Globe: The Next Great Struggle

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Since the Cold War and after, many have forgotten the power conflicts that has defined modern world history up until the world was divided into two power spheres. When the Cold War ended, optimists believed that the age of geopolitical struggle has come to an end (the so-called “end of history.”) They were wrong.

Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, power divisions began to reemerge as the United States began to question its role in the world. One of the most dangerous and volatile emerging geopolitical struggles is in the Middle East.

Beyond the images of asymmetric conflict that dominates the American imagination underlies a traditional power conflict that the region has not seen in decades.  

Here is the context: The United States, the primary power broker of the Middle East has a fluctuating presence in the Middle East since the inauguration of Barack Obama. Though recently, the US has been more active in the region, America has still nonetheless has had a decreasing role in the Middle East. Call it what you want – “nation building at home,” the “pivot towards Asia,” or “America First,” it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that a coherent strategy of an American presence in the region is virtually nonexistent, and the nations of that region are compensating for that power vacuum – and that vacuum is bringing two geopolitical factions closer to conflict.

On one side we have Iran, the Shia revolutionary state, and on the other, the Sunni quasi alliance of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, the UAE, Kuwait, and, at least informally and covertly, the lone Jewish state of Israel. On the sidelines sits Russia, whom like their Soviet and imperial predecessors, involve themselves with Iran only when they deem it necessary. It is like the Cold War, but different – beyond the challenge of geopolitics and nuclear weapons comes the theological divisions between Shia Islam and Sunni Islam that has divided the Islamic faith for centuries.

Dedicated readers of this column or observers of the world affairs will know that Iran has been a constant usurper of the power dynamics of the region. Iran has dedicated itself towards the goal of regional hegemony in the Middle East at any means possible. Through their terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah, Iran has financed conflict against Israel and opposing Sunni states. Now, along with the Russian Federation, Iran is supporting the Assad regime in Syria as they obliterate those who oppose the regime.

Opposing Iran is the Sunni Arab states, primarily Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Egypt, and to an extent Israel. (Despite historic tensions between Israel and the Arab states, allying with the Jewish state would prove unpopular with the citizens and subject of the Arab states. Thus, the cooperation with Israel must be covert.)

The battleground for the proxy conflict between Iran and the Sunni allies and Israel is wherever chaos reigns in the Middle East – which, for that region, there is an abundance of.

Iraq and Yemen are the primary frontlines of the conflict. Iranian influence has been felt in Lebanon via Hezbollah, but that has become a secondary stage. One could also point to Syria as a battleground in the geopolitical struggle, but Iran and Russia have a major hold on power in that country. That leaves Iraq and Yemen.

Though seldom receiving attention from American media outlets, the Yemeni civil war, which has been raging since the Arab Spring of 2011, has been a major source of contention for Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran has been supportive of the Houthis, Shia rebel group opposed to the Yemeni government. Armed with Iranian-supplied weapons, the Houthis have launched attacks against the US Navy, other Yemeni factions, and Saudi Arabia – which resulted in a Saudi military retaliation. Starting in 2015, Saudi Arabia lead a collation in a reckless intervention in Yemeni to roll back Iran’s influence on the Arabian Peninsula.

Iraq is also a major battleground. Iraq used to be in a unique position in which it was an enemy of the Arab monarchies and Iran. But with the fall of the Baathist regime, and the American pull out a little less than a decade later, the chaos provided by ISIS led to a power vacuum.

 Iran has been more than willing to feel the vacuum. The scourge of ISIS was not as intensely attacked by the Arab monarchies due to ISIS also being a threat to Iran – so defeating the terrorist organization was left to the US, which by reentering the region, serves as a counter to Iranian influence in the region.

The tensions between Iran and the Arab allies have only been growing more volatile. A recent missile attack against Saudi Arabia by Houthis have led to the Kingdom alluded that further actions will be considered an act of war by Iran on Saudi Arabia. the biggest fear is the threat that nuclear weapons might play in the future of the Middle East. Iran has made their nuclear ambitions clear.

The Arab allies, unsatisfied and unsupportive of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran Deal), have increasingly taken action in their own hands against Iran – as the deadly intervention in Yemen in Iran has proved.

With the Arab monarchies perceiving themselves to fight Iranian influence with much support from the United States, the threat if the Arab monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Jordan, obtaining nuclear weapons is increasingly likely. This would lead to a situation in which the most volatile region of the world will be under the shadow of nuclear weapons.

It would be a situation in which most dangerous weapons in the world will be present in a region notorious for governments falling to rebel and extremist factions.