In January 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a Middle East tour with the goal of forming an alliance that could contain Iran in the region. He vowed to “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria and decrease Iran’s role in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. For observers of the moves of the US government in the last two years, the message of Pompeo’s visit was not surprising. If there is one policy that the US government has set in the Middle East in the last couple of years, it is the pursuance of a regional coalition that could roll back Iranian influence. In the past year, the US increased its effort to bring Egypt, Jordan, and six Gulf Arab states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman) together to build an anti-Iran alliance in the Middle East. The US also mediated between the Arab states and Israel to better coordinate the anti-Iranian policies in the region. Is an anti-Iran coalition, which is sometimes called “the Arab NATO,” viable and can it contain Iran? Simply put, such a coalition is hardly viable, it cannot necessarily prevent the spread of Iranian influence, and it creates more problems than it solves.
First, there are several disagreements among the countries that the US aims to put together in an anti-Iran alliance. For example, Egypt’s presence in the coalition is tactical and conjectural but not based on a broad strategic move against Iran. Egypt joins the coalition talks because Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the main pillars of the anti-Iran pact, financially support the Abdulfattah al-Sisi regime and consider the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization as Egypt does. Similarly, Oman and Qatar, and to a certain extent Kuwait, do not have strong anti-Iranian inclinations and have been in dialogue with Iran. Indeed, not long time ago -Summer 2017- Egypt, Jordan, and several Gulf monarchies blockaded Qatar for its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its warm relations with Tehran.
Undermining Regional Rivalries
Second, the very logic of balancing requires the emergence of new alliances to restrain the anti-Iran coalition. As a famous scholar of international politics, Stephen Walt argued, states balance against the perceived threats to their survival and interests. Since the US, as an external power, leads the anti-Iran coalition in the region, Iran and other countries that perceive threats by the new power configuration will tend to restrain the coalition’s influence. Such a tendency will probably make other countries outside the alliance undermine their differences and rivalry with Iran.
Russia and Turkey, for example, will not be pleased with an anti-Iran coalition. Although Russia and Turkey have substantial differences with Iran, the new anti-Iran coalition may make those differences disappear and lead to more cooperation among these states. Russia, which has significantly advanced its position in the region since 2014, will not be pleased with increasing American influence through the new coalition and will probably align with Iran to restrain the US. Turkish leaders have strong ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. Turkey will likely perceive the anti-Islamism stance of the Gulf monarchies and Egypt as a threat and overlook its differences with Iran. While Iran is limited by the regional differences and rivalries today, a new anti-Iranian alliance can weaken the impact of regional balancers against Iran.
Deepening of Existing Conflicts
Third, the balancing acts of Russia, Turkey, and Iran vis-a-vis the anti-Iran alliance will probably lead the deepening of the existing conflicts in the Middle East and facilitate further political instability. In the civil war in Syria, Iran has played a significant role through its financial and military support to the Asad regime. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia accused Iran of providing military assistance to Houthis, which Iran denies. Further, Iran also has a considerable political and economic influence on Iraq and Lebanon. By provoking further tension, the new anti-Iran coalition can increase the involvement of Iran and its potential future allies in these crises.
The new coalition can also boost the Shi’a-Sunni divide in the region, which gained a strong momentum after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and revamped further after the Arab uprisings of 2011. In the new coalition, the US is working with Sunni countries against Iran. Iran has Shi’a supporters across the region such as Lebanese Hezbollah and communities in Bahrain, Iraq, and Yemen. In mobilizing the support for their cause, both Iran and its adversaries can capitalize on existing sectarian differences and escalate the conflicts in the region.
Decreasing Regime Stability
The US meddling in the formation of a new anti-Iran coalition can create issues of legitimacy for the rulers of the regional countries. The alliances led by the Western powers have always formed suspicion among the people in the region. For example, in the 1950s, the US and the United Kingdom led the formation of the Baghdad Pact among their regional allies such as Turkey, Iraq, and Iran to balance Soviet Russia. Many in the Middle East considered the initiative as “imperial,” and the pact did not create any tangible outcome in balancing the Soviets.
The countries comprising of a potential anti-Iran alliance are all ruled by authoritarian leaders. They do not enjoy widespread popular legitimacy. Their association with an external power can deepen the legitimacy crises and increase dissent against them. Also, the US partnership with autocrats can undermine Washington’s global image and foster anti-Americanism across the region.
The US efforts to coordinate between Israel and other anti-Iran powers can bolster the legitimacy issues further. In the past, the US compartmentalized its relationship with Israel and the Gulf monarchies. In the recent anti-Iranian coalition, though, the US tried to build contacts between Israel and other anti-Iran countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. The close relationship with Israel under the US guardianship can create a domestic dissent against the monarchs and decrease their public legitimacy.
Generating an Islamist Backlash
Last but not least, a potential anti-Iran coalition in the region can unintentionally create an Islamist backlash across the region. The countries comprising of the anti-Iran coalition are concerned with the rise of Islamism in the Middle East and took a strong stance against the Muslim Brotherhood recently. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and repressed its members. Thus, the anti-Iran coalition is also an anti-Islamist coalition.
Because of their sectarian differences with Iran, the Islamists affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood would probably be concerned about the rise of Iran in the region. However, they will perceive the strong anti-Islamism inclinations of the members of the anti-Iran coalition a greater threat. This coalition and its close connections to the US and Israel can provoke the rise of Islamist activism in the region. The US role in the alliance can make the anti-Western stance of the Islamists even more pronounced in the future.
All in all, a potential anti-Iran coalition in the Middle East, engineered by the US, does not create the intended impact of undermining Iranian influence in the region. Even if the internal disagreements among the potential members of such an alliance is resolved, such a coalition can undermine already existing regional rivalries that balance Iran, deepen sectarianism and existing conflicts in places such as Syria and Yemen, create new threats to regime stability, and generate an Islamist backlash with a strong anti-Americanism in the Middle East.
The historical record shows that the initiatives that increase tension and deepen crises cannot guarantee US influence in the Middle East. External interventions are more likely to lead to despotism and political instability. In contrast, diplomatic initiatives and engagement with regional actors in the region facilitate long-term stability in the Middle East.
Ramazan Kılınç is an associate professor of political science and director of Islamic Studies Program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. @KilincRamazan
Photo and Credit: U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on January 14, 2019. [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/Public Domain]