The interactions between Arab versus non-Arab sociopolitical projects have been at the core of Middle Eastern geopolitics since the end of the First World War.
The three non-Arab states in the Middle East – Iran, Israel, and Turkey – have mobilised their resources for the current moment which they correctly regard as extremely important for their strategic positions in the Middle East.
All of them, however, confront a set of challenges.
Iran has been one of the most successful states in Middle Eastern geopolitics in the past 20-years. The Islamic Republic has strengthened its presence in three strategically important spots for it. In Iraq, Iran has established major influence in this highly rich country’s political economy. In the southern Arabian Peninsula, on the borders with its arch-competitor Saudi Arabia, Iran has built a strong political and military presence, through its close ally, the Houthi group in Yemen. In the Eastern Mediterranean, Iran’s closest ally, and arguably an integral part of the political and military structure of the Iranian Islamic Republic, Hizbollah, has become a major political, economic, and military force, that has succeeded for 15-years now, in establishing a balance of deterrence with Israel, Iran’s arch-enemy.
Having a solid presence on the Eastern Mediterranean has, for centuries, been a prised Iranian objective, irrespective of the nature of the ruling regime in Tehran. Iran has always harboured ambitions for expanding its political and cultural influence way beyond its borders – a natural instinct of all rich civilisations. But Iran cannot expand to the north towards Russia, despite the existence of republics in the Russian Federation whose history and heritage are anchored in the Persian culture. Iran also finds it difficult to expand eastwards in lands where India has, for centuries, been the dominant cultural frame of reference. Towards its west, however, from Iraq all the way to the eastern Mediterranean, Iran has, in the past twenty years, found a malleable political landscape.
Religion played a role in this expansion. For centuries, important Shii centres of learning in today’s Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran have cross cultivated each other’s thinking, and in them a community of scholars have emerged and become leading references amongst Shii communities in the entire Mashreq. This is why, for Iran, its presence across the region, and especially on the Eastern Mediterranean, has become not only a highly valuable card in its strategic positioning, but at least equally important, a civilisational achievement.
But success comes at a cost. Despite the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia in early 2023, Saudi Arabia fully understands that a significant part of the Arabian Peninsula, close to its most important strategic assets, is subject to serious Iranian influence.
The situation is more fraught in the Eastern Mediterranean. There is a strong argument that Israel will attempt at some point to seriously weaken Hizbollah’s military capabilities which it deems a considerable threat to its national security. As a result, Iran must remain extremely vigilant and effectively mobilised in preparation for a major confrontation it knows the future will likely bring. Such agility and mobilisation entail colossal costs in resources and attention.
Israel is in almost the exact opposite strategic position. The Israeli society has developed in curious ways in the past two decades. Its most successful segments have become entrenched in the most economically and technologically advanced circles in the world. Their attention is attuned away from the Middle East and its problems, towards the most vibrant parts of California and Massachusetts. As a result, some of the the brightest minds in Israeli society have created for themselves bubbles into which they work and socialise, away from the troubles of their neighbourhood. On the other hand, sections of the Israeli society retreated into extreme religiosity, rejecting the secular for the sacred. Interestingly, 75-years since the creation of the Israeli state, many in Israel, for opposing reasons, have moved away from their country’s attempts, decades ago, to entrench the Israeli society into the Middle East’s fabric, into mentally and culturally eschewing the region altogether.
Socio-politics manifest in geopolitics. The internal divergences within Israel impose on Israeli strategists the difficult challenge of forging strategic goals that reflect opposing conceptions of the state’s identity, and therefore future.
The Gaza war has created another problem. There is now a new generation of Arabs and Israelis who not only see no prospects of peace in the foreseeable future, but whose feelings have become highly inflamed, and who view the other through prisms of rage and revenge. And so Israeli strategists forge their country’s strategic positioning, not only amidst internally diverging views of identity, but also based on scenarios anchored on troubled pasts rather than on any future promise.
Turkey shares elements of the challenges facing both Iran and Israel. After a period of expansion in the years immediately after the Arab uprisings of 2010/2011, Turkey has realised that the costs of its expansion exceed the potential gains it might have reaped from it. But curtailing that expansion has created a dilemma for Turkey. Despite the major socioeconomic benefits that Turkey gained from its western orientation and convergence with the European Union in the 1990s and early 2000s, Turkey remains, by the weight of history and culture, gravitated towards the Islamic and Arab worlds. Arguably, by reorienting her geopolitical compass largely towards the Middle East and the Caucasus, Turkey has aligned her international outlook with her historical experience. But in this reorientation, Turkey’s attention has been channeled away from Europe’s rich meadows and tranquil mountains towards the Middle East’s dangerous plains. And the problem is that Turkey is trying to navigate the Middle East’s flames at a time key Arab countries, as the previous article in this series presented, are evolving their strategic priorities. Turkey’s reorientation is proving to be a delicate strategic exercise.
Timing adds further problems. The current historical moment echoes loudly in the Turkish psyche. We are almost exactly a century since the establishment of the Turkish Republic after the fall of the Ottoman not only empire, but also identity. Turkey has achieved a lot in this century. And as it now remembers its bygone empire, some of its strategists see promise in trying to resuscitate elements of that old identity as a potential frame of reference in a Middle East undergoing its acutest transformations in that long century since the end of the First World War. Resuscitating elements of the Ottoman identity often meets cultural nostalgia for the nineteenth and early twentieth century, prevalent amongst segments of the elite in several Arab societies. But cultural nostalgia is different from geopolitical calculations. And looking into the past informs the present, but hardly forms the future.
The next article in this series will look at Middle Eastern geopolitics from the perspectives of powers outside the region, mainly the US, Russia, China, and the European Union.