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Are the Mideast Tectonic Plates Really Shifting?

Nothing dramatic is happening in the Middle East, but if you follow the geopolitics, you might suspect that the region is at an inflection point. Assuming you might have missed a few stories, the following is an unfiltered account of the developments and quasi-developments of recent weeks.

First you were busy reading alarming reports that the United States and Israel were concerned that Iran was closer than ever to a military nuclear capability, with enough fissile material – uranium enriched to 90 percent – for weapons-grade status within weeks. Then, in a connected story, you learned that American trial balloons were mulling a renewed effort at a partial – a “less for less”– nuclear deal with Iran, causing tantrums in Israel.

You already knew that Saudi Arabia’s China-mediated rapprochement with Iran was proceeding, and you were further informed about improved relations between the United Arab Emirates and Iran, between Iran and Turkey and between Iran and Egypt. The evergreen issue of an upgrade to the Saudi-Israeli relationship or even a normalization was again floated, but it wasn't attached to an Israeli-Palestinian political process (which no one thinks is viable under Israel's current politics). It was attached to a shopping list of Saudi requests ranging from major U.S. arms sales and security guarantees to a civilian nuclear reactor, which Riyadh hints it can buy from Russia anyway.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia Tuesday through Thursday to discuss “strategic cooperation.” The UAE is ostensibly distancing itself from the United States, while Israel's prime minister is persistently unwelcome in Washington or the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, at this point.

To top it all, an incredulous story came out of Tehran Sunday. The commander of Iran’s navy, Rear Admiral Shahram Irani, told Iranian television that his country was forming a naval alliance that would include Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain as well as India and Pakistan, no less. This wasn't a one-time naval exercise but an “alliance.”

No further details on the “alliance” or any exercises were given. Aside from the complex myriad of interests, often conflicting, that all these countries have between them and the United States, the statement's timing and roster were interesting. The timing coincided with the UAE's announcement Wednesday that it was no longer taking part in operations by the Combined Maritime Forces.

The CMF – which includes the United States – is a Bahrain-based agile counterterrorism and counter-piracy force. Remember that the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet is also headquartered in Bahrain. The 5th Fleet, part of U.S. Central Command, is responsible for the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean.

As for the new alliance announced in Tehran, the Iranian navy commander didn't confine it to the Gulf but remarkably noted: “Almost all the countries of the North Indian Ocean region have come to the understanding that they should stand by the Islamic Republic of Iran and jointly establish security with significant synergy.”

It's tempting to connect all these dots and frame this fusillade of statements, actions and policy orientations as a nascent restructuring of the region’s security and diplomatic architecture, signaling a post-American Middle East. Some observers even ascribe these developments to a defiant “global south” that will no longer accept unchallenged U.S. hegemony and Washington's position as the supreme arbiter.

That’s too convenient and arguably a premature analysis. Many actors’ interests aren't aligned; in many cases they contradict. What's clear, though, is that the region is undergoing some form of transformation that has gotten Washington’s grudging attention. There are six major actors in this intricate process: the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel and China. There’s also an outer circle consisting of Bahrain, Qatar, Russia and Turkey; they deserve separate attention.

Iran. Tehran managed to break its isolation in the last two years thanks to China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. The Iranian nuclear deal, however imperfect, ensured that Iran was under a stringent inspection regime that curtailed its nuclear program.

In the worst-case scenario, if Iran decided to break out from “threshold state” status and build a nuclear bomb, it would needed at least 12 to 18 months. After Donald Trump’s reckless decision in May 2018 to withdraw from the nuclear agreement without a Plan B, Iran is now presumably weeks from accumulating enough enriched uranium and about a year or two from assembling a nuclear warhead.

Diplomatically, the Ukraine war and a zero-sum-game-perception of relations with the United States impelled China to get involved in the region. Within a year it signed a “strategic partnership” with Iran and mediated an Iranian-Saudi thaw in relations. The potential consequences of moving forward with the nuclear program restrain Iran, but expanded relations with Russia and the Gulf let it continue its subversive actions in the region almost uninterrupted.

The rapprochement with the Saudis – an Iranian Embassy is opening Tuesday – allows Iran to assume that there is no longer a Sunni coalition against it. Iran is still very much ostracized in the West, but its pariah-state status in the region has been mitigated considerably by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as by China.

Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Salman remains a pariah in Washington ever since the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. When the crown prince humiliated Joe Biden by refusing to increase oil production (and this week pledged to cut production again) many, myself included, thought that the already uneasy U.S.-Saudi alliance that has existed since 1945 would be scaled down. Washington would revisit relations with a patently untrustworthy and ungrateful ally.

I was wrong. The United States bit its lip and accepted that when you disengage from the Middle East, powers in the region will recalibrate their policy. Furthermore, the Americans acknowledged that Crown Prince Mohammed was crafting a semi-independent foreign policy and can be engaged rather than alienated. Ahead of Blinken’s visit to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, the United States declared that “we’re focused on the future” and that the Saudi relationship is “an important strategic partnership for the United States.”

The UAE. Despite the announcement that is was no longer taking part in operations by the Combined Maritime Forces, the UAE remains a member of the 38-nation group. The immediate trigger was the Americans' non-response to Iran’s seizure of two oil tankers in April and May.

The fact is, Emirati frustrations with Washington's gradual disengagement from the region go back to 2011 in Egypt and Syria, where the Americans took no action. And in 2022, the United States didn't engage Yemen's Houthi rebels after they hit Abu Dhabi. American demands that Chinese infrastructure investments be revisited led to a suspension of a major F-35 deal that was agreed in 2020.

In the past year the United States has tried to placate the UAE; President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Blinken all met with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed, but Emirati concerns about America's security guarantees linger. The UAE, like Saudi Arabia, is expanding relations with the global south – India, Brazil and South Africa – but realizes that none of these countries nor China can effectively replace the United States, supporting the notion that more than a tectonic shift, all this is a negotiating process.

In the last decade the United States has reprioritized its foreign policy and transitioned gradually but clearly away from the Middle East toward the Indo-Pacific and China. But the United States is by no means “out of the Middle East.” The recent developments reflect uncertainty and a degree of confusion for a region accustomed to U.S. dominance, even if the Americans aren't omnipresent.

Yet the Biden administration’s emphasis on alliances and coalitions may require the United States to try to temporarily restore a presence in the region. China may be able to replace America, but the Americans don't want to see a tumultuous region looking toward Beijing.

Alon Pinkas