Iran is a threat that the United States can use to squeeze as much money for “security” out of the Gulf States as it can, Daniel Levy, President of the U.S./Middle East Project, says in an interview with valdaiclub.com. Part of the overall large picture in the Middle East could be explained as demonstrating America’s global domination to the Chinese and others vis-à-vis Iran.
We are in a moment of uncertainty in terms of the local actors in the Middle East, even without looking at the external powers. What we have today are the fault lines in the region that have led to escalating conflicts in a number of areas, and an inability to do de-escalation. So, the main focus should be on de-escalation in the region.
In order to de-escalate and begin to address regional security, you need to master three abilities: diplomacy, deal-making and power-sharing. But, at the moment, at least one side of the regional divide is thinking in zero-sum terms and it has been encouraged to think in zero-sum terms by the Americans. This is, of course, the Saudi-led alliance vis-à-vis Iran. That is part of the regional security question right now: the US, Israeli and Saudi/Emirati-led determination to push, punish, weaken, and provoke Iran. It does not mean that Iran is sitting back doing nothing: it has its own interests, its own deployments, and it sees its way of achieving deterrence as, in many respects, forward power projection. The behavior of its opponents is only going to encourage it to escalate.
The main topic of the recent American summit in Warsaw was the trajectory of escalation. Right now, it is hard to see how you conduct region-wide de-escalation, so instead what one tries to do is to look at the individual pieces of the puzzle. The de-escalation in Syria is largely the result of one side achieving a degree of victory. With regard to this, there are a number of outstanding questions: what happens to the areas held by the Kurds, what happens in Idlib, how slow is the American withdrawal going to be, and what can be done in Yemen?
If you address some of these particular hotspots, it’s possible to build a regional dynamic. However, that leaves a big question, since there is both a regional and a global way of understanding what the US is doing in the Middle East, including the withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan. The dominant thinking in the American system is all about returning to a unipolar world. The United States wants to be the preeminent, unchallenged and exclusive global power, whereas there was a challenge to that in the United States by people who understood that America’s best option is to manage the transition to multi-polarity away from domination and empire – and this is what Obama administration was beginning to do. Today, despite the fact that Donald Trump’s “America’s first” program seems to be isolationist, what we are seeing is an attempt to reassert American unchallenged global dominance and hegemony. We thought this was going to happen in the 1990s, but it did not happen to that extent. Now it seems it won’t happen because of China, but there is an attempt to reverse the trend, to go back. Therefore, everything has to be seen in that context.
In the Middle East, part of the overall large picture could be explained as demonstrating that global domination to the Chinese and others vis-à-vis Iran. In the American political culture, Iran has powerful connotations: the history of American-Iranian relations, 1979, the US Embassy, the role of Israel in American politics, and the role of Iran in the Israeli mindset and the Israeli push for American confrontation with Iran. Finally, it is Iran’s role in the global energy markets. Iran is the threat that Washington uses in order to squeeze as much money out of the Gulf States, bribe money in terms of security, buying American arms and investing in America. And “Iran as the demon” in American politics is an easy domestic sell. So one of the places where you are seeing the American effort to reassert preeminence is against Iran.
And the question is – does this go military in the next period? Or does it not? At what point does America choose to go for such a high-level of provocation vis-à-vis Iran? Do we see false flag operations? Do we see direct confrontation somewhere in the region, in Syria or elsewhere? Do we see a direct strike? So that is the major security question facing the region in the next period – how violent does the American assault on Iran become.