Continuity and Change: How is Washington changing its Middle East policy?

30 September 2020 | 20:05 Code : 1995921 General category
Will Washington's strategy of offshore balancing change the dynamics of Iran-Iraq relations? By Amin Azimizadeh.
Continuity and Change: How is Washington changing its Middle East policy?

The regional policy of great powers and the rise and fall in history of international relations has played a pivotal role in creating two contradictory factors of regional stability and conflict. Paul Kennedy, Stephen Walt and many other international relations scientists have sought answers to these questions:

To what extent will the presence of great powers in other parts of the world be acceptable? How is the process of persuading regional powers by a great power for presence in a region? If the potential costs increase, what challenges will a great power face in maintaining and possibly retiring from the region? These questions can help us understand the US Middle East Strategy.

The idea of a ‘offshore balancing strategy’ was introduced by American thinkers in international relations, and also influenced by the historical experience gained in the 1970s. This idea has led to a rethinking of the US presence in other parts of the world. It has also attracted the attention of some American policymakers in recent years and has been also relatively ensconced in US foreign policy. But it seems that the conditions for the implementation of this strategy in the current situation in the Middle East are not very good. According to the offshore balancing strategy, Washington must adopt lower-cost policies in three central regions, i.e. Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East; manage the process of regional conflicts through its regional allies and prevent the emergence of hegemonic powers by creating a balance among them.

But deep thinking in the current situation of the Middle East leads us to the conclusion that US allies will not be able to create such control without the direct presence of the United States. On the one hand, there are growing conflicts that make it difficult to create a balance among regional actors, and on the other hand, there is not relative willingness or consensus among US regional allies to play such a role. In this situation, the United States is facing the financial costs and human capital of being in the Middle East, and at least the demand of a part of the American elites is focused on the US withdrawal from the region and its focus on domestic issues

On the other hand, there regional conditions are not conducive to the implementation of this strategy, and this has led to a certain complexity in the governing conflicts of the region and has made Washington’s look at the offshore balancing strategy from a distance with skepticism. At the same time, the US new policy towards the Middle East seems to be a combination of an offshore balancing strategy and a continuation of previous trends. United States is trying to avoid an abrupt exit from the Middle East as part of a strategy synchronous with providing the ways arrive to at the "offshore balancing strategy", since there is no guarantee that the current situation can be manageable with US withdrawal from the region.

As a representative case, we can cast a look at recent Iraq developments. Handing over the Al-Taji military base to the Iraqi army, paving the way for long-term agreements and investing in Iraq's economic sectors; Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi's recent visit to Washington and concluding economic contracts, especially for supply electricity to Iraq, as well as paving the way for an alliance between Iraq and the Arab world are examples of this simultaneous strategy which shows traces of both the "offshore balancing strategy" and signals the continuation of previous trends. It is also likely that the normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel will be in line with the "offshore balancing strategy", or at least providing the way for the replacement of US allies, and if the US withdraws from the Middle East, this vacuum will be filled through regional allies. The connection among the normalization of relations with Israel and the "offshore balancing strategy" can be understood in this way.

The US policy towards Iraq seems to have become clearer with the Prime Minister's visit to Washington. Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has taken helm of a country in crisis and is trying to practice multilateralism towards regional and international actors in Iraq while creating relative stability within the country. Al-Kadhimi, as the prime minister of a transitional government, has performed relatively well and has won the trust of the majority of political parties and groups active in Iraq. That this transitional government will be able to reach a definite conclusion in the face of Iraq's ethnic and religious pluralism and to act as a stable government has raised doubt. On his return from Washington; the Iraqi prime minister attended a summit of Iraqi, Egyptian, and Jordanian leaders to unveil diplomatic talks, which he had previously referred to in an interview with The Washington Post as the plan of the new Levant. Contrary to popular opinion, the summit was not a new plan, but before that, two more summits were held in March and September 2019 among the three countries. It is likely that the parties in this meeting sought to finalize the previous agreements.

This meeting coincides with the return of Al-Kadhimi from Washington which is closer to Iraq compared with the country’s Arab allies. The first trip by Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Faisal bin Farhan to Baghdad is another example of this interpretation. Of course, Iraq's rapprochement with the Arab world cannot be merely attributed to the United States at this time. There are some domestic and international variables instrumental in shaping this attitude. For one thing, as historical experience has shown in many cases,  the Arab identity of Iraqis overshadow their Islamic identity. Paying attention to this historical fact helps to avoid reductionism in the analysis.

This set of actions will be a new challenge for relations of Tehran-Baghdad; especially in terms of reducing Iraq's economic dependence on Iran. However, it should be noted that this important issue will not lead to fundamental changes of relation between Iran and Iraq in the short term.

* Amin Azimizadeh is an international relations analyst.

tags: Iran-Iraq relations middle east