The most important consequence of the Bush demolition of the Iraqi state has been the reemergence of Iran as the most influential power in southwest Asia. The core of southwest Asia is now a vast zone of Iranian influence that General Suleimani ominously calls the “Greater Persian Gulf region.” Iran is now the dominant foreign power in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, and has significant influence in Yemen and Afghanistan as well. With thousands of Iranian troops fighting in the Levant, Iran is projecting its power further west and more deeply than at any time since the peak of Safavid power in the seventeenth century.
Part of the reason is simply that Iran is arguably the most powerful state in the region. Figure 1 shows the distribution of war potential in the Middle East. All data is represented as national shares of selected power resources of the regional powers. Iran has a population of 80 million, a close second to Egypt’s 85 million. Its economy is comparable in size to Turkey’s and Saudi Arabia’s (although the latter is mostly income from oil sales on the global market and is not reflective of national capabilities). Iran has proven oil reserves of 160 billion barrels, second only to Saudi Arabia’s 269 billion. Its endowment of arable land is second only to Turkey’s. Most astonishingly, some 269,000 Iranians graduate with degrees in engineering or the sciences every year compared to just 212,000 in the rest of the regional powers combined.
Israel is barely visible in the spider chart of war potential—a major flaw of these metrics. Israel punches dramatically above its weight for a number of reasons. First, Israel is a settler colony of the crème de la crème of Europe. Perhaps as a result of sustained selection on cognitive ability in medieval Europe or the survival effect of the liquidation of the bulk of European Jewry (smarter Jews presumably escaped at higher rates than dumber Jews from the Nazis), Ashkenazi Jews have the highest IQs of any ethnic group ever recorded. Not coincidently, Jewish people are massively overrepresented among Nobel Laureates. Combined with the traditional Jewish emphasis on education (with universal literacy probably as early as the second century CE), the per capita skill-set and knowhow of the Jewish state has no counterpart anywhere else in the world. Second, Israelis are far more willing to fight for the flag—a very important factor in warfighting capabilities since the rise of nationalism at the end of the eighteenth century—than any other nation for obvious historical reasons. Third, like Prussia in the classical European balance of power, Israel’s geostrategic position has led to the development of a highly effective operational art of war that has made it into a modern day Sparta. Surrounded by hostile states and with neither the resources nor the manpower to win long, drawn-out wars of attrition, the militaries of both states cultivated an art of war that sought to front-load conflicts and seek the decisive victory. Fourth, Israel has successfully cultivated a close security relationship with the unipole—in no small part due to the influence of American Jewry. This has given Israel greater access to advanced weapons and military knowhow than any other regional power including Turkey (even though Turkey, unlike Israel, is a member of Nato).
Still, modulo the special case of Israel, Figure 1 provides a good approximation of the war potential of regional powers in southwest Asia. It shows that Iran has the most balanced portfolio of intrinsic power resources in the region. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, is a pure petrostate. Iran’s population is 2.7 times as large as Saudi Arabia’s. It has 5 times as much arable land, 4 times as many graduates, and produces 6.7 times as many engineers and scientists every year as Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom has been able to access and sell—with foreign expertise and knowhow—a much greater portion of its oil deposits and has, as a result, accumulated considerably greater financial resources than Iran.
Saudi Arabia has tried to convert its financial firepower into military might by spending gargantuan sums of money on weaponry. Figure 2 displays the real military spending of the regional powers as well as the real price of crude. (We start the clock in 1971 when the British left and the gulf RSC emerged.) The salafi oil monarchy is by far the biggest military spender in the region. Since 2003, Saudi military spending has grown rapidly along with the price of crude to reach levels dramatically higher than other regional powers.
But it is extremely difficult, if not outright impossible if other ingredients of national power are lacking, to convert financial resources into warfighting capabilities simply by spending giant sums of money. The most important determinants of national warfighting capability are after all the size and skill-set of the populace and its willingness to fight for the flag of the nation-state. The Saudi populace is much smaller, much less skilled, and not nearly as motivated to fight for the flag as that of Iran. This is why a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia will be pretty much a one-sided affair. However, since Saudi Arabia is a US protectorate it is not at risk of being conquered by its stronger neighbor. Due to the presence of the US pacifier, security competition in the bipolar gulf region has instead been projected onto regional playing fields.
The dominant story of the region since 2003 has been the expansion of the zone of weakness. Three hitherto strong states of the region, Iraq, Syria, and Libya, have joined Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen and Afghanistan (the last is on the border of southwest and south Asia) as the playing fields of the regional powers. The regional players are Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and to a lesser extent Israel. Although each regional power has their own particular security interests, the object of the regional game is to secure the orientation of weak states, or if there is no central authority, to secure influence in the polity or security zone by bankrolling and arming local security actors. Even more important than the push factors of regional security competition are the pull factors of sub-state actors seeking patrons. These features are manifest in the Syrian war but are no less true of other parts of the zone of weakness.
Some players are more in demand than others. No one except the Phalangists wants to be caught hobnobbing with the Israelis. Even the Kurds are tight lipped about their security cooperation with the Jewish state. More generally, transnational identities allow states in the region to mobilize opinion across borders. Sunni Arab groups, including many salafi jihadists, look to Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Arab oil monarchies for support. Shiite actors seek Iranian support. Due to the rise in sectarian temperature—most dramatically as a result of the Syrian war—regional Sunni Arab actors, like the Palestinian resistance groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, that used to be Iranian clients have pulled back. On the other hand, actors that were barely Shiite, such as the Alawi regime in Syria and the Houthis in Yemen, have become Shitte, and pushed further into Iranian arms. So the rise in sectarian temperature cuts both ways.
When the Syrian uprising began, Saudi Arabia saw a major opening to wrestle away Syria—a state that is central to the Sunni Arab imaginary—from the Iranian orbit. Weapons, money and fighters poured into the warzone through the Turkish rat line. Much of the flow originated in the oil monarchies and went to salafi jihadist groups such as ISIS, JN and Arhar al Sham. But the Iranian-Hezbollah intervention prevented the fall of Assad. Once the Russians intervened on the regime’s side, the great Saudi dream of rolling back Iranian influence in the Levant became tenuous. With the fall of Aleppo to the regime’s forces, all such hopes were dashed.
Meanwhile, the US-Saudi puppet in Yemen had been displaced by the Houthis with the support of the former Yemeni president (a Sunni). Saudi Arabia’s aggressive young leader Mohammed bin Salman al Saud (MBS), responded by launching an air war with the logistic and diplomatic help of the Obama administration. There was a lot of brouhaha about Iranian influence in Yemen; Saudi Arabia’s backyard. But Iranian influence was always more imagined than real. The Houthi political movement, in fact, enjoyed broad-based, cross-ethnic support and was neither simply a Shiite group nor an Iranian proxy. The main consequence of the Saudi terror campaign in Yemen was to give a boost to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the most dangerous and capable salafi jihadist groups in the region. (Yemen was not the only place where the main result of Saudi meddling was to strength salafi jihadism.)
Lost in the regional narrative was a potential gamechanger. This was an alliance between Russia and Iran—something that has never obtained ever before in history. Even though both were simply fighting together to save the Assad regime and there were no plans for a broader alliance, there was always the potential for one. The Obama administration was smart enough to know that it would not be in the US interest if Iran acquired a rival great power patron. (Obama went so far as to say that the Saudis and the Iranians would have to “share the region.”) As long as the United States could keep the door ajar just a little bit, Iran had more to lose from defying the Western alliance than gaining a great power patron.
In this trip, Trump has slammed the door in Iran’s face. It may further the interests of the oligarchs connected to the Trump White House. But it makes no sense in terms of US interests in the region. We should not be surprised if Iran gets closer to Russia and the Ruskies extend their influence in the Middle East as a result. I am not suggesting that this is a certainty. Russia has so far pursued defensive and limited aims—basically shoring up the Assad regime. But that is no guarantee that the Kremlin will not exploit this opening.
There was something deeply shameful about Trump declaring Iran to be threat to peace while standing in the heart of terror finance. Claims that Iran is a sponsor of terror are entirely bogus. They are based on Iranian patronage of Hezbollah and Hamas, which for all their Islamic rhetoric are nationalist resistance groups; not Islamic terrorists. Islamic terrorists, like the one who murdered young kids in Manchester this week, are without a single exception salafi jihadists who are bankrolled by financiers in the permissive jurisdictions of the gulf oil monarchies that Trump just declared his eternal love for. In fact, Iran is the one Muslim power that is guaranteed to be an ally against salafi jihadism. If the United States was serious about tackling salafi jihadism, the place to start is to put the oil monarchies is a financial straightjacket—all financial flows out of the gulf ought to monitored by a terror finance task force set up by Western intelligence agencies.
It’s too easy to blame the Trump administration for following policies that are so manifestly against the US and Western interest. The truth is that the blame lies on a broad swath of the foreign policy community—including Democrats. Somehow the debacles of the Bush administration have failed to kill the rogue states doctrine that is at the root of America’s failed foreign policy.