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Feb 19, 2009 | 11:52 GMT

16 mins read

Part 5: The Obama Administration and the Middle East

To download a PDF of this piece click here. Editor's Note: This is the fifth piece in a series that explores how key countries in various regions have interacted with the United States in the past, and how their relationships with Washington will likely be defined during the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. Since the mid-20th century decline of the British Empire — the original Western great power that dominated the Middle East — the United States has had a deep, complex relationship with the region. For the nearly five decades of the Cold War, U.S. Middle Eastern policy was defined by the geostrategic threat from the Soviet Union and the need to protect oil interests. U.S. policy has also hinged on managing the Arab-Israeli conflict and, in recent decades, containing radical Islamist forces. It was not until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, however, that the United States thrust itself militarily into the region. Some eight years later, a variety of different Islamist forces remain in play, but Washington is maintaining a geopolitical balancing act with the key nation-states of the region. At a strategic level, the overall U.S. imperative in the region (as in Eurasia generally) is to prevent the rise of hegemonic powers that could become potential global challengers to the United States. In the case of the Middle East, that means pursuing complex bilateral and multilateral policies, primarily with the region's seven main players: Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Syria, Egypt and Turkey.


Iraq is, and always has been, an artificial entity. The core of the population lies between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but in reality Iraq essentially comprises the leftover land not claimed by the more geographically and ethnically coherent states that surround it. Turkey covers the Anatolian Plateau, Iran is a stronghold defined by the Zagros Mountains, Syria controls the eastern slopes of the Lebanon Mountains, and the al-Saud family holds the deep deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. All of Iraq's neighbors can relatively easily project power into Iraq, but Iraq lacks the geographic security necessary to either defend itself effectively or project its own power reliably. Iraq's internal divisions — among Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab — make it all the more difficult for Iraq to function as a meaningful entity. There is one strategy that can allow such an artificial construct to survive: Establish tight dictatorial rule over the population to minimize the impact of foreign influence, and maintain a powerful military to help keep neighboring states on the defensive. Iraq in the past followed this formula faithfully, but today's Iraq has neither of these things. Instead, Iraq is riven by internal differences, and managed by an external occupation force. That force, the United States, has an interest in preserving an independent, pro-American Iraq as a buffer against other regional powers, most notably Iran. But it also has an interest in vastly reducing the effort it dedicates to the occupation. So the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, knows that it has to share influence in Iraq — most notably with Iran. In turn, this attracts the interest of Iraq's other neighbors, who would like a piece of the Iraqi pie for themselves. Those states are concerned about the possibility of an Iranian-dominated Iraq, however, just as much as they are about an Iraq that is strong and independent in its own right. And so while the United States is preparing to rapidly draw down forces in Iraq, Washington will retain a residual force to build on a strategic relationship with Baghdad, to hedge against Tehran and to assuage Iraq's other neighbors' concerns about Iraq or Iran becoming too powerful. Meanwhile, new leadership in Iraq is beginning to consolidate just as the Americans are preparing to draw down. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has leveraged his position, largely meaningless under the American occupation, to become a major power broker with his own tribal councils and paramilitaries. Many in Iraq are already drawing parallels between his policies and Saddam Hussein's. Al-Maliki is attempting to take advantage of his relationship with the United States to make his position militarily unassailable. A Shi'i, he has reached out to the Iranians to ensure that, come what may, his government will continue to rule, and he is building selective alliances with Sunni tribes to limit the power of the Kurds. Success for al-Maliki is far from certain, but if Iraq is to be ruled successfully in the aftermath of an American withdrawal, its leaders will do something similar to what al-Maliki is doing.


Contemporary Iran is like a mountainous fortress. It is bounded on the west by the Zagros Mountains, on the north by the Alborz range, along its eastern flank by lesser ranges bordering Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and on the south by the ocean. The Iranian interior is also mountainous, except for desert areas that are largely uninhabited. The fact that most of Iran's people live in mountains — and that the dominant Persian ethnicity comprises only a little more than half the population — makes the country difficult to govern except with an authoritarian system. Predominantly Shiite, Iran also is surrounded by Sunni countries populated by other ethnicities; these factors tend to inhibit Iran's attempts to revive Persian hegemony in the region. Here is where the political fragmentation and reconstitution of Iraq in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion represents a considerable opportunity for Tehran. The elimination of the Sunni regime in Baghdad not only removed a major security threat to Tehran, but also provided an opportunity for the Iranians to try to influence Iraq's political future through their ties to its Shiite majority. The hope among Iranian leaders has been to help remake Iraq in such a way that it no longer poses a threat to Iran. The need to rebuild Iraq has also led the United States to begin moving toward re-engaging Iran diplomatically after three decades of confrontation (and occasional limited cooperation). Now that Obama is in the process of opening direct public negotiations, Iran is hoping for a deal whereby it can not only consolidate the gains it has made in Iraq, but also emerge as a player in Afghanistan, the Levant and the wider Middle East. In a broader sense, Tehran hopes to rehabilitate itself internationally, pull out of its current economic doldrums and re-emerge as a major energy-exporting state — a prerequisite to its aim of becoming a regional powerhouse. A number of hurdles still stand between Tehran and this goal, however. These include the need for a settlement on its controversial nuclear program, the need to consolidate its gains in Iraq now that provincial elections have shaken up the Shiite political landscape, the question of cooperation with the west on Afghanistan, and most importantly, the question of how to develop a working bilateral relationship with the United States.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is a militarily weak state, but since the discovery of oil in the early 20th century, it is also among the wealthiest. This has driven the ruling al-Saud family to seek alliances with great powers (initially the United Kingdom and, since the end of World War II, the United States) in order to ensure the security of its kingdom. Without oil, the kingdom's only other claim to geopolitical significance would be its relationship with transnational religious extremism, which is complicated because the Arabian Peninsula is home to Islam's holiest sites. Because of their petrodollar wealth, however, the Saudis have been able to check the jihadist threat and align even more closely with Washington, while attempting to move away from socioreligious conservatism. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, however, ultimately empowered Saudi Arabia's principal adversaries in the region: Iran and its Shiite Arab allies. Because of this, the Saudis have been worried about how a potential U.S.-Iranian rapprochement might affect Riyadh's national security and its status as the United States' leading Arab ally. The Saudis do have options, however. In fact, although the falling price of crude places some limits on Saudi financial power, Riyadh's immense oil wealth gives it influence in Washington at a time of a global recession and financial crisis. Despite U.S. overtures to Iran, the U.S.-Saudi relationship is much stronger — and Washington and Riyadh have a common interest in making sure they can create a Sunni bulwark in Iraq to block Iran from dominating the country.


Israel's behavior is shaped by two distinct geographic features: its small size (i.e., lack of strategic depth) and a location where it is surrounded by hostile states and peoples. This has led the Jewish state to be proactively — and often aggressively — focused on disrupting external threats to its tenuous national security. Israel has tried through a combination of force and alliance to prevent its Arab neighbors from uniting against it, and has always been aligned with a great power for its security needs. Since the 1960s, that great power has been the United States. Over time, however, Israel's dependency on Washington has decreased to the point where U.S. and Israeli interests have begun to diverge at times. U.S. efforts to counter transnational jihadism in the wake of 9/11 pushed the Bush administration toward policies that have conflicted with Israeli interests. These include the move to drive Syrian forces out of Lebanon, which Israel opposed because it had an understanding with Damascus that the Syrian troops would keep a leash on Hezbollah. Also, Washington's recent push to democratize the region has aided the rise of certain Islamist forces: Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and — after the fall of the Baathist regime in Baghdad — Iraqi Islamists, both Shiite and Sunni, and an assertive Iran. That said, the foundation of the U.S.-Israeli relationship remains strong, as the two allies agree strategically on the need to keep the Arab/Muslim Middle East politically fragmented. There are, however, concerns within Israel over Obama's plans to go above and beyond the Bush administration's diplomatic efforts with Iran, and over the new administration's goal of improving ties with the Islamic world at large. The Israelis are therefore working both strategically and tactically to counter the rise of Iran. A key element of this is Israel's ongoing peace talks with Syria, Iran's only ally in the Arab world. Peace with Syria could allow Israel to neutralize the military threat from Iran's premier militant proxy, Lebanon's Hezbollah movement. The Israelis also have been quietly cooperating with the Saudis and other Arab states who share Israel's concerns about Iran — especially on the issue of countering Hezbollah and the efforts to pull Hamas out of the Iranian orbit.


Syria's borders, a product of the carving-up of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I, are ambiguous and constricting from Damascus' point of view. This is why Syria's primary geopolitical interests are concentrated to the west in Lebanon, the economic engine of the Levant. Without Lebanon, Syria is poor and isolated. A Lebanon under Syrian influence, however, gives Damascus access to the Mediterranean basin and makes Syria a regional power to be reckoned with. Militarily, the greatest threats Syria faces are Turkey to the north and Israel to the south. Because Syria is no match for these countries in a military confrontation, Damascus must resort to political settlements for security. Syria already has a political understanding with the Turks fueled by a common interest in containing Kurdish separatism, but a political understanding with the Israelis will require a lot more work. This is where the United States comes in. Washington is the chief ally and security guarantor for both Turkey and Israel. The Syrians are already well on their way to reclaiming hegemony in Lebanon, but Damascus also needs the major powers in the region — including the United States — to recognize and accept Syria's influential role in the Levant. Syria's negotiations with Israel require Damascus to follow through with commitments to neutralize Hezbollah's military arm and to deny support to Palestinian groups like Hamas, whom the Syrians will happily hang out to dry in order to ensure their own security. The United States under the Bush administration mostly gave the al Assad regime in Damascus the cold shoulder, but the Obama administration's moves to re-engage Syria could provide the Alawite-Baathist government the opportunity it has been looking for to break out of diplomatic isolation. Washington's interest in engaging Syria diplomatically is that it could deny Iran a key ally in the Levant as well as a logistical support system for militant proxies. These negotiations will be trying, however, especially considering the Syrian regime's perception of insecurity and the fact that it will be asked to alter three decades of foreign policy.


Egypt is, in essence, the Nile River Delta — the country's entire culture and population is limited to a narrow valley surrounded by a mass of desert. Even at the height of Egypt's power during the Pharaonic Age, it only very rarely projected power beyond its core in the Nile region. Content to live on the Nile, Egypt never felt the pressure of other impinging cultures — until those others developed technologies that allowed them to overcome the desert barriers that made the Egyptians feel so safe. This explains why for nearly 2,500 years Egypt remained under the control of various dominions — Persian, Greek, Roman, Arab, and Turkic — and why, even since the 1952 founding of the Egyptian republic at the hands of pan-Arab nationalists under the leadership of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Cairo has been unable to achieve its goal of being the leader of the Arab world. Like Israel and Saudi Arabia, modern Egypt also has heavily relied on alignment with great powers. During the days of the monarchy, Cairo was closely tied with the British. Under the Nasserite regime, Egypt spent 20 years in alignment with the Soviet Union. In the 1970s, the Egyptians joined the Western camp and made peace with Israel, which has enabled Cairo to further its regional ambitions as the main mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since then, Egypt has been the main ally through which Washington has managed Arab-Israeli affairs. But the 9/11 attacks forced the United States to move beyond Egypt and work with other regional players as well, a process that will only accelerate under the Obama administration. Between Washington's willingness to pursue relations with Iran and a potential rehabilitation of Syria, Egypt's favored position is fast deteriorating. As it is, Cairo has to live with the fact that Saudi Arabia is the real leader of the Arab world (due to its oil resources). Ironically, the one thing that could raise Egypt's profile in the eyes of the United States is potential instability at home amid the eventual leadership transition away from 80-year-old President Hosni Mubarak. The United States would have an interest in making sure that Islamist forces did not take advantage of the transition.


Turkey is situated on what could be considered the key piece of geopolitical real estate in Eurasia — the crossroads connecting Europe, the Middle East, the former Soviet Union and the Black and Mediterranean seas. The high plateau of the Anatolian Peninsula is easily defensible and has led to the development of a maritime culture. While the Turks have held this area since the early 14th century, these geographical advantages allowed their predecessors (such as the Byzantine Empire) the same type of geopolitical leverage. In other words, those controlling this territory — regardless of their identity — have historically been great powers. The past 90 years, during which modern Turkey has not sought great-power status, have thus been a historical anomaly. Ankara's restrained behavior has to do with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the republic's internal struggles and the logic of the Cold War, which divided Eurasia and forced Turkey to be content with its status as a member of the Western camp. As a close U.S. ally and a NATO member-state, Turkey was long the bulwark blocking Soviet expansion into the Middle East. The 2002 rise to power of the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, which has proved able to work with the secular military-dominated establishment, has enabled Turkey to achieve domestic stability. Ankara began reasserting itself as a regional player as well, after the rise of Kurds in neighboring Iraq in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion and the European Union's de facto rejection of Turkey's membership bid. Despite the tensions in U.S.-Turkish relations, the Bush administration recognized Turkey's role as an emerging regional player, especially in the context of the Islamic world — a role the Turks are hoping they will be able to advance further in working with the Obama administration. Turkey's geographic proximity to a resurging Russia and its energy dependence on Moscow, however, will push it from being simply a pro-Western ally to being a pro-Western but independent actor. While the general trend will be toward cooperation, Ankara increasingly can be expected to disagree with the West on issues where its own interests diverge from those of the United States and Europe — as evidenced by the Turkish leadership's increasingly critical stance toward Israel.
Part 5: The Obama Administration and the Middle East

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