Exercising a degree of hegemony in the Middle East has long been a central plank of American foreign policy. This all began toward the end of the Second World War. President Franklin Roosevelt held very amicable meetings with King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia that led to the United States enjoying a dominant position in the development and exploitation of Saudi Arabia’s enormous oil reserves.
In 1953, the United States engineered a coup in Iran that saw the overthrow of a left leaning Government and its replacement by one led by the Shah, who became a steadfast ally of the United States.
In the mid 1950s, the United States sponsored the creation of regional defence pacts, which included Turkey, Iran and Iraq, which became part of a network designed to contain the Soviet Union.
In 1958, President Eisenhower ordered the deployment of marines to Lebanon to prevent the takeover of the Government of Lebanon by left leaning rebels. All of these actions had the effect of expanding the presence and influence of the United States in the Middle East.
The growth of American influence did not go uncontested
This was, after all, the heyday of the Cold War and the Soviet Union saw itself as a rival and competitor of the United States in the Middle East. When the United States decided not to finance the construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, the Soviet Union stepped into the breach and oversaw what was then one of the largest infrastructure projects in the world.
Egypt became totally aligned with the Soviet Union, to the dismay of the Americans. The Soviets also pursued the development of close relations with other so-called revolutionary Arab countries such as Syria, Iraq, South Yemen and Algeria. For all of these countries, the Soviet Union became an important source of economic assistance and they in turn became significant markets for Soviet military equipment.
The 1970s saw a significant increase in American influence. When Israel turned against the United Nations following the Six-Day War of 1967, the United States slowly became the Principal mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
At the time of the fourth Arab-Israeli war in 1973, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt decided to terminate his country’s close relationship with the Soviet Union and expelled 30,000 Soviet Military Advisers. Sadat then turned to the United States for help and aligned Egypt with the Americans, an alignment that has continued to this day.
Later in the decade when Sadat chose to pursue a peace treaty with Israel, it was President Jimmy Carter who oversaw the negotiations. The United States had become the essential country in all matters related to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
At the end of the 1970s, the position of the United States in the Middle East did suffer a serious setback. The Shah of Iran had long been the United States’ most powerful ally in the region. His unexpected overthrow in 1979 deprived the United States of a major asset.
The Shia clerics who succeeded him in power in Tehran were sworn enemies of the United States, which they routinely condemned as “The Great Satan.” Revolutionary youth invaded and occupied the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held more than 50 American diplomats hostage for more than a year. The operation mounted by the CIA and the U.S. military to rescue the hostages was a fiasco, widely covered by the world media.
The humiliation of the United States in Iran was complete and contributed mightily to Carter’s defeat in the 1980 presidential election.
The Iranian revolution also had other consequences inimical to American interests. Not long after coming to power, Ayatollah Khomeini and his clerical associates launched an ideological war against the monarchical regimes of the Arab countries bordering the Persian Gulf. Chief among the targets of that campaign was Saudi Arabia, a longtime friend and ally of the United States. Under attack from Iraq, the new Iranian regime also found itself confronted with a prolonged and bloody war, which contributed greatly to regional instability and resulted in some one million deaths.
The war did not, however, stop Iran from pursuing its ideological campaign among Shia Muslims, most notably the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. With generous supplies of military equipment from Iran, Hezbollah became Israel’s most feared adversary in the region.
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union saw the United States reasserting its primacy in the Middle East. The Soviet Union had long ago lost Egypt to the United States and the new Russian Federation would lose Algeria, Iraq and Yemen.
The first Gulf War of 1990-91 saw the United States inflict a rapid and stunning defeat on the forces of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. This victory greatly enhanced the prestige of the United States throughout the region. The Russian Federation was reduced to only one friend and ally in the Middle East, the Assad regime of Syria.
The Syrians provided the Russians with Port facilities for their Navy and with a profitable market for arms exports. The Russians in turn provided Syria with political and economic support.
The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not only a political and military disaster for the United States, it also did little to improve the country’s reputation and image in the region. When America withdrew from Iraq in 2011, it left behind a country badly splintered along ethnic and religious lines and one soon to be confronted by the threat of the Islamic State.
The Syrian civil war that broke out in 2011 only added to the woes of the United States. Having adopted the position that the Assad regime had to be replaced, it provided only sporadic military support to the anti-Assad forces. Under both the Obama and the Trump administrations, American policy on Syria has lacked any strategic direction.
Russia, on the other hand, has been steadfast in its support for Assad. Starting in 2015, it sent both Air Force & Army Personnel and equipment to support the Syrian Dictator and managed to turn the course of the war in his favour.
Now Russia occupies a commanding position in Syria at a time when President Trump has decided to withdraw all American forces from the country, a decision that prompted the resignation of his secretary of defence.
Russia is taking advantage of its new-found position of influence to develop closer relations with the main regional powers, including Turkey, Iran and Israel. Even Saudi Arabia, a traditional adversary, is now actively co-operating with Russia to manage oil production and push up the world price for the commodity.
Russia’s star is on the rise in the Middle East just as the United States is retreating from active involvement. The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and to reimpose sanctions on Iran weakened its overall position in the region. Its decision to move the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem alienated millions of Arabs. And through that and other actions deemed hostile to the Palestinians, it has ruled itself out as a mediator in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
And just as the United States is losing ground to Russia, a new actor is very slowly emerging on the scene in the form of China.
China enjoys one immense advantage in that it has no history of attempted colonial or ideological domination in the Middle East. Put another way, it has no enemies in the region and can proclaim friendship with all.
It has long been a major market for Middle Eastern oil, including oil from Iran. In the past few years, it has established a Naval base in Djibouti and its warships have called at Ports in the Persian Gulf. And China’s Belt & Road initiative for the development of infrastructure is now making inroads into the Middle East.
China has so far sought to distance itself from the political and security problems of the region, leaving them to be sorted out by the Americans and the Russians. It could however, become more politically engaged if it felt that its vital interests were threatened by developments, particularly in the Persian Gulf area.
This could lead to a tripartite competition for hegemony. Speculative, but an interesting thought.