A turning point is looming in the Middle East: Iran’s nuclear grab and its cooperation with Russia in the war against Ukraine, the new alliances between Israel and its once-hostile neighbors such as the United Arab Emirates, Türkiye’s expansionist policies around that Eastern Mediterranean – these are all important milestones. By far the most important development, however, is the decline of American dominance in the region. Their history is a key to understanding the recent Middle East conflicts.
Contrary to what is often assumed, US hegemony in the Orient is not traditional: it only became established in the second half of the 1980s. Although the US were already present in the Middle East before that, they acted hesitantly at first – partly because the old hegemonic power, Great Britain, was only gradually withdrawing. It was not until 1971 that it released its last possessions in the region into independence: Bahrain, Qatar and what is now the United Arab Emirates.
There are two reasons why Washington then came on the scene: the bloc confrontation with the Soviet Union and the oil wealth in the Persian Gulf.
The focus of US policy was initially on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, because the US company Aramco has been mining the coveted raw material there since the 1940s, primarily needed for the reconstruction of Western Europe. Since a meeting between US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdel Asis ibn Saud in February 1945, the formula “Oil for Security” has applied. However, this did not initially result in a stronger commitment.
That changes as the Soviet Union finds more and more allies in the region. In Egypt, Iraq, Syria and other countries, left-wing nationalist military forces take power and join the Soviet camp. Then, in October 1973, Egypt and Syria caused the most dangerous confrontation of the Cold War in the Middle East: They attacked Israel, which – with massive support from the US – successfully defended itself after an initial shock. The Yom Kippur War ends after a few weeks. It has consequences far beyond the region: the oil embargo imposed by the Gulf States as a result of the war triggers a severe recession in western industrialized countries.
In order to confront Moscow and its vassals, Washington has been looking for militarily strong allies in the region since the 1960s. Above all, the Iranian Shah Reza Pahlevi offered himself. With American help, Iran is becoming the supreme power in the Gulf. The horror in the US was correspondingly great when revolutionaries led by Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah in 1979 and proclaimed the Islamic Republic.
The US government’s main concern now is that the Soviet Union – which invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 – could use the situation to advance into the Persian Gulf. “The attempt by any foreign power to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be viewed as an attack on the vital interests of the United States and will be repulsed by any means necessary, including military force,” says US President Jimmy Carter in January 1980. Initially, this threat was aimed primarily at Moscow, but it quickly became apparent that the greatest threat came from Tehran.
The Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988 was the reason for the first US intervention. When the Iranians began to attack oil tankers in the Gulf, Kuwait asked for help. During the “tanker war” of 1987/88, US warships escorted Kuwaiti and Saudi oil transporters, and fighting broke out between the American and Iranian navies on several occasions. This undeclared war at sea contributed to Khomeini agreeing to an armistice in 1988.
Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is not satisfied with the bloody draw. He wants to gain supremacy in the Persian Gulf, taking control of the most important oil deposits and eventually destroy Israel. In August 1990 he had his soldiers march into oil-rich Kuwait.
The United States and the Saudi Arabian leadership rightly fear that Hussein wants to advance to the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, where the world’s largest oil reserves were stored at the time. Had he succeeded, he would have controlled about a quarter of global oil production. Therefore, shortly after the invasion, Washington deployed troops to protect Saudi Arabia and liberate Kuwait.
However, the reconquest of the emirate is only possible because the Soviet Union no longer acts as a protective power for its former client Iraq. Moscow even renounced a veto in the Security Council. This is how the USA succeeds in forging a broad international coalition.
After the defeat of the Iraqi army in March 1991, the United States greatly expanded its presence in the Middle East, albeit at one point refrain from overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Until 1990 they were mainly limited to Bahrain, where the US Navy has had a naval base for several decades. Now the U.S. Air Force also has around one hundred fighter jets stationed in Saudi Arabia in no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq.
At the same time, the US is attempting to isolate Iran in a “double containment” strategy. Washington contains both countries through international diplomacy, weakens them through sanctions and arms neighboring states.
With this, the Americans soon attracted the hatred of a new enemy: Islamist terrorists. Saudi Arabians like al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden want to drive US troops out of the region, join forces with older groups from Egypt and start a terror campaign that culminates in the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The US response dramatically changed the Middle East: first attacking Afghanistan, where bin Laden and his followers are under Taliban protection, then, in 2003, invading Iraq on the grounds that the Iraqi leadership supported al Qaeda and run programs to manufacture weapons of mass destruction. Both turn out to be untrue.
The reason for the invasion may have been different anyway: Leading American neoconservatives wanted to overthrow Saddam Hussein back in 1991 – and they believe that Islamist terrorism has its roots in the region’s autocratic regimes. Countries like Egypt or Saudi Arabia suppressed their opposition so brutally that they rebelled against their governments and their allies, the US. That is why it is important to establish a liberal democracy in Iraq that will radiate like a beacon across the entire region.
It turns out differently. Because the Americans are winning the war in Iraq, but not the peace. At the end of April they completely occupied the country with the support of British troops. Then what is perhaps the greatest fiasco in American world politics takes its course.
The idea of democratizing the country from outside quickly turns out to be unrealistic. A uprising by Sunni groups against the occupying forces even led to a civil war in 2006/07, which brought the powerful US troops to the brink of defeat. It wasn’t until 2008 that they regained the upper hand – among other things through a massive increase in their strength. To this end, the US is withdrawing soldiers and secret service employees from Afghanistan, where a Taliban uprising broke out in 2005.
The biggest winner of the war is Iran: The country is expanding its influence in Iraq through allied Shiite politicians, parties and militias. Soon it will no longer be possible to make important decisions in Baghdad against Tehran’s will. Encouraged by this, Khomeini’s successors around supreme leader Ali Khamenei are doing everything they can to drive the US out of the Middle East: an Iranian hegemony is to take the place of the American hegemony.
The summer war in Lebanon between Hezbollah, which was actively supported by Tehran, and Israel in 2006 shows how quickly Iran is gaining strength: The Israeli military does not succeed in decisively defeating the Shiite organization, which has been shelling northern Israel with rockets for weeks.
In the United States, meanwhile, weariness is growing at the costly and costly foreign operations. This is one reason for the election victory of Democrat Barack Obama in November 2008, who spoke early on of a “stupid war” in Iraq. He thinks the US should scale back its involvement in the Middle East and instead switch to Asia. Obama sees the great challenge of American world politics in the 21st century in the rise of China and the growing importance of the Pacific region. The new president therefore initiates the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq early on. It is completed in December 2011 – a year after the start of the Arab Spring, which has once again captured the attention of the US government.
The U.S. is concerned about the uprisings and civil wars in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, mainly because they endanger the successes of the international fight against terrorism. The once mighty al-Qaeda has been significantly weakened since US special forces killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011 and the top leadership was decimated by the drone war promoted by Obama. The Islamic State (IS) is now using the weakness of the Syrian and Iraqi states for this purpose.
The new terrorist militia was recruited from among others old cadres of the Saddam regime, so it is also a consequence of the US invasion of Iraq. When the holy warriors occupied large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014, the USA sent troops again. In 2015, they deployed troops to more Middle Eastern countries than ever before.
Still, the will to withdraw cannot be overlooked, and the impression is growing among allies in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Cairo and elsewhere that the US wants to get rid of them. The potentates in the Gulf were particularly shocked at the beginning of 2011 when Obama took note of the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak without any regrets. The fact that the US President in August 2013, after the Syrian dictator Assad had a suburb of Damascus attacked with chemical weapons, canceled a military strike that had been announced for this event, also causes irritation.
Obama’s Iran policy is destroying even more trust. In 2015, Iran agreed to limit its uranium enrichment and tighten controls on its nuclear program. In the West, the deal is hailed as a US policy success – but met with outright opposition from Washington’s Middle East allies, including Israel. Gulf rulers fear the US might seek a compromise with Iran, sacrificing them in the process. And they criticize that neither Iran’s missile program nor Tehran’s support for militant groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen are part of the agreement.
Donald Trump is in many ways the antipode of Barack Obama. When he moved into the White House in January 2017, however, it became apparent that his government was also looking at China instead of the Middle East. In 2018, to the applause of Jerusalem, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Trump canceled the nuclear agreement with Iran and relied on a policy of “maximum pressure”. But he is not ready for a military engagement: When Iranian drones and cruise missiles hit the oil facilities of Churais and Abkaik in eastern Saudi Arabia on September 14, 2019 – reducing the country’s oil production by about half for two weeks – he remains an American retaliatory strike. The old formula “oil for safety” is history.
Trump’s successor Joe Biden is continuing on this course: the disastrous withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in August 2021 is an unmistakable indication of the global political reorientation of the USA. Biden wants to free up resources for the upcoming major conflict with China. American priorities have shifted East.
The big beneficiary is once again Iran. He is now on the verge of becoming a nuclear power. Faced with this threat, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been searching for a new ally against their nemesis for the past few years. They found him in Israel. The Emirates and Bahrain even signed peace treaties with the Jewish state in 2020, named after their common progenitor Abraham; Saudi Arabia expanded military and intelligence cooperation with the former enemy – a new Middle East alliance to counter Iran’s supremacy bid to end US hegemony.
The next war in the Middle East is in sight: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that Israel will use military strikes to prevent Iran from being armed with nuclear weapons. What role the USA will play in this remains unclear for the time being. But the next twist in the story of US presence in the Middle East may be looming. Last month, on March 10, 2023, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to resume diplomatic ties, which were severed in 2016. The mediator between the rivals is China, demonstrating its claim to a say in the region.
It would be in line with the logic of the conflict between two great powers that the United States should again concern itself more with the Middle East in the future – solely to limit Beijing’s influence. If the Americans continue with their retreat, it will be tantamount to a severe defeat in the decisive great power conflict of the 21st century.
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