the Iran issue of two superpowers (United States and Russia) with a major regional power (Israel) and other Sunni Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, perhaps Egypt) may produce a new Middle East in the years to come.
The writer is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Relations, University of Denver