Middle East News

The New Middle East: A Triangular Struggle for Hegemony

The Middle East is witnessing a new cold war between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. All three military powers see themselves as the legitimate successors to historical empires that once ruled the region. They are now competing to define the shape of a new Middle East.
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Turkey,Iran,And Saudi,Arabia

turkey, iran and saudi arabia flags paint over on chess king. 3D illustration turkey vs iran vs saudi arabia crisis. © sameer madhukar chogale / shutterstock.com

January 16, 2024 01:51 EDT
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A seismic shift is underway in the heart of the Middle East. The region is currently defined by the competition between three formidable powers — Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. The situation is a kind of cold war with the three powers locked in a struggle for influence across the Middle East. This regional cold war is intricately tied to these countries’ historical claims of hegemony. Each nation, with a legacy as the center of Islam and a history of great empires, asserts its legitimacy to shape and rule the region.

Iran: an enduring pillar of hegemony in the Middle East

Iran’s claim to legitimacy is deeply rooted in a history that spans millennia. The land known today as Iran has been home to a succession of influential civilizations and empires, each leaving its mark on the country’s cultural and intellectual makeup. From the Elamites, who rival the Sumerians as one of the oldest civilizations in world history, to the Achaemenids, Parthians, Sassanids and Safavids, Iran’s rich history fosters a profound sense of pride and identity in its people. Iran has often been the seat of power for empires stretching across the Fertile Crescent and into Central Asia, a heritage which serves as a foundation for Iran’s claim to leadership. 

Furthermore, Iran draws strength from its religious legitimacy as the epicenter of the Shia branch of Islam. Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution toppled the pro-Western monarchy and founded a theocratic republic. This revolution gave Iran religious authority as the hub of Shia Islam, which has many adherents in nations such as Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. 

Beginning with the Islamic Revolution, Iran has exported its revolutionary ideology to fellow Shia communities. It has created a network of allied non-state military actors like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and various groups in Iraq and Palestine, strategically extending its influence. The Quds Force, which was led by the late General Qasem Soleimani, plays a pivotal role in coordinating these proxy militias. This force solidified Iran’s ideological foothold beyond its borders.

In addition, Iran has been a major supporter of Hamas, the Palestinian armed group that controls Gaza. Hamas carried out a sudden attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, killing 1,200 people and capturing more than 200 hostages. Iran supplied Hamas with money, arms and training, as well as operational and strategic guidance for the operation.

Iran is also a substantial military power in its own right. The Islamic Republic maintains approximately 610,000 active-duty personnel, 350,000 reserve personnel and 150,000 paramilitary personnel. The military structure comprises two main branches: the regular armed forces, encompassing the army, navy and air force, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a parallel force directly accountable to the Supreme Leader. The IRGC possesses ground, naval and aerospace units, in addition to the Quds Force and the Basij, a volunteer militia.

Iran’s military arsenal includes a spectrum of ballistic and cruise missiles, with some boasting a range of up to 1,200 miles. Drones, submarines and cyber-warfare capabilities further enhance Iran’s military capabilities.

Notably, Iran adopts a strategic approach relying on asymmetric and unconventional warfare tactics, employing swarm tactics, proxy forces, and sabotage to counterbalance adversaries’ conventional superiority. Illustrating this strategy, Iran has recently employed missile and drone attacks to target US bases in Iraq, as well as targeting Israel-linked ships. Meanwhile, Iran’s proxy forces like Hamas and Hezbollah serve to harass and deter these adversaries.

Saudi Arabia: the conservative powerhouse

If Iran is the revolutionary force in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is the conservative one.

Saudi Arabia is the cradle of Islam. It was here that the Prophet Muhammad was born and received his revelations in the 7th century CE. The two holiest sites in Islam, the Great Mosque of Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, are both in Saudi Arabia. For this reason, the Saudi monarch styles himself as “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.” This historical and religious connection grants the nation a profound moral legitimacy to exert influence over the Middle East.

The two mosques serve as focal points of the annual pilgrimage, known as hajj. Making the pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime is a religious duty for Muslims. By hosting millions of pilgrims yearly, Saudi Arabia strategically deploys its religious influence to further its political objectives and propagate its ideological stance.

During the formative period of Islamic civilization, Saudi Arabia was the center of the Caliphate. It served as the seat of the first four caliphs who governed the expanding Muslim empire from 632 to 661 CE. Following the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the last Islamic caliphate after World War I, Saudi Arabia again asserted itself as the heart of Islam, without laying claim to the title of caliph. Saudi Arabia championed Wahhabism — a strict and conservative interpretation of Sunni Islamic teachings. This ideology, considered by its adherents the pure and authentic form of Islam, underpins Saudi Arabia’s historical and religious claims.

Saudi Arabia also enjoys the support of a major non-Islamic power, the United States. The US has emerges as Saudi Arabia’s foremost partner, providing robust military support. The roots of this alliance trace back to 1945 when the nations signed a pivotal agreement granting the US access to Saudi oil in exchange for military and economic aid. This agreement, known as the Quincy Pact, was forged by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz Al Saud aboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal. It marked the beginning of a long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationship between the two countries.

Over the years, this strategic partnership has deepened, encompassing cooperation on counter-terrorism, regional security and energy. The United States has supported Saudi Arabia in various conflicts, such as the Iran–Iraq War, the Persian Gulf War and the ongoing Yemen Civil War, as well as in confronting the threats posed by al-Qaeda and ISIS.

As the primary arms supplier to Saudi Arabia, the United States furnishes military training, intelligence, and logistical support, aligning its interests with Saudi policies in the region. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States accounted for 79% of the total arms imports by Saudi Arabia from 2016 to 2020. This alliance positions Saudi Arabia as a key American ally and a counterbalance to Iran’s influence in the Middle East.

Turkey: Ottoman Heritage and a unique foreign policy

The third factor in the Middle East is Turkey, a powerhouse boasting the largest economy in the region and the second-largest population.

Turkey’s foreign policy in the Middle East is anchored in its Ottoman heritage. The Ottoman Empire, centered in Turkey, was the dominant Islamic power and caliphate — both the religious and political leader of the Muslim world until its dissolution in 1924, following Turkey’s defeat in World War I.

The Ottoman Empire ruled the Muslim world from North Africa to Iraq and extended deep into Europe. It was a diverse and multicultural society. This environment promoted coexistence among various ethnic and religious groups through a system of relative tolerance and autonomy.

Turkey’s historical legacy not only gives its people a sense of pride and identity but a perceived right to leadership and influence in the Middle East. Viewing itself as the rightful successor of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey sees itself as having a special responsibility and role within the region, encapsulated in its foreign policy vision of New Ottomanism, tempering Turkish nationalism with a pan-Islamic focus. 

Like Iran, Turkey is a sizeable military power with a large population. Turkey boasts approximately 510,000 active-duty personnel, complemented by 380,000 reserve personnel and an additional 150,000 paramilitary personnel. Turkey is also a member of NATO, which affords the nation access to the collective defense and security mechanisms of the West.

Employing its hard power, Turkey has intervened militarily involvement in various countries, notably Syria, Libya and Iraq. In these theaters, Turkey has lent support to various factions in order to counter adversaries such as the Assad regime, the Haftar forces and Kurdish militias. This military intervention serves as a tangible expression of Turkey’s commitment to shaping regional dynamics.

Turkey strategically deploys proxy forces to bolster its alliances and extend its influence. Entities like the Syrian National Army, the Government of National Accord in Libya and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt serve as instrumental proxies, trained and supported by Turkey to align with its strategic objectives.

The spirit of cold war unmistakanly pervades the current geopolitical landscape. The outcome of the struggle between Iran Saudi Arabia, and Turkey will shape the future of a new Middle East.

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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