Changing balance of power

No region has witnessed more disorder in recent decades than West Asia. A changing balance of power, shifting alignments and a flux in national interests suggest a period of instability and competition that might last for years.

Iran and Saudi Arabia remain critical players in the search for a new regional order. Iran, as many opine, has been a strategic beneficiary of the Anglo-American intervention in Iraq and its subsequent mismanagement. Although Iran was probably next in line for an imperial lesson, the Iraq fiasco, held the hand of Western hardliners. The strategy then shifted towards a partial accommodation of Iran but it is more sophisticated than just a diplomatic game.

At one level, Washington has sought to blunt Iran’s geopolitical influence by tacitly encouraging its Sunni allies including Turkey to project proxy forces into Iraq and Syria, two areas where Iranian influence has increased in recent years. At another level, Washington has been seeking to shape the domestic balance in Iran, hoping that moderate pro-western groups can increase their legitimacy and political strength relative to the dominant hardliners and Revolutionary Guards.

The US policy is premised on raising the costs of an ambitious Iranian role beyond its western frontiers and simultaneously holding the carrot of greater access to the global economy via a nuclear deal. Assad’s collapse in Syria would have reverberated loudly in Iranian politics with a loss of face for the hardliners. This is what makes the timing of Russia’s intervention in Syria last summer more interesting.

In July 2015, just days after the announcement of the Iran nuclear deal, General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds force within the Revolutionary Guards, had travelled to Moscow to coordinate operational issues around a Russian military role to salvage the Assad regime. In November, in a historic move, Putin met the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, which the Iranians described as “unprecedented in the history of both countries”.

Iran’s centrality to West Asian security has impelled both Washington and Mo-scow to design their geostrategies with each great power seeking to bolster their preferred domestic allies within Iran.

Syria, Iraq and Yemen are different fronts for a common struggle for influence between the Sunni monarchies led by Saudi Arabia and Iran. A few days ago, this proxy contest threatened to escalate into a direct confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran after Riyadh’s provocative decision to execute a prominent Shi’ite cleric along with a number of Sunni extremists.

Many opine that Saudi Arabia’s domestic situation and the rising vulnerability of the regime, a year after the dem-ise of King Abdullah, explains this recent provocation. Iran’s media has also interpreted Riyadh’s “stirring up regional tensions” as “a bid to divert attention from a convoluted power restructuring which is currently underway in the kingdom.” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman stated, “The Saudi regime is currently facing a crisis of identity, legitimacy and efficiency”. But Tehran hasn’t taken the bait and has not broken off ties with Riyadh.

With its proxies losing ground in Syria and a bleak oil market, Riyadh’s geopolitical and economic misfortunes have intersected to present a structural challenge to Saudi Arabia’s regional role and its internal stability. A fumbling and costly $1 billion per month military intervention in Yemen where Riyadh has teamed up with an extremist branch of al-Qaeda to beat back a Houthi rebellion has further exposed the Kingdom’s prestige, tainting its image as a capable regional power.

Iran, in contrast, possesses a much more durable governance system. Robu-st sanctions cost Iran nearly $200 billion in lost oil revenues or frozen funds, and yet, were unable to make any real dent in the regime’s basic stability. Now, as a strategic beneficiary of Russia’s regional presence, Iran looks a more capable player with more room to manoeuvre.

A deeper fear for Riyadh must be the prospect of Iran enjoying the benefit of a less hostile equation with the West while retaining much of its regional heft. To be sure, America’s strategic commitment to Saudi Arabia remains undiminished as reflected in large arms sales in 2015, and, in the fact that the Yemeni war could not have been waged without US strategic and logistical support.

Pakistan has also come out in support of Riyadh with both Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief Raheel Sharif standing by Saudi Arabia in a visit by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman.

Pakistan’s role

According to General Sharif, “any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan.” For the US, Pakistani boots are a valuable insurance policy. Clearly, although the US is well positioned to mobilise a response to conventional threats, its capacity to resuscitate and salvage the kingdom from ethnic cleavages or the vagaries of the oil market or from sheer incompetence is very limited.

The declining fate of the Syrian insurgency after Russia and Iran’s coordinated division of labour in Syria suggests a changing balance of power. This has created winners and losers and has shattered the ambitions of some such as Turkey. An optimist might forecast a US-Russia détente under a new American presidency later this year having a calming effect on West Asia’s geopolitics.

But the dominant view in the US security establishment still perceives West Asia as a great game with Russia’s new role and Iran’s undiminished capacity to project power across the region as a structural challenge to the US and its allies. Beyond avoiding a direct collision, both Washington and Moscow are likely to maintain their competitive regional postures which might intersect from time to time.

Iran as a swing power can alter the regional balance and might very well emerge as the fulcrum that shapes West Asia’s future. Let’s keep an eye on the February parliamentary election in Iran and the November election in the US.

(The writer is research scholar at King’s College London)
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