The Middle East in Long-Term Flux
There are days when disparate events in multiple countries offer key insights into the trajectory of the wider region. Tuesday was one of them. A number of significant developments took place in the Middle East a region that in the past four months has become far more turbulent than it has been in the last decade. Let us start with Egypt, where the provisional military authority appears to be considering a radical foreign policy move in re-establishing ties with Iran. It is too early to say whether such a rapprochement will materialize, but the country's interim premier, Essam Sharaf, who is on a tour of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), sought to reassure his Persian Gulf Arab hosts that revived Egyptian-Iranian ties would not undermine their security. Having successfully dealt with popular unrest at home, the military of Egypt appears to be on a path to re-assert Cairo onto the regional scene and revitalizing relations with an emergent Iran is likely a key aspect of this strategy.
Egypt, being far removed from the Persian Gulf region, does not have the same concerns about Iran that its fellow Sunni Arab states on the Arabian Peninsula do. It can therefore afford to have ties with the clerical regime. The Egyptians are also watching how the GCC states are unable to effectively deal with a rising Tehran and are thus seeing the need to become involved in the issue. However, unlike the Khaleeji Arabs, they do not think confrontation is the way forward. Establishing ties with Iran also allows Egypt to undercut Syria, which thus far is the only Arab state to have close relations with the Persian Islamist state.
Meanwhile, Syria faces growing public agitation and its future looks uncertain. Damascus is caught in a dilemma - its use of force to quell the popular demonstrations has only aggravated matters. Placating the masses through reforms is also risky for the future well-being of the regime. Faced with bad options, it has largely focused on using force to try and neutralize the opposition - a move that has its northern neighbor, Turkey, concerned about turmoil on its southern borders (and could easily spread to Lebanon). This is why on Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he will send a delegation to the Syrian capital to try and help defuse the situation.
Growing instability in Syria, however, is beginning to be an issue for the Turks. In Iraq, the Turks have long been caught in the middle of an intensifying U.S.-Iranian struggle. And on Tuesday, that struggle took an interesting turn with reports that the Iraqi prime minister is considering ways in which his government could allow American troops to remain in his country while not upsetting his patrons in Iran. It will be difficult to strike such a compromise given that Iran is anxiously waiting for the withdrawal of American forces from its western neighbor so it can move to consolidate its influence there unencumbered.
Iran wants to dispense with the unfinished business of Iraq, allowing it to focus on the other side of the Persian Gulf, where turmoil in places like Bahrain offers potential opportunities of historic proportions. While its arch regional nemesis, Saudi Arabia, seems to have things under control in the Shiite majority Arab island kingdom for now, the situation there is not tenable given that the demographics work in favor of Iran. That said, a more immediate concern for the Saudis in relation to the Arabian Peninsula is the serious potential for a meltdown of the Yemeni state.
Riyadh and its GCC allies have been working overtime trying to broker a deal in Yemen whereby beleaguered President Ali Abdullah Saleh can step down and hand over power to a transitional coalition government. On Tuesday, it was announced that the deal is supposed to be signed next Monday in the Saudi capital. Given the complex fault lines separating the various players in the largely tribal country, the chances of Yemen undergoing an orderly transfer of power remain low. In fact, because of the complexity and number of actors involved in the process, the likelihood of civil war remains high.
Ultimately, the prospects of turmoil on the Arabian Peninsula and Levant remain high. Egypt, Turkey and Iran to varying degrees could benefit in the long term. In the short term, we are looking at a slow but steady spread of instability throughout the region, rendering it precarious for years to come.