Many are concerned about the spread of regional tensions; tensions involving forces known as the ‘Axis of Resistance’ – the Islamic Republic and its Quds Force, the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun, and Iran-backed militias in Syria, the Bashar al-Assad government, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Ansar Allah in Yemen, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad – pitted against Israel and its Western allies, especially the United States. In the meantime, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, China, and Russia are also pursuing their own strategic interests.
What is the endgame for these regional and global powers in the Middle East? Zamaneh posed this question to Laleh Khalili, a researcher in international relations and professor of Gulf States studies at the University of Exeter in Britain.
In light of the Houthis’ statement condemning what they called the “criminal bombings” of the public commemoration of Soleimani’s death, what is the U.S.’s endgame with respect to Israel-Palestine and the Houthis’ activity in the Red Sea?
LK – The US establishment consider Israel its most significant asset in the region, an extension -economically, politically and culturally- of itself, and have treated Israel like their gendarme in the region since the 1960s. In this regards, they will do anything at all to ensure Israel is not isolated or politically defeated. Their activities are addressed towards this aim.
One thing I would say is that this is not really an endgame, but simply a step in the process of transnational contention that has defined US domination in the Middle East.
What, in your view, is the endgame of the US and the EU with respect to both the broader “axis of resistance” and in the region as a whole?
LK – I am not entirely certain that a lot of strategic thought has gone into how to encounter countries that the US or EU consider enemies, as a matter of course, habit and definition of national interest. For example, for Germany, a steady supply of natural gas is perhaps the single most important political and economic consideration in its deal with the region. The UK is basically a satrapi of the US and will do whatever the US wants. Both countries pay obeisance to their arms manufacturers who have their best clients in the region. These are often contradictory interests, but tend to converge and congeal once the old habits of colonial foreign policy take over.
What would you say is the endgame of other, counter-hegemonic, actors whether international (i.e. China) or regional (i.e. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran)?
LK – China’s interests in the Middle East are largely economic and commercial, and although Chinese diplomats occasionally play mediating roles in the region, they basically maintain an arm’s length from the nitty-gritty of politics in the region. China does have an interest in maintaining the navigability of trade routes, but not at the expense of their general neutrality in the region. As for the other states named, they all have different positions based on their perceived interests. Saudi would like to sell oil at high prices; Iran would like to maintain its position vis-à-vis its regional clients without being attacked, especially given that at home the legitimacy of the regime has been deeply questioned. The UAE, or better still, Abu Dhabi, is seeking a degree of regional hegemony, necessary for the maintenance of the power of the various emirates therein, as well as the levels of prosperity they have become accustomed to.
Is there an irresolvable tension with the US’ overall, regional, strategy given that the US’ Operation Prosperity Guardian has seemingly done nothing to prevent it from inching ever closer to simply becoming one among many state-actors who are actively pursuing their strategic interests throughout the region?
LK – Well, the US is the world’s policeman and the guardian of its own hegemony everywhere. So I am not sure I understand the question.
How will the recent addition of Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to the BRICS bloc affect the current arrangement of forces throughout the Gulf region?
LK – I genuinely don’t think it makes a bit of difference. There are far too many conflicting interests with the BRICS bloc to have any kind of long-lasting effect one way or the other.
Do you think that a regional war between Gulf state-actors is more of a substantive possibility now than, say, a month ago? Can you foresee a scenario wherein Israel’s allies either choose to, or are forced to, enter the ongoing regional conflict?
LK – I think given the unpopularity of Israel among the Arab peoples which matches the unpopularity of the regimes in the Arab world, Israel’s Arab allies would be very hesitant to support Israel in any sort of overt way. Covert support is something different though. I imagine Egypt is providing intelligence to Israel; Jordan continues to buy gas from Israel and maintain commercial contacts; and with the UAE, it is business as usual.
With the Saudi Arabia and Yemen peace deal has been decidedly taken off the table ever since the Houthis entrance into the conflict, do you foresee a possible scenario of de-escalation?
LK – the Saudi Arabia-Yemen ceasefire has held, in part because I think after some very destructive years, the powers-to-be in Saudi realized that their war on Yemen was going nowhere. That is also partially why Saudi has actually vocally opposed a more direct attack on Yemen.
The US recently “confirmed” that ISIS was responsible for the bombing in Kerman, Iran. How will the reappearance of ISIS affect the current arrangement of forces throughout the region?
LK – I am not sure why we are expected to believe that ISIS did the bombing in Kerman. Much more interesting is that both Iran and the US seem not to want to escalate the bombing into something more significant by attributing it to the US.
Laleh Khalili is a professor of Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter.