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  • Tommaso Leone

Is the Middle East Plummeting into Chaos?



Is the Middle East More United?

Over a year ago, a raid of the Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem that left hundreds of Palestinians wounded was followed by dozens of rocket strikes taking off from Gaza. The Arab world promptly reacted condemning Israel for the airstrikes it launched in retaliation. Although Arab leaders fiercely accused Israel of outrageous actions, the effort to back Palestinians remained merely rhetorical.

One year on and history seems to be already repeating itself. Despite Egyptian and United Nations-led mediation efforts, a rocket was launched from the Gaza Strip on April 19 and Israeli countermeasures quickly followed. Military escalation is the result of weeks of tensions sparked from violence of both sides. Today’s clashes reflect the deep historical roots of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, to a large extent exacerbated by the overlapping of Muslim Ramadan with Jewish Passover.

As fears of a new prolonged conflict pile up, the biggest threat to Israel comes from the inside. The fragile ruling coalition led by prime minister Naftali Bennett risks a collapse as the Islamist Ra’am Party suspended its participation to force the government to halt police violence at the Al Aqsa Mosque. The government already lost the majority of seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, earlier this month, leaving it with only 60 of 120 MKs. Considering that the fragmented ruling coalition was forged in an effort to oust Benjamin Netanyahu in 2021, a further hit would push the country towards a deadlock as a new majority could hardly form without the help of the former prime minister’s support. Thus, we should expect the ruling coalition to cope with internal turmoil and drag on until the next elections come around.

Since its birth in 1948, the Jewish State has faced many obstacles in managing its diplomatic relationship with neighboring Arab countries. Its never-ending conflict with the Palestinians and its close ties with the U.S. have always stood in the way. This has changed in recent years, although not exactly thanks to Israeli efforts to normalize ties with formerly hostile countries.
As of 2022, Israel has had formal or informal relations with a host of regional powers, according to The Economist. Notably, however, Iran is not among those Israel made peace with, on the contrary. What currently unites Israel and its predominantly Sunni Arab friends is the threat posed by Iranian ambitions to its strategic interests. Iran backs Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi rebels in Yemen as well as militias in Iraq. It is the quintessential mid-sized regional meddler.
An Unreliable Friend

In 2018, the deal signed under Barack Obama’s presidency to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear program was scratched by Donald Trump, who made the case that the agreement was fundamentally flawed. Under the accords — co-signed by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, the European Union, Russia, and China in 2015 — Iran committed to limit sensitive nuclear activities, in exchange the West would lift economic sanctions crippling its economy. Since the deal was ditched, Iran has resumed its efforts to develop nuclear weapons and, as of today, it has accumulated tons of enriched uranium, enough to threaten the regional balance of power and to unite much of the Arab world and Israel against it.

The interests of regional powers are converging against a common enemy. Notably, on March 27, the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco and the U.A.E. met with their Israeli and American counterparts on Israeli soil. They showed how the Palestinian cause has faded into irrelevance as concern over Iran mount up. Whether the U.S. manages to strike a new deal with Iran or not, a host of Arab countries is signaling unity. The enemies of Iran will most likely engage in military cooperation on anti-missile defense systems and intelligence sharing.
Furthermore, these countries are wary of the extent to which they can trust the U.S. as a reliable ally. Washington has finite resources and Biden’s significant COVID relief package and the latest $40 billion aid support to Ukraine, as well as a mounting number of geopolitical conflicts to manage might constrain its ability to preserve the current global order.
Chinese stakes in the Middle East

Early in January 2022, the foreign ministers of a host of Arab states visited their Chinese counterpart. The representatives of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council took part in the first round of talks, which were followed by meetings with Turkey and Iran. Interestingly, foreign ministers rather than finance ministers presided over the meetings, even though China’s interests in the Middle East have so far been predominantly economic.
In 2016, Xi Jinping’s government published “China’s Arab Policy Paper,” where the Communist Party’s vision for deepening Sino-Arab strategic cooperation is outlined. The fields over which cooperative integration will deepen span from commitments to broader political relations to the Belt and Road Initiative and common development strategies. The approach towards Middle Eastern countries stresses the values of sovereign equality and mutually beneficial win-win efforts, in classic Chinese diplomatic fashion.

Since the region is a crucial node for the BRI’s road and sea routes, the hierarchy of Beijing’s interests follows the “1+2+3 cooperation pattern to upgrade pragmatic cooperation by taking energy cooperation as the core, infrastructure construction and trade and investment facilitation as the two wings, and high and new technologies in the fields of nuclear energy, space satellite and new energy as the three breakthroughs.”

Chinese economic interests have become so entangled with the Middle East, that Beijing will no longer be able to use a neutral narrative of mutually beneficial partnership with all Arab countries alike. As Xi will have to choose which vital interests to protect, such as oil imports from the Gulf, he will likely strengthen its military presence in some Arab countries. One can hardly imagine how such a move would be perceived by the U.S., if not as a challenge.

As stated in the “1+2+3” framework, energy imports are at the core of Chinese strategic interests. In 2017, China surpassed the U.S. and became the largest net importer of crude oil, with half of its energy supply coming from the Middle East. Such an outstanding dependency on energy exposes Chinese daily influx of oil barrels to the geopolitics of the region.

Most oil imports need to pass through the Strait of Hormuz, connecting the Persian Gulf with the Indian Ocean, before reaching mainland China. Already in 2019, tension arose when then U.S. President Donald Trump blamed Tehran for two attacks on oil tankers transiting the Strait. Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. are attempting to bypass the strait using pipelines to move oil westward to the Red Sea instead. In response, Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi militias used drones to damage the pipelines.

For China, more than anyone, it is imperative to ensure its source of energy is not used by Iran or its proxies as leverage against its foes. The country actively participates in several anti-piracy and maritime security missions. Since 2017, it established its first overseas naval military base in Djibouti, strategically positioned in front the Strait of Bab El-Mandeb, another choke point for oil routes and is expected to do the same in the Pakistani port of Gwadar. Furthermore, although the United States remains the predominant supplier of weapons, China has increased arms sales to powers such as Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to counter Iran’s ability to project power abroad.
On the brink of catastrophe

In the West, hope to revive the Iran nuclear deal seems to be fading away as Iran seems committed to make it blow up. Tehran has made a last-minute demand asking the United States to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corpsfrom the list of Foreign Terrorist Organisation, thus putting the deal at stake. According to close observers, it is ultimately impossible to predict if a compromise may be reached, but what is certain is that neither side seems inclined to back off. On one hand, Iran is playing with time in order to exert more bargaining power, while on the other Biden may deem such a concession to come with excessive domestic political costs during a midterm-election year.
If Tehran does not reconsider, there is little the West can do other than concede. Commitments to toughen sanctions would most likely prove ineffective, especially as Iranian oil exports have largely benefitted from the spike in energy prices caused by the war in Ukraine. Interestingly, the final say may be in the hands of China, which has allowed Iran to circumvent sanctions by importing its oil at a discounted price ever since Donald Trump left the deal. Xi Jinping not only has an interest in the stability of the region but also has leverage on Tehran, which he could use to revive the talks as they seem to approach an impasse.

As the war in Ukraine is under the spotlight of the international community, the risks of failing to revive the 2015 nuclear deal are going largely unnoticed. Some observers believe that Iran has already accumulated enough 60% enriched Uranium to develop one nuclear weapon. Moreover, in the coming months, it may be able to reach highest-purity uranium production capability, which would allow it to scale up its nuclear arsenal. If the Islamic Republic manages to become a nuclear-armed state, the consequences may be catastrophic not just for the Middle East.

Although many Arab countries and Israel’s fears are arguably more aligned than ever before, it is impossible to predict whether Iran’s enemies will be able to deter it. Tehran’s ability to meddle in regional conflicts will be exacerbated, to say the least. If such a scenario was to materialize in the coming months, the impact would be felt greatly everywhere. To put the magnitude of the impact in figures, it is worth considering that approximately half of the world’s oil supply comes from the Middle East. Disruptions to the outflow of oil exports would be inevitable, given that Iran and its proxy, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, are strategically positioned to disrupt the slow oil barrels going through the Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb Straits.

A severe energy crisis on top of the present one would have massive inflationary effects on firms and households alike. Beyond the humanitarian crisis that would follow, failing to come to terms with Iran would be a fatal hit to the global economy and inevitably trigger a global recession.

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