The Middle East: A Region of Serious Problems and Dilemmas
Though no major war was witnessed in the Middle East in 2022, the underlying factors of insecurity and instability persisted. The region fluctuated between stability and volatility on account of inter-state and state-society tensions and conflicts. Non-state violent actors like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) continued to grow in the region’s conflict zones and ungoverned spaces, despite their leaders’ decapitation in Syria and Afghanistan. At the same time, the Iran-Israel tensions lingered and were at risk of morphing into a full-blown crisis. Likewise, the Iran-Saudi relations showed possible signs of rapprochement, but a breakthrough looked distant. The anti-hijab protests in Iran looked threatening for the clerical regime. In sum, a discomforting calm loomed over the Middle East throughout the year amid several push and pull factors, which can keep the region an area of serious concern in world politics.
The Middle East was disconcertingly eventful in 2022. Although there was no major war, religious radicalism, localised tensions and conflicts, national struggles between the status quo and anti-status quo forces, and geopolitical polarisation with low-profile outside power interventionism continued to feature in the regional landscape. The region’s traditional reputation as a volatile and differentiated arena in world politics saw little improvement, and its developments were considerably overshadowed by the Ukrainian crisis and other pressing global issues such as climate change, inflation, the COVID-19 pandemic, food shortages and supply problems.
Of the several factors that influenced the region’s capricious terrain, three stood out as the most prevalent – violent extremism; inter-state rivalries and hostilities; and national upheavals. These were all interspersed with major powers’ interventionist activism in pursuit of conflicting interests.
Extremist groups that believe in the use of violence to achieve their ideological and notional objectives to alter national and regional orders continued to haunt many parts of the Middle East. Prominent among them were Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) and their networks of affiliates. Both groups thrived in the conflict and marginal zones within the core and greater Middle East – including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya. The United States (US)’ decapitation of the groups’ leaders – most importantly Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi in 2022 – did little to eradicate the jihadist networks’ ideological vigour and operational capability. While Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian militant and Al-Qaeda veteran, was in line to succeed al-Zawahiri, IS announced Abu al-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi as its new leader on March 10. Although unrelated to the slain al-Qurayshi, little is known about him and his strategic priorities at this stage. Nonetheless, as franchised entities, Al-Qaeda and IS managed to hit targets and cause serious security concerns across the region.
The United Nations (UN)’s reports, confirming US intelligence findings, indicated that while Al-Qaeda and IS were deprived of the capacity to execute high-profile terrorist attacks similar to 9/11, they still used opportunities not only to reconstitute and regain composure, but also to secure territorial footholds in different conflict arenas. The reports validated an earlier assertion by Anthony Cordesman in relation to IS that “The U.S. may have helped to break up the IS proto-state or ‘caliphate’… But scarcely defeated it”. He claimed that IS remains cohesive, with substantial funding to exploit opportunities in Iraq and Syria and beyond.
The same was true about Al-Qaeda. The US and allied retreat in defeat and the return to power of the extremist Taliban regime in Afghanistan proved rejuvenating for both groups. The Taliban’s camaraderie with Al-Qaeda remained intact. Despite the former’s public denial, Afghanistan was left open to Al-Qaeda’s main figures and operatives to strengthen their operational cells in Kabul and several other provinces. According to the UN report, Al-Qaeda is active in at least 15 Afghan provinces. The US drone killing of al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital on July 31, 2022 provided clear evidence of that. Concurrently, the Sunni ethnic Pashtun Taliban hardened their exclusionary, misogynistic and discriminatory theocratic rule, with a sense of ethnic, tribal Pashtun supremacy. They savagely targeted women and the Shia ethnic Hazaras and Tajiks, especially their Panjshiri branch.
However, they failed to stunt the activities of their rival Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) or, for that matter, the National Resistance Front (NRF). ISK expanded its operations in the country with the same approach that the core IS has pursued in Iraq and Syria – that is, to whip up Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict. However, the NRF, standing for a free, inclusive and democratic Afghanistan, with progressive Islam as its religion, enlarged its armed opposition to the Taliban and ISK, operating in several northern and north-eastern parts of Afghanistan.
Sharing common Salafist-Wahhabi ideological and notional goals, though pursuing different timetables to achieve them, Al-Qaeda and IS operations complemented one another. They struck many targets in the Levant, Yemen, Egypt and Libya. For example, in January 2022, a sizeable contingent of IS fighters executed a major attack on a prison in north-eastern Syria, where suspected extremists were being held, sparking a major battle with the US-backed Kurdish opposition that continued for more than 24 hours and left dozens dead. Although the latter prevailed, it clearly demonstrated the strength of the network’s operational capability. In the same month, IS gunmen “stormed an army barrack north of Baghdad in a pre-dawn raid, killing 11 soldiers before escaping”. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) managed to hold on to its captured territory in southern and eastern Yemen with a capacity to defend its turf. In a June 2022 attack, AQAP militants killed 10 Yemeni soldiers. Although both Al-Qaeda and IS affiliates remained largely squeezed out of Tunisia and Libya, the latter still provided fertile ground for their resurgence, given the country’s extreme fragility. The Islamic Republic of Iran was not immune either. Tehran blamed IS for the latest attack on the Cheragh Mosque – a holy Shia shrine in Shiraz – in early October, which killed 15 and injured 40 others. It vowed to avenge the attack at all costs.
Inter-State Tensions and Disputes
The Middle East maintained its reputation as a zone of frenemies, rivalries and conflicts. In addition to the traditional Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which has resulted in many deadly confrontations over the years (the latest being in August 2022), the danger of Israeli-Iranian hostilities morphing into a full-blown confrontation remained high. Despite the resumption of dialogue between Tehran and Riyadh through Iraqi mediation, the two sides still harboured fundamental ideological and geopolitical differences that could not be expected to subside easily and substantially. They stayed locked in proxy conflicts in several regional conflict zones – Yemen, Syria and Lebanon – and have lacked any formal relations since Riyadh broke all ties in January 2016. Subsequently, the Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), slammed the Iranian Islamic regime’s extremism and said that he was working on taking the battle to Iran.
However, Tehran and Riyadh showed an inclination towards a possible rapprochement. The two rivals held meetings in Baghdad through the Iraqi government’s mediation, though without any major breakthroughs. While the sectarian rivalry, based on Tehran championing the cause of Shia Islam and Saudi Arabia claiming the leadership of Sunni Islam, somewhat subsided, conflicting geopolitical and security interests persisted. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners, except Qatar, continued to view Iran as a major threat, with deep concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme and potential to acquire military nuclear capability. They also maintained, along with Israel and several Western allies, most importantly the US, their denunciation of the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. Meanwhile, in line with the United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s and Bahrain’s normalisation of relations with Israel, Riyadh kept nurturing informal links with the Jewish state in an anti-Iranian united front, prompting Tehran in October to warn Saudi Arabia over its “reliance” on Israel.
Meanwhile, the US and Iran remained at loggerheads. President Joe Biden sought to see a revival of the July 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear agreement, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from which his impulsive predecessor, Donald Trump, had pulled out in 2018, while denouncing Iran as a regional menace. Yet, he not only remained totally committed to the US-Israel strategic partnership, but also tried to shore up America’s declining relations with the GCC, most importantly Saudi Arabia, since assuming power.
Iran, on the other hand, showed no urgency in the JCPOA’s resurrection in any form, except on its own terms. While resuming negotiations directly with five other signatories to the deal (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) and indirectly with the US in Geneva, the newly elected hardline President Ebrahim Raisi – an intimate ally of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – moved ahead with Iran’s uranium enrichment to 60 percent purity. Concurrently, to counter US pressure, Tehran took its relations to a higher level with Russia and China. It maintained its close coordination with Moscow in saving Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and reportedly provided Russia with drones and missiles to target civilian and infrastructural sites in Ukraine to maximum effect. It also actively pursued the implementation of the 25-year Cooperation Programme, or Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, which it signed with China on March 27, 2021.
Simultaneously, the Biden administration’s Middle East policy seemed to be in tatters. Riyadh took issue with the US over its criticism of MBS for the gruesome killing of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul in 2018. In the October 5 OPEC-plus meeting, it joined forces with Putin’s Russia to reduce OPEC’s oil production by 2 million barrels a day, to Washington’s dismay. Washington desperately wanted to isolate Moscow and curtail its ability to fund its aggression in Ukraine as well as secure a reduction in energy prices just before the US mid-term elections, which Trump’s Republican supporters were poised to win.
Biden vowed to retaliate, including halting the sale of American arms to Saudi Arabia, despite the US being a traditional security provider to the Kingdom. Riyadh rejected Washington’s retaliatory posture, claiming its decision was made purely on a market basis, and derided outside interference in the conduct of its affairs.
At the same time, Washington could not confidently count on another oil-rich Arab GCC ally, the UAE, to assuage its concerns. In October, UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan visited Vladimir Putin, who praised expanding relations between the two sides. A rift in US ties with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi relations could only be music to the ears of not only Moscow and Beijing, but also the ruling clerics in Iran. All this indicated that there was a sense of camaraderie shaping up between autocratic, theocratic and authoritarian regimes, replacing the traditional Pax Americana in the region.
As the Vienna talks between Iran and other signatories to the July 2015 nuclear agreement dragged on with little prospect of a settlement, Israel was also on edge. It persisted in its opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme, repeating its vow never to allow the country to rival it as a nuclear power. The two sides have been bitter enemies since the advent of the Iranian Islamic regime over 43 years ago. Israel has treated Iran as an existential threat that has sought to encircle the Jewish state.
Both states have been locked in a shadowy war. Israel has targeted Iranian forces and those of Iran’s allies, Hezbollah and Assad’s regime, in Syria and Lebanon as well as Iran’s nuclear scientists and facilities (through cyber-attacks) and tankers. Iran has hit Israeli or Israeli-related assets, including ships, wherever possible, along with backing Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas as formidable resistance forces to Israel.
With the right-wing former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returning to power as the head of a coalition that won the November 2022 election and included the racist and anti-Arab Religious Zionism Party, the battle lines with Iran were set to sharpen. Denouncing the JCPOA as the “worst deal of the century”, Netanyahu has persistently campaigned against Washington resurrecting the deal in any form and threatened to act unilaterally to demolish Iran’s capacity to produce nuclear bombs. He is dedicated to the goal of making sure that Israel is the only nuclear power in the region, and has urged the international community to stand up to what one of his predecessors, Neftali Bennet, called “a regime of brutal hangmen [who] must never be allowed to have weapons of mass destruction”.
An Israel-Iran war, intentional or unintentional, would be disastrous for the two protagonists, the region and beyond. Despite a desire by President Biden to avoid America’s involvement in such a war, in the event of it does happen, Washington would find it obligatory to support the Jewish state under the US-Israel Strategic Partnership deal. Russia and China can be expected to make a common anti-US cause with Iran as their close strategic friend.
Indeed, there are many other inter-state tensions and disputes that have the potential to lead to major flare-ups in the region, for example, between Egypt and Turkey over Libya, or Morocco and Algeria over Western Sahara, or Egypt and Sudan over the Nile waters. However, the chances of any of them developing into a major confrontation appear slim for the foreseeable future. Yet the same cannot be said about another round of mostly localised Israeli-Hamas confrontations in the future.
Another issue that dominated the Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape was the state-society dichotomy. All the states, including Israel, experienced polarisation between forces of the status quo, who support incremental change as befitting their hold on power, and forces of change, who a reformation of their states and societies. The resultant popular political uprisings, or ‘Arab Spring’, that emerged in the early part of the last decade continued to haunt the constituent states – from Iran and Iraq to Egypt, Sudan and Algeria – as another major factor of instability. Regarding Iran, the rift between its Islamic regime and society had never been deeper and wider.
The Iranian women’s anti-hijab protests over the death of the young Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police spread into nationwide unrest against the Islamic regime. It commenced in mid-July and continued unabated despite the regime’s harsh crackdown on it. It was reminiscent of the public uprisings that evolved into the revolution of 1978-79, toppling the Shah’s pro-Western monarchy and installing Khomeini’s Shia Islamic order with an anti-US and anti-Israeli posture and a call for the export of the revolution to the predominantly Sunni region.
The unrest that started with Amini’s death posed the most serious threat to the regime’s legitimacy. The events in Iran were potentially comforting to the country’s regional and Western adversaries, though at the regional level Saudi Arabia and its allies were also on their guard against any possible impact on their own countries in a revival of the Arab Spring. The Iranian regime possessed the necessary instruments of state power to suppress the unrest and appeared determined to do so. At the same time, the protesters, representing an accumulative grief resulting from poor governance, declining social and economic conditions, widespread corruption, theocratic impositions, and costly involvement in the Levant and Yemen as well as harsh US sanctions and the pandemic’s savagery, appeared equally resolved to maintain their rage. The confrontations took a heavy toll, with hundreds of protesters and dozens of security forces members killed and injured. The regime also arrested thousands and put them on trial. It was clear that if the regime was to fail to address the public grievances structurally and lose control of the situation, an unravelling of the oil-rich and strategically important Iran could have unpredictable consequences in an already volatile region.
2022 was marked in the Middle East by the underlying factors of instability and insecurity and, for that matter, unpredictability. Violent religious extremism, inter-state and state-society tensions and conflicts, along with conflicting major power involvement, left the region vulnerable to fluctuating between relative stability and acute volatility. While some of the very variables that had made it historically both a resourceful and troubled arena of geostrategic significance remained in place, there were other developments that pointed towards an inflammatory direction in the context of a very disturbed and polarised world.
About the Author
Amin Saikal is Adjunct Professor of political science and Middle East specialist at the University of Western Australia, and the author of Iran Rising: The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic, and co-author of Islam beyond Borders: The Ummah in World Politics. He can be reached at [email protected].
Thumbnail photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash
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