The Middle Easterner is a publication of the UCLA Center for Middle East Development (UCLA CMED), part of the International Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. We aim to provide commentary, opinions, insight, and resources related to the Middle East & North Africa from a diverse range of voices in the UCLA community and beyond.
When examining International Relations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), one bedrock assumption of Realism does not apply to the current political landscape. In Realist theory power, whether economic or military, is the “currency” of nation-states. Yet, when viewing developments in the MENA, this distinction fails to take into account the great influence of sub-national and non-state actors. Such groups in many cases challenge and in a few cases exceed the “power” of the nation-state in which they share territory. Among others, one such example is that of the Iranian backed political party Hezbollah, which operates within Lebanon.
The Hobbesian premise of a nation-state monopoly on the use of force does not apply in Lebanon. De facto, in Southern Lebanon and increasingly in areas such as Beirut and the Beka Valley, Hezbollah possesses the material capabilities traditionally held by nation-states. This includes practices such as procuring arms, fighters, securing revenues, and providing social welfare. Furthermore, Hezbollah’s growing influence has led to the group’s participation within the formal institutions of Lebanon’s government. Hezbollah now controls 3 of 30 ministries in the Lebanese Parliament.
Thus, considering this counter factual example to realist theory, a rethinking of realism in the MENA is crucial in order to continue the US effort to secure trade routes, to procure natural resources, and to project hard power in the region, a long-held policy evidenced by the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
As it stands, the Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy general formula appears to have adopted a realist approach toward the MENA. By leveraging the USA’s position as an economic hegemon to threaten tariffs or deploy sanctions to competitor nations, Trump seeks to structure incentives on economic and military matters in favor of the USA’s interests.Therefore, when dealing with non-state actors in the MENA, borrowing a few lessons from Economic theory may be helpful in rethinking realism as it applies to the region. In practice, Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy toward Iran translates into the so called “substitution effect.” The substitution effect is the economic understanding that as prices rise — or income decreases — governments (including non-state actors such as terrorist groups) will replace more expensive policy options with less costly alternatives.
For example, Trump has sought to deploy this tradeoff between economic growth and the Iranian regime’s ability to fund its security posture. By reducing financial capabilities, the US seeks to diminish Iran’s ability to fund proxies, which include groups such as Hezbollah through the following steps. First, by increasing American hard power in the MENA relative to Iran. This includes both military armaments and economic sanctions. In tandem both work to attempt to secure negotiations or dialogue. Trump’s wish to “talk to Iran” is aimed at producing cooperation through proposing less costly alternative policies. A possible requirement may be a shift in Iranian operations in which Iranian regional behavior more closely resembles the demands recently listed by Mike Pompeo.
In whole, the Trump administration's approach toward Iran and its proxies such as Hezbollah follows a pattern of incrementally raising the cost of behavior that runs counter to US interests. For example, by choosing to exit the JCPOA by reinstituting sanctions on Iran, sanctioning Hezbollah, and classifying the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group, Trump’s defense cabinet seems to prefer at minimum a policy of coercive diplomacy as a long term strategy.
This type of approach departs from past multilateral diplomatic approaches under the Obama administration which pursued legal frameworks solely regarding Iranian nuclear capabilities, and by doing so, placed less emphasis on the Iranian relationship with groups such as Hezbollah.
Therefore, a possible forceful persuasion strategy founded on realism must recognize the role that sub-national actors play in the MENA. In addition, such a policy might seek to promote at its bottom line the linkage of future Iranian nuclear negotiations with decreased support for proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria.
In a best-case scenario for the Trump administration, coercive diplomacy would seek to produce an “update” to the JCPOA. An “update” likely seeks a more comprehensive agreement on issues involving Iran that are wider in scope than just the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
Meanwhile in a worst-case scenario a risky foreign policy blunder may cost Trump the 2020 election. In addition, risking conflict comes at the cost of isolating major European allies due to the major negative consequences on migration from a potential conflict with Iran. As a result, such an increase in hostilities that leads to conflict would be a political fiasco for the European continent.
Thus, both sides, the US and Iran, will likely navigate to buy time, yet for different reasons. Iran will likely attempt to wait out the Trump presidency for a 2020 Democratic win in hopes of the US re-entering the JCPOA. Trump will try to secure the 2020 victory, thereby increasing hard power in the MENA. Trump’s victory would likely then entail the US and its regional allies seeking to sway Europe closer to the US position on Iran while trying in earnest to reduce the diplomatic cost of such a policy.
Overall, it appears Trump seeks to deter Iran’s expansionist posture, and has done so by recognizing the danger of Iranian funded groups such as Hezbollah. For those wishing to apply realism to the MENA, one take-a-way from Trump’s foreign policy is that such a realization is crucial, especially when considering the capability of Iran or any nation-state to expand the reach of its influence via non-state proxies in terms of both soft power and hard power.
Russia has taken a central role in resolving the crisis in Libya. Sensing the loss of respect for the U.N. and Western powers given the failure of the Libyan Political Agreement and the U.S.’s absence from involvement, they have courted both parallel Libyan governments as well as independent players. Russia has much to gain from returning its former ally to stability, from lost military contracts to infrastructure and oil contracts. At the same time, its leadership in the crisis helps project its image as the one world power willing to take on ISIS and other extremists and promote stability in the region.
On one side, Russia has supported the self-claimed Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, which is based on the eastern side of the country from its capital in Benghazi. He has visited Moscow several times in the past years. It is believed that Russian mercenaries are participating in the conflict and that Russia printed the LNA billions of counterfeit dinars to finance their war effort. The LNA has spread rapidly across the country and has advertised itself as the most capable government in battling extremism and limiting immigration to Europe. It has the backing of most of the autocratic Arab countries such as the UAE and Egypt as they feel Haftar is a hedge against the Arab Spring and extremist activity. However, the LNA’s claims to be a front against extremism should be taken skeptically as it has incorporated Salafist militias into its forces. Most recently, the LNA has been pushing through southern Libya to battle Chadian opposition groups and ISIS. Their goal is to capture essential oil revenues and border tariffs and secure more international support.
While it seemed for a couple years that Russia had solely backed Haftar, it has recently played to the western parallel government as well. They have kept up talks with the Libya National Council (LNC), led by Fayez al-Sirraj and based in the more populated west in Tobruk. While many observers have viewed the government as weak and rudderless, especially given its failure in executing the Libyan Political Agreement, it stills retains significant backing, both monetary and political, from the U.N. and Western powers. Recently, Russian businessmen with close ties to the Kremlin have worked with them to discuss building economic relations again, with a $2.5 billion rail line between Benghazi and Sirte in talks. The Tobruk government also purchased $700 million worth of Russian wheat. These contracts are crucial to supporting the legitimacy of LNC in the eyes of the people under its control, as the country risks fragmenting further if it cannot prove it can improve the economy.
Russia has also kept contact with potential political players in a unity government, including Moammar Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam. Captured by a militia and kept in prison for several years, he was released and has found an ear in the Russian government and has held secret meetings with them. While Russia has not committed to him or any other candidate publicly, these talks show that Moscow is heavily invested in ensuring a stable president that backs Russian interests.
Why Russia pivoted away from a Haftar-centric strategy to balancing between all players remains an item of speculation. The long-term stability of Haftar’s coalition is questionable, which means that Russia must play to both sides to have a guaranteed outcome. Haftar’s old age and questionable health makes the unity of the eastern government after his death debatable, because it’s a coalition of local militias and tribal favorites. Also the blatant favoritism of certain tribes or regions in each government’s makeup may aggravate tensions between groups towards further division within the country. If hope for a political solution and economic progress collapses, then the strength of both the LNA and LNC may suffer.
Haftar and Sirraj recently agreed to have elections in less than a year, but with a lack of concrete plans it is difficult to see how that will be executed. Russia has encouraged for delays in the election process in order that both sides can agree on terms. The longer this stalemate continues, the Libyan people may choose Haftar or another autocrat or civil war over the uncertainty of waiting for democracy. One has to wonder if Russia will encourage elections at all or if there is an election, whether the winner of such an election would be handpicked by them.
U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo participates in the Warsaw Summit in Warsaw, Poland on February 14, 2019 [State Department photo/ Public Domain via Flickr]
President Trump has with no doubt made his aggressive position towards Iran very clear. He pulled out of the Iran deal last May, re-imposed harsh economic sanctions toward the Islamic Republic on November 5th (and announced them with questionable Game of Thrones inspired “memes”), and publicly attacked the Iranian regime on several occasions. On Monday February 11, a day which marked the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, the POTUS tweeted again, both in English and in Persian, to label the Iranian regime as “40 years of corruption, repression, terror” and overall “failure”.
Iran has been a major concern for the United States, and it won’t cease being so anytime soon - especially given the U.S. decision to pull out of Syria by April and the dangerous vacuum, which Iran could fill, that will follow.
Moreover, the IRGC recently inaugurated a surface-to-surface ballistic missile with a range of 621 miles, as reported by news. Iran claimed it has missiles with range upward of 2000 km, which threatens US and Israel military bases in the region, all within its reach. Although Tehran has labeled its missile development program as “purely defensive”, the US condemned the Islamic Republic and vowed to remain “relentless” in pressuring and confronting the country’s “malign behavior”.
To discuss the future of the Middle East, and in particular to counter and isolate Iran, the Trump administration recently held a conference in Warsaw, Poland.
The meeting took place on February 13-14, and was led by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Pence, who both argued how peace in the Middle East cannot be achieved without confronting Iran. In the light of the Iranian threat, he said, it’s time that the European states join the U.S. and the Iranian population against the evil Shi’a regime. “Time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the Iran deal and join with us as we bring the economic and diplomatic pressure necessary to give the Iranian people, the region, and the world, the peace, security, and freedom they deserve,” said Pence.
Europe seems in fact to be split between anti-JCPOA and pro-JCPOA (France, Germany, UK), with the latter faction being the preeminent one. The very fact that the meeting was held in Poland suggests that the East European states share general US view on the issue, or, at least, that it doesn’t necessarily agree with the mainstream European point of view.
However, France, Germany, and UK are strong supporters of the Iranian Deal. Although they officially attended the meeting, the three key European states sent only low-level diplomatic staff to Warsaw. This was meant to send a political message: they don’t support what Trump is trying to do, they believe that coercing and threatening Iran is not going to cause anything but war, and they want to avoid a conflict with the Islamic Republic.
Vice President Pence harshly criticized the G3’s pro-JCPOA position, and said how “some of our leading European partners […] have led the effort to create mechanisms to break up our sanctions,” referring to Instex, the new financial mechanism promoted by France, Germany and Great Britain. Instex, acronym forInstrument in Support of Trade Exchanges, enables trade between Iranian companies and foreign companies bypassing the American banking system (and thereby Trump-imposed sanctions). This new economic tool suggests how the three major European countries are seeking to avoid a war in the Middle East and to preserve Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA - which, according to the latest IAEA report, is still enduring - at all costs. Overall, the Warsaw conference and its main purpose, condemning and isolating Iran, were viewed by the major European states as unproductive and simplistic.
However, although no concrete solution was found nor common ground to counter Iran was met between US and Europe, the Warsaw conference was extremely significant for the Arab and Israeli representatives attending. Both representatives from Israel and from the Gulf states, in fact, expressed the common interest of countering Iran. “Everyone”, as the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs Adel al-Jubeir said, agreed on the Islamic Republic’s “role in destabilizing security and stability in the region”. The Israeli PM and foreign ministers of Arab countries "stood together and spoke with unusual force, clarity, and unity against the common threat of the Iranian regime”, as Netanyahu himself told reporters.
Just a few days before the conference, on the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Islamic Republic (Monday February 11th), an IRGC commander said Iran would destroy Tel Aviv and Haifa if the US attacks Iran. Netanyahu replied by saying that attacking any cities in Israel would mark Iran’s last revolution anniversary, and that Israel is aware but not intimidated by the threats Iran poses to their security. Israel is committed to opposing Iran with all its means.
Bahrain’s foreign minister, in a video leaked by Netanyahu’s press office, is heard saying how Iran is currently much more of a concern than Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories, a “bigger challenge, more toxic”. He also added how Iran undermines the PA by supporting Hamas, and thereby identified the Islamic Republic as a major obstacle to peace and regional stability.
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain officially don’t recognize Israel, yet at Warsaw they sat next to Israeli PM Netanyahu, held private meetings with him, and agreed on the necessity to counter the Iranian threat.
The dynamics observed at the conference suggest that an anti-Iran joint force between Israel and Gulf States is not such an absurd hypothesis. Many Arabs, including both PA and Hamas, have indeed accused the participants of Warsaw of promoting normalization with the Zionist enemy, viewed as a form of treason. However, Saudi Arabia reiterated how the conference dealt with the Palestinian issue too, despite the Palestinians’ refusal to attend. Saudi minister Jubeir tweeted that the Kingdom’s firm position on the Palestinian question “is based on the Arab Peace Initiative”. Based off the Warsaw summit, how Iran’s threat to Middle East stability will be addressed is yet to be clear, but one thing is sure: the Arab-Israeli conflict already is, and will not cease to be, directly affected by the Iranian issue.
Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump are seen during their meeting at the King David hotel in Jerusalem, May 22, 2017. [PHOTO: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs VIA FLICKR]
The Trump Administration’s Middle East “Peace Plan,” headed by Jared Kushner, has been in its “pre-launch” phase for nearly two years. The plan itself serves as a representation of Trump’s global foreign policy. While substantive details have been kept intentionally vague, recent updates by Kushner suggest that the President’s plan for peace in the region is inspired by two main concepts: the idea that all arrangements, whether economic, diplomatic, or philanthropic, must have an immediate, non-abstract, benefit to the US; and the idea that maintaining a hard line on punitive sanctions during the negotiation process is the best position for putting maximum pressure on the state with whom a deal is being made. This diplomatic strategy should come as no surprise to us as, after all, it is the first sentence of chapter two in the Art of the Deal,
“My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after. Sometimes I settle for less than I sought, but in most cases I still end up with what I want.”
But does this method translate well for international relations?
On the Israeli/Palestinian front, President Trump has been unambiguous in his support for Israel. Since the May 2018 move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, Palestinian leaders have been reluctant to meet or negotiate with the Trump Administration, officially severing all ties with the President and claiming the Embassy move hindered the possibility of stability in the region. In an effort to bring the Palestinians to the negotiation table, Sec. of State Mike Pompeo blocked $165m in scheduled aid to the Palestinians in October of 2018, and has to date cut at least half a billion dollars in spending for Palestinian security and infrastructure. This came off the heels of closures of PA offices in Washington DC and the end of aid to East Jerusalem hospitals and UNRWA.
Clearly, these aid cuts are intended to place the United States in a position of power within the peace process. Perhaps the President intends to squeeze the Palestinians to their breaking point before releasing the much-anticipated Peace Plan. However, since then, bipartisan members of Congress, including Sen. Lindsey Graham-R and Sen. Tim Kaine-D, have been drafting a bill intended to counteract the Trump cuts and provide investment money to Palestinian businesses and aid for infrastructure. This shows that there are members of both parties who doubt that an uncompromising stance on economic sanctions will ultimately benefit the negotiation process.
The Palestinians are also retaining a hardline stance in the peace process. Even though Administration officials claim the content of the report has not been leaked, Palestinian officials have preemptively rejected all portions of the plan believed to be leaked in January. Recently, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah sent a letter to the Trump Administration formally rejecting all US aid in the wake of the 2018 Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, a congressional act which allows victims of terrorism to hold any government that accepts American aid liable for monetary judgements in American courts. The stance taken by the PA leadership seems to be a reverberation of Trump’s own negotiation style.
As Israel’s closest ally and economic mainstay, Trump assumes the United States comes from a position of absolute power. But is this still the case? According to Israel’s Tourism Ministry, between August 2017 and August 2018, the number of Chinese tourists to Israel jumped 30%. Several billion-dollar Asian tech firms have set up headquarters in Israel during the past year alone, including Singapore-based Temasek Holdings which recently acquired the Israeli consulting firm Sygnia for $250 million. And three airlines now offer non-stop flights to China, up from only one last year, with Air India planning non-stop flights from Tel Aviv to Mumbai. These investments in Israel mark a growing interest in market relations between Israel and Asia. This means more than just increased competition with the US economically — it means China now has a vested interest in the stability of the region. No-strings-attached aid to the Palestinians has already been reported from Europe, as well as China, Russia, Canada, Saudi Arabia, and several other nations. Whereas in previous years the US could act unilaterality as the region’s superpower, both Israelis and Palestinians now have more options to choose from with regards to who they negotiate with.
The Art of the Deal Diplomacy employed by Trump and embraced by his team may have been an effective negotiating tactic in deals with Hyatt over Manhattan’s Commodore Hotel, but it may not be as effective when determining American foreign policy in the Middle East. This is especially true considering the almost Cold War-like rivalry in the region over the past ten years and the growing competition between Russia and China and the US. The goal of peace and stability in the region is not a local one, but a global one. And while the international community and the US government agree on the intended outcome, time alone can decide whether Trump’s diplomatic strategy will prove successful.