A New Mideast Cold War Intensifies

Trump and Saudi Arabia's King Salman attend the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The reelection of Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, as well as U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s strong affirmation of ties with Sunni Arab states, sets the stage for an intense new round of competition in the Middle East.

May 25, 2017

Trump and Saudi Arabia's King Salman attend the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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This past week has been a momentous one for the Middle East. President Donald J. Trump made his first visit to the region and Iran held a presidential election, returning President Hassan Rouhani to office. Trump’s trip indicated that the United States will alter its regional policy while Rouhani’s reelection seems to ensure that Iran will remain an aggressive imperial state. The United States and Iran see the Middle East differently, and both sides are willing to commit considerable resources to achieve their objectives.

Rouhani Returns to Power

During the lead-up to the contentious 2017 Iranian presidential election, Rouhani and his conservative rival, Ibrahim Raisi, spent much time debating the past. Rouhani acclaimed the virtues of the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and insisted that he rescued the Iranian economy, pulling it back from the brink. Raisi, meanwhile, stressed that the agreement has not yielded the financial dividends Rouhani had pledged, and that the unemployment rate, at about 12 percent, remains unacceptably high. Rouhani pledged to get all the remaining international economic sanctions against Iran, which act as a barrier to foreign investment, lifted. This was a fantastic promise; it has no chance of coming to fruition. Raisi advocated an economic agenda that resembled Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s notion of a self-reliant “resistance economy” that relies less on foreign investment than internal markets.

The one issue that was never really debated during the presidential campaign was foreign policy. Iran is deeply involved in the Syrian civil war and heavily invested in Iraq. It is spending considerable sums training Shia militias and deploying them to battlefields in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and it remains relentlessly hostile to the Gulf Sunni monarchies. Yet none of these important and costly policies were the subject of much debate. Rouhani only ever criticized the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—the primary agent of Iranian overseas adventurism—over its potential to intervene in the electoral process. All this seems odd, as the Islamic Republic’s imperial project is one of the most elaborate in the history of Iran. Tehran aspires to be the preeminent power in the region and has outposts from the banks of the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. The burdens of this vast imperial venture—Iran’s defense spending went from 2.7 percent to 5 percent of GDP between 2014 and 2017—were not much discussed by the candidates.

The collapse of the Arab state system has enticed Iran to strike hard and claim as much influence as possible.

All this stems from the fact that Iran’s foreign policy today rests on a consensus. Hard-liners and centrists alike are united behind the notion that the Arab uprisings of the early 2010s opened up unique opportunities for Iran to project its power. The collapse of the Arab state system has enticed Iran to strike hard and claim as much influence as possible. The costs of such an imperial venture seem, for the moment, acceptable to all internal factions.

Trump Comes to the Middle East

Trump inherited a Middle East replete with failed states and civil wars. Meanwhile, the United States’ Gulf Arab allies appeared weak and unsure of themselves as Iran expanded its influence across the region. The Trump administration seemed to initially focus on the self-proclaimed Islamic State and devoted its early months to crafting a military strategy to defeat that group. By some measures, that campaign is proceeding well, with the Islamic State’s territory shrinking and its power diminishing, As the White House looks beyond the immediate exigencies of its counter-terrorism campaign, it has begun to focus on what would be required to stabilize the region.

The maladies of the Middle East are not new; the region has often been divided against itself. In the 1950s and 1960s, many spoke of an “Arab cold war” that pitted the conservative Arab monarchies against the radical republics. The main protagonists then were Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which both vied for influence and power in the Arab world. This cold war played itself out in proxy conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. It was there, during the mid-1960s, that an Arab country—Egypt—first used chemical weapons against Arab combatants. It was also in Yemen that Saudi Arabia and Israel collaborated for the first time. They both had an interest in hemming in Egypt.

The United States chose sides in this cold war only after much complaining by the Saudis, when the Eisenhower administration committed itself to buttressing its allies and undermining Egypt. The United States sold arms to the Gulf states, imposed financial costs on Egypt, and unleashed covert attempts to change the government in Syria. The Arab cold war ended in 1967, when Israel defeated Egypt and its radical allies in the Six Day War.  It was not an easy decision for the United States to choose sides; many American officials had hoped to reach an accommodation with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and viewed such a decisive tilt as unproductive.

Nearly fifty years later, history is repeating itself. Another radical power, Iran, is making a bid for regional hegemony. A new cold war, this time driven by sectarian identities, is polarizing the Middle East. U.S. allies led by Saudi Arabia are clamoring for the United States to choose sides after the Obama administration, for nearly eight years, treaded gently in the region as it pursued an arms control agreement with Iran. President Obama advised Saudi Arabia to share the region with Iran, advice that was not taken kindly by the Sunni states that see the rise of Iran and its allies around them as an existential threat.

During his trip to the region, Trump decisively changed U.S policy.

Trump decisively changed U.S policy during his trip to the region. His denunciations of Iran as a source of instability, terrorism, and repression were well received by his Arab audience in Riyadh. “Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve,” Trump said. He arranged arms sales worth $110 billion as a show of support for the Saudi monarchy. The notion that the United States needs Iran to stabilize Syria or defeat the Islamic State, once fashionable in Washington, was set aside. For the Trump administration, Iran and Sunni jihadi movements alike are sources of instability, and the United States has taken sides with the Sunni Arab Gulf states.

Clash of Interests

The Middle East has entered a new phase. A more determined United States is seeking to rehabilitate its alliances and push back on its adversary. The new Sunni Arab coalition may be battered, but it is poised to reclaim its ground with U.S. support. All this may augur poorly for Iranian imperialism, which has had an impressive run in the past few years.

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