Dynamics in the Middle East are changing, but in what direction?

The dynamics of the Middle East are changing. From a protracted pandemic to the rise of Chinese interest and influence in the region, to a general Western fatigue from protracted military conflicts, the region today presents both threats and opportunities that are very different from even a couple of years ago.

The Cipher Brief spoke with an expert Norm Rawlwho served as the former manager of national intelligence for Iran at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) — and now travels to the region regularly to meet with senior officials in several countries — to get his take on how he sees the changing region, the dynamics behind it, the new role of the United States and where questions and events are likely to move.

Brief description of the cipher: Let’s start with the big picture. What is the most important issue we must consider when considering the Middle East?

Steering wheel: Perhaps the most transformative issue shaping the region and the world as a whole is the emergence of an increasingly multipolar dynamic not seen since the late 1930s or 1870s. For some, this will mean a chance to assert new influence at the regional level and positively transform their politics and economy. Abraham’s agreements, Emirati interfaith and technology initiatives, and the social and economic liberalization of Saudi Arabia are part of this process. India’s rise has just begun, but we need to think more about what this means for the Middle East.

US influence is changing in this new world. Events are beginning to unfold with less attention to US views. Iran, Russia, Turkey and China have sought to expand their regional presence, sometimes using asymmetric instruments. Status quo states debate response options while these aggressive but innovative actors build facts on the ground.

The drivers of this evolution are complex and include the rise of China and India, Brexit, Western fatigue from protracted military conflicts, and the unopposed hybrid war waged by Iran, Russia and Turkey. A weak United Nations, divisions within Europe, sometimes unmanageable NATO, and the dominance of informal alliances over traditional international organizations are all variables we must take into account. The economic, social and political implications of COVID continue to complicate matters. Clearly, it would be an exaggeration to attribute this evolving dynamic solely to US decisions, or even to our leaving the region. Of course, Americans have changed their minds about our role in the world and how we should treat longtime adversaries and partners. But our engagement with the private sector is active and expanding.

There is growing concern about what role the US will seek in the Middle East. Whatever your views on the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the disastrous consequences for the Afghan people manifest themselves on the threshold of an already troubled region. The poor execution of our departure undermined international security efforts, reshaped the political geography of Southwest Asia, severely damaged America’s credibility in the region, and exacerbated political divisions within the United States. All our regional partners watched this with concern.

Brief description of the cipher: You talk about Russia, China, Iran and even Turkey as revisionist actors. These are very different countries. Do they have common strategies or tactics?

Steering wheel: I think there are a few common themes here. As their name suggests, revisionist actors seek to change the status quo. They often initially use an alleged but denied tactic to test the opponent’s resilience. Such states tend to gravitate towards each other, especially when they seek leverage with the US and Europe.

They also share several goals:

• Above all, revisionist states seek to reshape the structure of the international community in such a way as to normalize actions previously considered unacceptable and even a basis for war. Such countries are risk tolerant, but war is not their goal. Their strategy requires a world that has convinced itself that it cannot or will not pay the potential price of confrontation with the aggressors. Thus, non-coercive diplomacy or economic sanctions remain the only tools left to politicians.

· Aggressive revisionist countries are often subject to sanctions. However, because they are authoritarian, they can tolerate economic punishments relatively well in the short to medium term.

· Revisionist countries do not shy away from diplomacy; they exploit it. Diplomacy offers a means to bring their priorities to the forefront of the world stage. If not for his aggressive behavior, Iran certainly would not have received the international attention it has enjoyed in recent years. Because adversaries react to threats based on their proximity to danger, revisionists use diplomacy to break coalitions. Consider here how Europe and the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf or Israel react to Iran. Another example is the different positions of Europe and the United States towards China.

· Second, they seek to reassert influence in a geography that they consider historically theirs.

· Finally, they seek to eradicate US influence, or at least seriously weaken this influence. Despite all our challenges, the United States remains the best and perhaps the only guarantor of global stability.

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Brief description of the cipher: Let’s turn our attention to Iran. What are Tehran’s goals in the nuclear talks?

Steering wheel: First, some context. While the nuclear issue dominates US thoughts on Iran, Iranian politics relative to the West wider. Tehran is also pondering how its choice will affect the regime’s transition to a new generation of hardliners. Iran does not seek engagement with the US and shows no interest in changing its behavior on regional or missile issues.

The arrival of the Biden administration in January 2021 brought about a number of attractive policy changes that go far beyond the announced intention to return to the nuclear deal. Nearly every key member of the Biden team dealing with Iran was well known to Tehran as a supporter of the nuclear deal. A number of senior and mid-level officials in the new administration have spoken out publicly against the maximum pressure tactics of the Trump era and have spoken out against military action against Iran. The administration’s relationship with Israel and the Gulf Arab states is likely to be frosty. Washington has signaled that it plans to reduce its military presence in the Middle East. It is unlikely that even Iranian leaders anticipated the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, but the decision certainly strengthened any assessment that US commitment to the region was waning. The administration’s focus on improving relations with Europe, competing with China, and solving difficult US social and infrastructure problems will severely limit the domestic and foreign political capital left to work with Iran.

Iran could have opted for a quick return to the deal. But Tehran wanted more. Iran’s goals in the talks have been consistent, although they have been aggravated by the arrival of Iran’s tough new president.

First, Tehran sought to become the dominant voice on the direction, timing, and participants of the nuclear talks. US tensions with Russia and China have helped in this regard.

Second, Iran has used the nuclear talks as a buffer against pressure from its regional, missile, terrorist, and hostage takings, and to gain de jure recognition of its leadership. Nuclear talks force the most important international players to ignore Iran’s non-nuclear activities and involve Iran in a forum that sees Tehran as a major power. The Raisi government is one of the bloodiest regimes in the history of the Islamic Republic, but its representatives regularly meet with Western counterparts.

Third, to expand its civilian nuclear program to achieve a new norm, which the international community will be forced to accept, to achieve a permanent threshold status for nuclear weapons and leverage against demands for an extension of the agreement.

Then minimize the impact of nuclear and non-nuclear sanctions. Iran’s supreme leader has repeatedly spoken out against commercial involvement, which also carries with it the contagion of Western liberalism. This does not mean that Tehran is against trade. Indeed, the opposite is true. Iran is desperately seeking foreign investment and Western technology. But even if nuclear sanctions are lifted, Tehran’s non-nuclear aggression usually entails its own sanctions. Few business leaders are willing to risk shareholder assets in a geographic area that could be subject to economic pressure. For this reason, Tehran has sought to use the talks to prevent the US from imposing serious sanctions for any reason in the future.

Finally, Tehran seeks to weaken US influence in the Middle East and the international arena. Iran is unlikely to return to an agreement until it believes it has done everything it can to ensure that another U.S. exit — or the imposition of oil or financial sanctions in response to Tehran’s non-nuclear aggression — is not on the table.

Brief description of the cipher: It looks like the deal is out of the question.

Steering wheel: It is hard to imagine the restoration of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal without significant and consistent concessions from the United States. It will be difficult for the Biden administration to lift non-nuclear sanctions, given Iran’s well-documented violations of international law.

By the way, I believe we may see a hostage deal this year. In exchange for Westerners unjustly imprisoned in Iran, Tehran will receive the release of Iranian citizens and likely billions of dollars of frozen funds. Such a move would be welcomed by the families of the hostages and some supporters of engagement, but is unlikely to prevent Tehran from taking hostages in the future.

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Brief description of the cipher: What will make Iran change its mind about the deal? Are there any indicators that we should pay attention to?

Steering wheel: I don’t see much evidence that Iran considers it necessary to make serious concessions. Tehran is closely following our policies, and they certainly understand the political problems facing the Biden administration, including the ongoing crisis with Moscow.

Theoretically, however, a few things could change the dynamics. These include: The P5+1’s belief that Iran is preparing to arm its civilian nuclear program. A major economic or political crisis in Iran could force Tehran to seek political and economic benefits from a return to the deal. I do not consider any of these scenarios likely. If a deal does go through, it will most likely be the result of deep US concessions, especially on how we will impose future sanctions.

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