Geopolitics of the New Middle East


On June 6, the Center for the National Interest hosted a lunch panel following the publication of its latest study, titled American Policy and Changing Alignments in the Middle East. Speakers included Geoffrey Kemp, Senior Director of Regional Security Programs at the Center for the National Interest and a former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of Near East and South Asian Affairs in the Reagan administration; Ambassador Lincoln P. Bloomfield, Jr., Chairman Emeritus and a Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center as well as a former Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs at the U.S. Department of State; and Paul Saunders, Executive Director at the Center for the National Interest and a former State Department Senior Advisor in the George W. Bush administration. Dimitri K. Simes, President and CEO of the Center for the National Interest, moderated. A summary of the event can be found below.


Much like the rest of the world, the Middle East has become more multipolar since the end of the Cold War, asserted Geoffrey Kemp, Senior Director of Regional Security at the Center for the National Interest. This shift has made it far more difficult for the United States to navigate the region than in previous decades. Although much has changed since President George W. Bush launched the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to fight international terrorism and the tyrannical “Axis of Evil,” Kemp observed that both of Bush’s successors have been unable to withdraw American troops from regional conflicts. Recent Middle East developments, including the reemergence of Russia and neo-Ottoman Turkey, the rise of ISIS, deepening Shia-Sunni sectarianism, Iran’s new assertiveness, and various crises of internal governance, as epitomized by the collapse of Syria and its effects on Europe, have only exacerbated this “state of confusion” in U.S. policy. Given these events together with growing Chinese and Indian influence, rapid population growth, and dramatically worsening environmental problems, Kemp contends that the United States must recognize its limits in shaping the Middle East and resist the “temptation to try to be a player in all major conflicts.”

Lincoln P. Bloomfield, Jr., Chairman Emeritus and Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center, acknowledged that the United States has failed to achieve a strategic end game in the region because of its lack of focus on conflict resolution and structural problems within the U.S. national security apparatus, where agencies do not focus on countries and functional issues on a holistic basis. Using Iran as an example of a misunderstood state, he noted that the Iranian regime is trying to overcome its pervasive vulnerabilities, which have been aggravated by Tehran’s efforts to establish a pan-Shia “caliphate” at its citizenry’s expense. Bloomfield highlighted how the Iranian regime has had a dearth of religious and political legitimacy ever since its popular revolution in 1979 was “hijacked” by its religious establishment. Since then, Tehran’s use of force and repression has been crucial to maintaining its hold on power.

Echoing Bloomfield’s comments, John Gay, Executive Director of the John Quincy Adams Society, spoke of how the threat posed by Iran must not be overstated because entanglement in the Middle East comes with opportunity costs. Gay assessed that even if Iran was able to establish its infamous strategic “Shia Crescent” across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, it is uncertain that it would be ascendant over an alignment of the Gulf Arab states and Israel. These states, Gay contends, have every incentive to balance Iranian expansionism and outpace the Iranian bloc in military spending. Although Iran and its allies have a much greater population, this does not translate into certain dominance. Instead, as a matter of strategic policy on the Middle East, Gay argued that the United States should focus on two objectives: preventing terrorists from threatening American lives or obtaining weapons of mass destruction, and ensuring that no single power could dominate the Persian Gulf’s oil resources. Iran, he said, does not pose a significant threat to either.

Much like Iran, the return of Russian power to the region should not be viewed by the United States as zero-sum. “The Middle East is really central to Russia’s aspirations to be viewed as a global great power,” observed Paul Saunders, Executive Director of the Center for the National Interest, but Russia’s policy is “trying to get along with everyone.” Saunders argued that rather than seeking Middle Eastern hegemony, Russia’s “relatively limited capabilities” (in terms of its military and economic power and leverage at international organizations) means that it “cannot become one.” Although Saunders admits that Russia can be assertive when its security interests are at stake, as they have been in Syria, he judged that Moscow’s position in the region is inherently defensive. Rather than posing an impermissible threat to U.S. interests, Russia is instead “creating the appearance of an alternative to the United States that allows other governments to increase the transaction costs” for the implementation of Washington’s policy goals. Yet, Moscow’s restraint following U.S. military strikes on Russia mercenaries and the Assad regime in Syria show that Russia still wants to work with the United States in the region. Much like Putin’s close relationship with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, Saunders submitted that these “remarkable” events “quite clearly” show that Russian policy in the region is not unified with Iran’s goals to undermine United States interests.

When asked about whether the United States should support the ongoing protests in Iran, the panel spoke of its concern that meddling in another country’s domestic politics could have unintended repercussions. In recognizing that much of the protests’ legitimacy stems from their organic and local nature, Gay suggested caution because it could discredit the internal discontent. Likewise, he noted that “betting U.S. policy on the success or failure of a particular protest movement” was a poor foundation for action, as protests historically do not often lead to the fall of a regime. Asked by Simes if interfering in Iranian domestic politics would cause the regime to see U.S. policy as opposed to any Iranian action except the regime’s capitulation and collapse, Kemp largely agreed. Further, he questioned whether revealing the regime’s weaknesses through information warfare would result in exploiting a vulnerability or if it would only incense and unify the Iranians against foreign interference. The panel largely concluded that if the Iranians feel that they have no opportunity to redress the United States’ grievances and to rejoin the international community of nations, then Iranian policy will likely move further from the policy goals that Washington is pursuing.