Originally written for Times of Israel
There is a fear in Israel that, with the signing of the nuclear deal two days ago, the United States may soon become allies with Iran. While this is not an irrational fear, it is important to remember that such an alliance actually already took place about a decade ago – and Israel made it through it in one piece. Back in 2001 and 2003, the United States effectively aided Iran by toppling the Sunni Arab government of Iraq and the Sunni Pashtun government of Afghanistan, paving the way for a Shiite, Iranian-influenced government in Baghdad and for empowered Shiite and Tajik (who are Persian-speaking) factions within northern and western Afghanistan.
The worry at that point was that Iran would build on its gains in the region by spreading its influence into Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which is where most Saudi energy production is located and is, unlike the rest of Saudi Arabia, primarily inhabited by Shiite groups. Had that happened, or had Iran gained too much influence within the other energy-rich Gulf kingdoms, it would have become the dominant Muslim power in the Mideast. It was in this context that the Israeli, Saudi, and American rivalry with the Iranians intensified.
It is important to understand – and Israeli leaders do understand this, though they generally pretend not to while in public – that this situation no longer exists. Iran remains a critical country within the region, of course; but then again, so do Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and Israel itself. The threat of Iran becoming the leading power within the Middle East is, for the moment at least, no longer significant. Indeed, the rising Muslim power of the region appears to be Turkey, not Iran — and, not incidentally, Turkey’s once-thriving relationship with Israel has deteriorated a great deal in recent years, first with the Gaza flotilla incident in 2010 and then with Turkey’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013.
In contrast, Israel’s relationship with Iran has been improving a bit – though, again, you wouldn’t know it from listening to politcal rhetoric – as Iran’s relationship with Sunni Hamas has been damaged as a result of Hamas’ support for anti-Assad Sunni rebels (the Hamas leadership left Damascus for Doha in 2012, becoming closer with countries like Qatar and Turkey), Shiite Hezzbolah appears to be far too busy worrying about the Syrian Civil War to engage Israel in another war like it did in 2006, and Iran and Israel have increasingly found themselves allied with the same foreign countries, such as the UAE, India, and soon, perhaps, the United States.
This is not to say that Israel does not have a great deal to fear from the Iranians. But while Iran continues to grab headlines, the truth is that Iran’s regional standing is much less than it was. Israel has plenty of other worries, meanwhile, such as the Sunni Arabs, the Sunni Turks, the Sunni Palestinians, and the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands if a country like Sunni Pakistan were ever to collapse into internal chaos. The overwhelming, single-minded focus on Iran as the primary rival of Israel is, at least in part, likely a public relations stunt, probably having something do with domestic Israeli politics, or a result of the US and Israel having agreed to play “good cop-bad cop” with the Iranians because the Americans’ Saudi allies – who continue to be much more fearful of Iran – are not willing or able to play the role of bad cop themselves.
Consider that Israel has historically viewed Iran, even post-1979 Revolutionary Islamist Iran, as a Shiite Persian bulwark against the Sunni, Arab, and Sunni Arab worlds. As recently as the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq War, the Israeli military directly attacked the Iraqis, and later helped to supply the Iranian religious government with weapons. Today the Muslim world remains roughly 90 percent Sunni, placing Shiite Iran in an inherently weak position. Indeed, Iran is itself is only about 50-60 percent ethnolinguistically Persian; most of the rest of its population are Arabs, Kurds, or Turkic Azeris, many of whom share ties with Iran’s regional rivals. As such, with only a few exceptions, Iran has often been defeated when it has had to face off against an external power like the British, Russians, Arabs, or Turks.
Here’s a quick list of eight factors that have caused Iran’s positon to weaken over the past decade or so:
1. Low Energy Prices
Energy prices were generally very high from about 2004-2014, but now they are not. The falling price of energy hurts countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, and empowers countries like Israel and Turkey. Of course, prices could rise again — though if sanctions on Iran do end, they will probably continue to fall instead. Unless prices do rise, the Persian Gulf will simply not be as important as it was.
2. The Syrian Civil War
The Syrian war has not only weakened Iran’s position in Syria, but also in Gaza, since Hamas and Iran have backed different sides in the war; in Lebanon, where Hezzbolah is fearful of an Assad loss and thus relatively unable to focus on Israel; and, most importantly, in Iraq, where the weakening of Assad has led to the growth of ISIS. Unless Assad and the Iraqi Shiites can reassert their influence over the Sunni-inhabited Iraqi-Syrian borderlands, this situation is likely to persist.
3. “Bahrain Spring” Crushed by Saudis
Iran’s best chance to destabilize Saudi Arabia via its Shiite-populated energy-rich Eastern Province was during the Arab Spring, when large numbers of protestors representing the significant Shiite majority population of Bahrain, which is connected to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province by a causeway, were attempting to overthrow or coax democratic reforms out of the Sunni Bahraini royal family. Instead, the Saudis led what what was in effect an invasion of Bahrain, in order to keep the Sunni Bahraini royals in power. This was Iran’s chance, and it was missed. There may be other chances for Iran to throw its weight around in the Persian Gulf in the future, but its failure to capitalize on the Arab Spring revealed that it was not as influential as many feared it might be.
4. Turkey’s Emergence
Turkey’s emergence has not only been the result of its rapid economic growth over the past decade, or of the fact that it is now benefiting from the fall in energy prices while the Arabs and Iranians and Russians are not. It has also been brought about by the stagnation or collapse of all of the countries in its neighbourhood, including Greece, Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, Cyprus, Georgia, Italy, and Europe in general. This has left an enormous power vacuum that the Turks can now consider filling.
Indeed, the area of Turkish interest extends all the way into Central Asia and even western China, where most of the population is of Turkic origin. In Iran, perhaps as much as 20-25 percent of the population are Turkic Azeri, speak a language quite similar to Turkish, and live in areas of Iran that are adjacent to Turkey’s close ally Azerbaijan (which is also Azeri), which was itself one of the fastest-growing economies in the world in the past decade. The Iranian leadership views Turkish power with dread. Turkey’s emergence and ties to the Muslim Brotherhood have also soured its relationship with Israel.
5. American Resurgence
While the global power of the United States has remained largely unchallenged since the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a period during the mid-to-late 2000s when it seemed to be struggling on all fronts, facing a rapidly rising China, a gradually unifying Europe, a domestic financial crisis in 2008, a challenging time in its wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and emerging regional powers like Russia, Germany and Brazil. Since then, however, the American economy has been recovering much better than most other major countries, the economies of Germany, Russia, Brazil and perhaps even China have effectively entered a recession, European unity has shown itself to be largely non-existent, and the fastest-growing large European economies have been close American allies like Britain and Poland. Plus, the US military has left Iraq and, for the most part at least, has drawn down from Afghanistan.
While it is of course possible that some of these trends will be reversed going forward, for the time being American power looks to be in much better shape than it was. If China in particular enters a period of economic or political disarray, American confidence will surge. This means it may be becoming more difficult for a country like Iran to continue to accumulate influence on a regional level.
6. Economic Sanctions
While Iran was focused on evading sanctions, the Gulf Arab economies were growing rapidly as a result of the era of high energy prices, while Turkey, in spite of being a major energy importer, was growing faster than any other large economy in the world apart from China, and Israel was growing faster and more consistently than almost any other developed economy. While Turkey’s economy has cooled off a bit in the past few years as a result of the ongoing European economic crisis, Israel has continued to have strong growth throughout, and the Gulf Arab monarchies have continued to spend giant amounts of their cash purchasing military hardware. Today Iran’s gross domestic product is thought to be less than half the size of either Saudi Arabia’s or Turkey’s, to be smaller even than that of the United Arab Emirates, and to be not much larger than Israel’s, Iraq’s, Egypt’s, or Qatar’s.
7. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Khamenei is the only Supreme Leader has ever had apart from the revolutionary founder of the republic, Ruhollah Khomeini. A decade ago Ali Khamenei was 65 years old: now he will turn 76 before the end of the year. He has no formal successor. Some think that the 86-member Assembly of Experts, who are popularly elected every eight years, will get to choose who becomes the next Supreme Leader, but this too is complicated, as there are many other powerful political factions within the country who might want a say in the process, and the next Assembly election, set for February 2016, has already been postponed for more than a year. If Khamenei, who was recently hospitalized, dies before the elections in February, the situation could become very complex.
Iran, to be sure, is a country that is internally divided in many ways; it has, for example, a large younger urban generation that to a large extent does not support the social and religious conservatism of the clerical class. Complicating matters further, the position of President has, as a result of the influence of Ahmadinejad over much of the past decade, become much more significant within Iranian politics that it ever was before (Khamenei, by the way, was himself President for almost a decade before becoming Supreme Leader in 1989). Khamenei has also been dealing with prostate cancer in recent months, and arguably is not doing well with it. As Khamenei has been Supreme Leader for 26 years now – 16 years longer than his predecessor served as Supreme Leader – the older and sicker he gets, the more uncertain Iran’s political dynamic might become.
8. Saudi Political Transition
The Saudi royal family is sprawling and complex, because the modern founder of the Kingdom, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, had forty-five sons. Thus far only Abdulaziz’s sons have served as king, the most recent of whom was King Abdullah, who took power in 2005 at the age of 80. There was a fear that, when Abdullah would pass away, there would be political infighting within the country that Iran might be able to exploit. The big challenge for the Saudis was electing a member of the next generation of the family to become heir to the throne, since, while the generation of Abdulaziz’s sons included many tens of people – the youngest of whom, Muqrin, is currently 70 years old, and was heir to the throne until this position was taken away from him a few months ago – the generation after that has hundreds of male offspring in it.
In January 2015 Abdullah finally died, at 90 years old, and the Saudis have, thus far at least, successfully managed the transition. Abdullah’s half-brother Salman, aged 79, has become the new King. Even more important, in April of 2015 Salman chose his nephew, Muhammad bin Nayef, as the first ever grandson of founder Abdulaziz to become the heir apparent. Muhammad’s own father was Crown Prince for 27 years, until his death in 2012. While there could conceivably still be an internal uprising against Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef — interestingly, the backup heir to the throne is King Salman’s own son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (see video link) — for the moment the long-feared political and generational power transition seems to be going well, solidifying Saudi stability and power.