The Middle East Tip-toes Around Ukraine Conflict
For now, the war in Ukraine is something many Middle East countries would prefer to ignore. The problem is that they can’t ignore the war indefinitely.
Two centrifugal forces threaten to push some countries off the tightrope: an increasingly bifurcated world populated by a multitude of civilisationalist leaders in which “you are with us or against us,” and increasingly a need for consistency in the U.S. and Europe’s application of international law and upholding of human and political rights standards.
It wouldn’t take much to throw straddlers off balance.
The Biden administration is considering sending special forces to guard the newly reopened U.S. embassy in Kyiv. What happens if Russian forces strike the embassy much like U.S. forces bombed the Chinese mission in Belgrade in 1999?
At the time, China did not respond militarily, but then China was not supporting any party to the wars in the former Yugoslavia in ways that the United States and its allies are assisting Ukraine.
Similarly, the risk of escalation exists if the United States, NATO, or individual European countries decide to train Ukrainian forces on Ukrainian soil and are attacked by Russia.
To be sure, Russia, like NATO, does not want the war to expand into direct confrontation, but it would not take much for events to spiral out of control.
By the same token, Gulf states’ options may narrow if talks in Vienna fail to revive the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear programme.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Iran have both unsuccessfully tried to use the talks to achieve goals beyond the original agreement, from which then-President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018.
“We do not have a deal…and prospects for reaching one are, at best, tenuous,” Robert Malley, Biden’s special envoy for Iran, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week.
Malley’s statement came as a covert war between Israel and Iran appeared to escalate, and U.S. officials were seeking to repair relations with Saudi Arabia, possibly paving the way for a visit by Biden.
Israel reportedly advised the Biden administration that it was responsible for the recent killing in Tehran of an Iranian colonel in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps. No one has officially claimed responsibility for the shooting.
Similarly, a drone strike targeted a highly sensitive military site outside Tehran, where Iran is developing military technologies. The drones targeted a building used by the defence ministry to research drone development.
At the same time, a Saudi official noted that Saudi Arabia and Iran had not scheduled to hold another round of talks because the exchanges had produced little progress.
Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia have been cool since Biden called Saudi Arabia a pariah state while running for the presidency. He has since effectively boycotted Mohammed bin Salman because of the crown prince’s alleged involvement in the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Mohammed bin Salman has denied any involvement but said he accepted responsibility for the killing as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.
As a result of the spat, bin Salman has rejected U.S. demands that the kingdom increases oil production to lower prices and inflationary pressures and help Europe reduce its dependency on Russian energy.
In doing so, Saudi Arabia is playing with the U.S. the same game that Turkey is engaged in within NATO. Both want to capitalise on U.S. needs for support of Ukraine while not risking American, and in Turkey’s case, NATO security guarantees.
Turkey has put conditions on Swedish and Finnish NATO membership but ultimately wants the United States, NATO, and the European Union to develop a Black Sea strategy that would have Turkey at its core. Turkey is effectively left to its own devices without being embedded in a broader regional approach.
A failure to revive the Iran nuclear agreement would likely drive home that countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have nowhere but the United States to go when seeking security guarantees.
China is unwilling and unable to replace the U.S., and Russia has neutered itself with its ill-advised and bungled invasion of Ukraine.
Two of Biden’s senior advisers visited Saudi Arabia this week to discuss oil, Iran, and security, including finalising the transfer of two strategic islands — Tiran and Sanafir — in the Red Sea from Egyptian to Saudi sovereignty with Israeli consent.
U.S. officials were scheduled in the following days to brief Israeli National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata on their discussions.
Intriguingly, Israeli media reported recent secret meetings between Israeli and Saudi officials that focused on security issues, including Iran.
Like the Gulf states, Israel has effectively seen its hedging options narrow as a result of the Ukraine crisis but has been less out on the limb than the Gulf states.
However, in the final analysis, Middle Eastern states realise that the United States, in the words of former White House director for the Gulf, Kirsten Fontenrose, “can still easily build global coalitions when necessary. While Russia will be radioactive, more a predatory pariah than [a] partner.”
Fontenrose warned that “it would be foolish for nations that previously enjoyed beneficial relations with Russia to invite that radioactivity onto themselves now, in the emerging world order where Russia is not the unipolar power it hoped to become, but instead a failed bet.”
That may be true for Russia and ultimately a no-brainer for Middle Eastern states once they have milked opportunities for what they are worth.
It could be altogether different if relations between the United States and China deteriorate any further. That may even be more the case if the United States continues to be seen as selective and hypocritical in its adherence to human rights at home and abroad.