All of the previously acquired information from the three earlier parts allows one to form four phased scenario forecasts that help predict the contours and consequences of the US-Iran and Russia-Saudi Arabia ‘reorientations’. The first one is essentially a reading of the present state of affairs, with the second and the third being the two most likely realities that they can branch off into. The main variables deciding which direction they go are the geopolitical and diplomatic adroitness of Putin’s balancing act, and the US’ success at forcing a Russian-Iranian split. Finally, the fourth scenario presents the logical full pivot end game, but it’s presented as a two-in-one reading that details the opposing futures within the same section.
The present situation is characterized by a growing difficulty in describing clear-cut geopolitical ‘loyalties’ and ‘allied’ affiliations, with the previous template’s clarity (US-Saudi Arabia, Russia-Iran) becoming blurred because of the initiatives taken by the Mideast states under discussion. The Iranians are still aligned with Russia, but they’re moving closer to the US; as a result, the Saudis are still aligned with the US, but they’re moving closer to the Russians. None of this has to be a zero-sum game, but the Saudis are making it out to be, and this is in turn making the Iranians cautious of Russia to an extent that they haven’t ever been before. There is thus a state of flux and semi-confusion that creates a strategic situation which the actors themselves might not even be fully aware of, nor might they understand the full extent to which their actions impact on events and shape the other sides’ perceptions of them. All of this therefore exacerbates the strategic dilemma at play here and leads to this period being one of regional geopolitical transition, albeit with a yet uncertain direction for how it relates to the unipolar and multipolar worlds.
New Cold War Battlefield
In the scenario branch more beneficial to unipolarity, the New Cold War’s geopolitical intrigues migrate to the Mideast and hasten the reorientation dynamic taking place. The region’s two main hegemons – Iran and Saudi Arabia – become the main pieces in Russia and the US’ ‘grand chessboard’, which is precisely what the US is pushing for, and incidentally, what the two Mideast countries have (unwittingly?) gotten themselves into through their rival reorientation initiatives. The US wants to speed up the strategic divide between Russia and Iran, knowing full well (as was earlier explained) that Saudi Arabia will still maintain some level of complex interdependence with the US no matter what happens, but Russia doesn’t enjoy this same privilege with Iran and can end up losing all of the political capital it’s invested there. Moscow and Tehran mostly enjoyed strategic coordination during the last decade of Iran’s ‘international’ (Western) isolation, but neither Russia nor Iran feels as though they “owe” the other side anything or is concretely attached to it aside from their collaborative efforts in Syria. The same certainly can’t be said for the US and Saudi Arabia, which despite the growing divide between them, still retain deep conventional military relations between the Pentagon and the GCC, especially in the case of Yemen.
Due to the complex and overlapping processes taking place, especially in the condition of a major trust deficit between the two reorienting pairs, Iran may begin probing ways to assert its renewed confidence northwards, which would surely create a chill between it and Russia. On the Saudi front, the US might seek to exploit the Kingdom’s paranoia (perhaps using an ISIL false flag) in order to provoke it into a brutal crackdown against the Shiite population, but unlike in previous instances, Iran’s strong condemnation of the Saudis’ actions will likely be joined by the US as well, which would symbolically take Tehran’s side in order to publicly demonstrate its commitment to the reorientation. Russia, however, wouldn’t take anyone’s side in this situation, opting instead to invoke “state sovereignty” to say that Saudi Arabia should resolve its acknowledged internal divisions without external interference. Moscow might be calculating that this would both promote its ideology of non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state and score it soft power points with Iran because it stops short of fully supporting Saudi Arabia, but here, it would likely face a lose-lose: the fiercely sectarian Saudis would be upset at their new partner’s reluctance to publicly and unambiguously support their crackdown; and the Iranians, already infused with American-backed confidence to pivot northwards, wouldn’t step away from their strategy simply because of a half-hearted statement from Russia that could ambiguously be understand as being either for or against the subjugated Shiites.
As time carries on, the faint outlines of a major Mideast reorientation will take on substantial clarity, but the new arrangement will be somewhat illusory. While the US and Iran would have objectively moved closer to one another in this scenario, the same couldn’t be as robustly said for Russia and Saudi Arabia. Despite working together to counter the US and the effects of the forthcoming Iranian energy disruption, they might be unable to reconcile their ideological differences (worsened by American- and Iranian-sponsored information operations against both sides), which would generate a degree of mistrust between them that hampers their forthcoming cooperation and weakens their partnership. Still, pressed by both sides (the US and Iran), they’ll still continue to remain close out of mutual geopolitical self-interest, but their ties will increasingly take on the defining characteristic of completely being a (indefinite) ‘marriage of convenience’ and nothing more substantial than that.
Multipolarity Builds Muscles In The Mideast
This scenario is much more positive for multipolarity, and it begins to take shape as Russia’s balancing act between Saudi Arabia and Iran becomes perfected. In this vision of the future, Russia is able to successfully clarify its relationship with Saudi Arabia to Iran, and Iran also avoids the US’ temptations to see this as a zero-sum game explicitly aimed against it. Iran may take issue with the increasing intimacy between Russia and Saudi Arabia, but mutual confidence-building measures through their coordination in saving Syria would reinforce trust. Just as Putin is trying to fulfill a “miracle” in bringing Syria and Saudi Arabia ‘together’ (not in the public/strategic sense, but in getting the Saudis to withdraw from Syria), it might also try to do the same in being a conduit for secret talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran. If the US can reach agreements with its decades-long enemies of Cuba and Iran, the logic goes, then what precludes the Iranians and Saudis from doing something similar in a strategic sense, and in this age of multipolar diplomacy, what better of a mediating conduit to do so than Russia?
It’s not to be naively optimistic and suggest that there’d be any concrete results in this proposed initiative, but if there ever were to be any secret talks between the Saudis and Iranians (indirectly or indirectly), the most realistic way they’d occur would be through Russia, which is balancing between them both right now. In terms of the grand strategy at play here, the point wouldn’t be for any of them to necessarily agree on anything, but for Russia to use this platform as a means of enhancing its trust and credibility with both partners, which could allow it to manage the dilemmas between them that pose the greatest threats to multipolarity and regional stability. Specifically, one of Russia’s aims would be to have Iran hold back from a geopolitically motivated northwards pivot and instead concentrate its energy on an east-west one between Turkey/EU and Pakistan/China/India that is of an exclusively economic nature. At the same time, however, Russia would do its best to convince Iran to refrain from flooding the market with its energy exports and see the greater economic benefit it could procure by phasing its output in order to strategically set higher global prices in coordination with Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Regarding Saudi Arabia, Russia’s goals would be to have it retreat from pursuing regime change in Syria (no matter how loudly it proclaims that this is still its ‘official’ goal in order to save face) and to enact some sort of ‘cold peace’ with Iran in the Gulf. Yemen, as spoken about in Part II, would be a completely different matter, since part of the ‘grand bargain’ for Saudi Arabia’s retreat from Syria would be for it to increase its activities against Yemen. This would certainly rub Iran the wrong way, but in the larger context of the “race to the finish” that was extrapolated upon in the previous pieces, Saudi Arabia’s intensified offensive operations in Yemen might ultimately be seen as ‘fair game’ since Iran would simultaneously be increasing its defensive support to Syria. Differences in outlook will certainly persist between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but Russia’s guiding motive in managing its relations with both of them (and between one and the other) is to get Iran and Saudi Arabia to reach some sort of détente-like understanding amongst themselves (with Russian mediation) after the “race” is over. The more active of a role that Russia can play over this process or in attempting to even achieve it, the less diplomatically relevant (but no less militarily significant, of course) the US becomes in terms of the regional security architecture, which would create the context for the next phased scenario development.
Full Pivot Of Problems Or Pragmatism?
Both scenario tracks ultimately result in a full pivot taking place, although the nature of what this encompasses is drastically different in each case. The ‘Pivot of Problems’ is the preferred unipolar track, while the ‘Pivot of Pragmatism’ represents the multipolar equivalent:
Pivot Of Problems:
This final phase sees the geopolitical reorientations as a fait accompli, and such a reversal would not be completely unprecedented. The Ogaden War in the late 1970s saw the USSR and US switching proxies midway through the conflict, but in the Middle Eastern case of the New Cold War, much bigger and more important players than Ethiopia and Somalia are being ‘traded’. The Pivot of Problems largely aligns the US-Iran against Russia-Saudi Arabia, although the US still maintains some vestige of influence over Saudi Arabia that threatens to undermine Russia’s relations with it. By splitting Russia and Iran through the encouragement of Tehran’s Northern Pivot, and also sowing the seeds of possible discord between new ‘partners’ Russia and Saudi Arabia, it can be said that the US’ divide and conquer policy is working quite well.
Problems are aplenty in this scenario, not least among them the heightened rivalry brewing between Russia and Iran in the Caucasus, Caspian, and Central Asia. The US has successfully swayed Iran to commence its Northern Pivot into its ancient sphere of influence, which puts it in conflict with the more recent and established Russian sphere of influence in these areas. As part of the New Cold War, the US uses the country as a launching pad for destabilizing Russian interests there, both directly (goading Iran into overly asserting itself against Russia) and indirectly (suggesting that Iran host NGOs that are unfavorable to Russian influence). Further afield in the Gulf, the US’ ISIL war against Saudi Arabia poses a serious risk to the Kingdom’s actual disintegration, the fear of which succeeds in spiking energy prices and saving the US’ shale oil industry (to say nothing of the astronomical prices that would appear if Saudi Arabia actually did collapse). On both ends of the partnership spectrum, the US and Iran are on the strategic offensive while Russia and Saudi Arabia struggle to defend their interests and avoid a falling out amongst themselves.
Pivot Of Pragmatism:
A completely different end game scenario is the Pivot of Pragmatism, which represents the fulfilment of multipolarity in the Mideast. The retreat of American influence is the main theme of this scenario, and it sees the US contained to the geostrategic but relatively less important countries of Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain (with Israel assumed to be a perpetual ally in spite of the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership’s inroads with it). Skillful Russian diplomacy has engendered this reality by balancing Iran and Saudi Arabia amongst themselves and helping to bring the two into (secret) dialogue with one another, especially when it comes to coordinating energy prices. The ‘cold peace’ that sets over the Gulf provides little for the US to directly exploit, since both Mideast powers agree to freeze their competing interests in Bahrain and the Shiite-populated Saudi provinces for the time being. Nevertheless, it must be pointed out, the War on Yemen (by this point, likely engaged in a national liberation war against Saudi and/or pro-Saudi proxy occupation) and/or a successionist crisis in Oman (between pro-Saudi elements favoring a GCC political union and traditional pragmatic forces advocating against it) could untangle the multipolar matrix and reignite Saudi-Iranian tensions.
Overall, however, the US’ role has marginally decreased in the Mideast by this point, and although no real antagonism exists between Riyadh and Washington, Saudi Arabia has realized that it can live without the US and instead rely on the “miracles” of Russian diplomacy to help keep the strategic balance with Iran. Additionally, seeing the benefits of non-Western investment in Iran, Saudi Arabia becomes attracted to BRICS and the multipolar world in general, seeking its own similar investments and strategic partnership in order to emulate the explosive real-sector growth that the Islamic Republic is expected to have in the coming future. The Russian-mediated moderation of Saudi-Iranian tensions helps promote multipolarity in the Mideast, with only the US and Turkey remaining as the significant spoilers (the latter possibly too bogged down in Kurdistan to do anything by that time). Israel, as mentioned in the preceding paragraph, would still be an American ally, but the growing interactions that it has with the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership and the New Silk Road could result in its leaders recalculating the benefits of regional destabilization and opting instead to cooperate and profit within the new arrangement (but one of course shouldn’t get their hopes up for this). Pragmatism comes to define the regional order, and the US’ traditional ‘policy of problems’ that it so successfully applied in keeping the Mideast divided in the past becomes ever more irrelevant in affecting the course of events.
Saudi Arabia and Iran’s reorientations towards Russia and the US, respectively, have geopolitical repercussions that will surely reverberate throughout the region for years to come. Each country is going along with these two undeniable trends for a complex variety of reasons, but mostly, they come down to economic opportunism (on the part of Iran) and strategic insecurity (for Saudi Arabia). Both Mideast powers’ movements towards one or the other New Cold War protagonists has created an obvious security dilemma that’s accelerating the reorientation process and widening the gap between Russia and Iran on one hand, and the US and Saudi Arabia on the other, with all the resultant implications for their bilateral relations both with themselves and their twinned counterparts. Despite that, an atmosphere of heightened tension between both groups of partners (let alone the clear-cut reorientation that creates both ‘camps’ in the first place) isn’t imminent, since Russian diplomacy holds the key to bridging the growing divide and actually reversing it to the strategic favor of the multipolar world. Should this come to pass, then it would severely impede the US’ ability to manipulate the region to its advantage, and quite possibly signal the beginning of the most wide-scale strategic retreat since the Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe.
Andrew Korybko is the political analyst and journalist for Sputnik who currently lives and studies in Moscow, exclusively for ORIENTAL REVIEW.