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The U.S.-Iran crisis of January 2020 did not lead to a major war in the Middle East, but it did reveal a number of new trends reshaping the world order. These trends include the further “nationalization” of foreign policy and aversion to being drawn into military entanglements on behalf of friends and even allies; a strong desire to limit the use of force and avoid escalation; the importance of communication between adversaries; and the clear prevalence of current domestic political considerations over long-term geopolitical schemes. If these trends continue, the expected bipolarity in the global system will not be bloc-based like during the Cold War, but rather represent a long, non-lethal dueling match between the world’s mightiest powers, with others constantly positioning themselves for better advantage.
The countries of the Middle East reacted to the U.S.-Iran flare-up with stunning caution. Israel, which sees Iran as a mortal enemy, backed the United States, but without any particular zeal. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, which were hit last year by missile and drone attacks believed to have been carried out at the orders of Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani, also rallied behind the United States, but did not urge Washington to strike Iran harder. Iraq found itself in the interesting and highly dangerous position of being a junior ally to both of the opposing sides. Baghdad paid for its equivocal position by becoming the target for attacks by both of its allies. Turkey, an aspiring regional power, took up a pointedly independent position, demonstrating yet again the complex nature of its relationship with the United States, as well as the fact that it is a NATO member in name only.
NATO’s position was to observe from the sidelines, despite Iran openly launching ballistic missile attacks against U.S. military sites. These attacks failed to trigger Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that an attack on one ally is considered an attack against all allies. Furthermore, while the United Kingdom and Australia dug in their heels, several NATO partners in the U.S.-led coalition hastened to announce the withdrawal of their troops from Iraq.1 On the diplomatic front, the United States’ main European allies—the United Kingdom, Germany, and France—once again demonstrated their inability to act as an independent mediator between America and Iran, despite their long-held ambition to do just that. In fact, all that London, Berlin, and Paris were able to do was to express their concern over the consequences of the U.S.-Iran conflict, while attempting to salvage—on paper—the Iran nuclear deal that essentially became null and void in 2018 when the Trump administration withdrew from it.
Japan responded to the crisis by deciding to send a warship to the Gulf, a move that can be interpreted as another small step toward the country becoming a normal power: i.e., one that is capable of using force. India, meanwhile—which has hundreds of thousands of its nationals working in the Gulf—was faced with the dilemma of choosing between an influential neighbor, Iran, and a distant but very important partner: the United States. As a result, it stayed put.
The standoff between the United States and Iran ended up being fought as a duel. Not only did America’s allies and partners step back, distancing themselves from the conflict; so did its rivals and adversaries. China, the United States’ main rival, kept a low profile. Beijing called on both sides to employ restraint and de-escalate tensions. Russia, despite its much deeper involvement in the military and political affairs of the Middle East, also exercised caution. Moscow and Beijing did not use the opportunity to present a united front, nor did Moscow alone show any desire to open up a new area of tension with Washington. The statements issued by both Russia’s Foreign Ministry2 and its Defense Ministry3 condemning the U.S. assassination of General Soleimani focused more on the methods employed by the United States—the assassination of a high-ranking foreign government official on the territory of a third country—rather than the U.S. policy itself. And while the world’s attention was on the military action in the Gulf, Moscow carried out a diplomatic operation in the eastern Mediterranean, attempting to apply its successful Syrian playbook to restore peace—and its own influence—in Libya.
U.S. President Donald Trump is often accused of being unpredictable and impulsive. In the recent crisis over Iran, however, Trump found himself facing a choice: wait for Iran to carry out fresh attacks, or respond to its recent attacks resolutely. During the three years that he had been in charge, the U.S. president had carefully avoided an armed conflict with Tehran, preferring fiery rhetoric and stifling sanctions to bombs and missiles. Just last year, Trump decided at the last moment to lay down the sword already hanging over Iran, choosing not to retaliate for the destruction of a U.S. drone by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, Soleimani’s service.
Trump’s decision to eliminate Soleimani was apparently influenced not so much by the impeachment proceedings opened against the U.S. president in December 2019, but by the attempted storming over New Year of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad by pro-Iranian forces seemingly sent by Soleimani himself. In other words, it was not so much about distracting voters from his impeachment as it was about preventing possible damage to the president’s image as the defender of U.S. lives abroad. Trump simply had to show his compatriots that he would not stand for so much as a whiff of the fatal attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission and heinous killing of the American ambassador in Benghazi under the presidency of Barack Obama.
In ordering the Soleimani assassination, Trump was taking a big risk. No one could predict with certainty what Tehran’s response would be. If that response had resulted in multiple U.S. casualties, the United States would likely have carried out a massive attack against crucial Iranian targets. Then attacks would likely have continued on both sides, since U.S. prestige on the one hand, and the very survival of the Islamic Republic on the other, would have been hanging in the balance. Many other countries in the region—not just Iraq—would have been drawn into the conflict. It’s possible that powers outside of the region that had until then kept their distance would also have had to define their position more clearly and take some kind of action. To reduce these risks, the United States used various diplomatic channels to communicate to the Iranians that it saw the elimination of Soleimani as a one-off act of retaliation, and did not intend to launch a large-scale military campaign. This exposed another important aspect of the conflict: while publicly indicating determination to use force, both sides were simultaneously signaling moderation to each other.
The Iranian leadership, having assessed the situation, decided to act rationally and strategically. Tehran’s aim was on the one hand to portray Iran in the eyes of the world as a victim of the Trump administration’s adventurist policies, and on the other hand to use the situation to gradually force the United States out of Iraq and Syria: Iran’s two most important neighboring countries in terms of its regional interests. This strategy bore propaganda fruit immediately when the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution on ending the presence of foreign troops in the country, and the Iraqi prime minister subsequently requested that the United States withdraw its troops. No withdrawal happened, of course, but a message was sent.
The missile strike against U.S. targets, which resulted in no casualties or serious destruction, was a demonstration of the temerity and audacity of Iran’s leaders (there are few in the world who could get away with this), and simultaneously of their restraint: their message was, “we do not forgive the wrongs inflicted on us, but we don’t want war, and are ready to de-escalate the conflict.” Certainly not every war can be viewed today as a useful distraction from a country’s domestic problems.
Tehran only permitted itself an emotional response to the murder of Soleimani at home, and that was also entirely rational. Iran’s leaders played the role of victims. The Soleimani funeral was that of a national hero, fallen at the hands of a treacherous external enemy, and this helped to unite Iranian people beyond the loyal followers of the regime and supporters of a hawkish approach to the United States. This worked well—until a Ukrainian passenger plane was shot down close to Tehran, and the Iranian military was forced to accept responsibility for its destruction and the loss of 176 lives.
Opposition forces inside Iran, which had been crushed mercilessly in 2019, were again revived. But they were unable to turn the situation to their advantage. The authorities paid the price for the three days they had spent denying their guilt, but their eventual admission limited that cost within the country. Moreover, Iran’s willingness to take responsibility for the crash was perceived by the rest of the world as evidence that Tehran was on course to de-escalate the conflict. Ultimately, both Iran’s leaders and Trump were able to save face with regard to their domestic critics.
The January crisis confirmed that for Moscow, Iran is a purely ad hoc ally, limited to the battlefield in Syria, and more broadly to the fight against the Islamic State terrorist organization. Iran’s overall strategy in the region, which was largely being implemented by General Soleimani, does not have Moscow’s support. Russia also remains firm that Iran’s nuclear program should remain entirely peaceful. Soleimani may have commanded respect in Moscow for his boldness and daring, but it’s unlikely he was particularly trusted there. Certainly, the Russian military and intelligence did not keep him close. Overall, Russia’s behavior in the crisis fits into an established pattern of advancing and protecting its own interests, and building relationships with its partners on that basis alone.
President Vladimir Putin was the only world leader to visit the Middle East at the height of the U.S-Iran crisis. He did not fly there to try to stop war breaking out between Washington and Tehran, however. His goal was to fortify Moscow’s position as the most influential external force in Syria, to officially launch the TurkStream gas pipeline delivering Russian gas to southeastern Europe, and to expand the political partnership with Turkey onto the territory of Libya, where, as Putin publicly admitted, there may indeed be Russians fighting.4
Putin soon returned to the region for a brief visit to Israel for Holocaust commemorations, during which he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a long-valued counterpart in the Jewish state. Within days, the two met again in Moscow, right after Netanyahu had visited Trump for the unveiling of the U.S. “deal of the century” for Israel and Palestine. It can therefore be concluded that Russia’s key geopolitical and geostrategic interests in the Middle East and North Africa are now concentrated in the eastern Mediterranean.
On his way home from Istanbul, Putin stopped off to observe naval exercises in the Black Sea, where he watched launches being perfected of Kh-47M2 Kinzhal and 3M-54 Kalibr missiles. At that same time, Russian and U.S. warships were heading dangerously close to one another at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, obliging the defense ministers of both countries to talk to one another once again. It’s worth recalling that right before the start of the U.S.-Iran crisis, a Russian navy ship conducted naval drills near the Strait of Hormuz with Chinese and Iranian forces. In this way, Russia turned its show of military capabilities and reach into a useful foreign policy tool in the Middle East.
Following his talks in Damascus and Istanbul and his inspection of the naval exercise in the Black Sea, Putin held talks in Moscow with German Chancellor Angela Merkel,5 and spoke to the leaders of Arab and European nations over preparations for a conference on finding a political solution to the civil war raging in Libya. Moscow provided a platform for the two opposing sides to meet, and for them to talk to representatives of Russia and Turkey, who have put themselves forward as intermediaries in the conflict. In doing this, Moscow was attempting to apply to Libya the Astana peace process model used in Syria. The fact that that model didn’t work right away doesn’t mean it will be abandoned. At the subsequent international conference on Libya that took place in Berlin, the Russian leader looked very much like the participant with the most influence.6 Moscow’s Syria experience is testimony to the fact that eventual success is sometimes born of a multitude of partial failures and the lessons that they offer. It’s clear that Russia now has a chance of returning to a potentially lucrative Libya via its peacekeeping efforts.
In January 2020, the United States took the unprecedented step of assassinating an influential Iranian military and political figure, while the Iranians also entered new territory when they subjected U.S. military bases to missile attacks. Thus, two important and potentially dangerous precedents have been established. At the same time, both sides made an effort to minimize the consequences of their actions. Despite the current lack of a direct communication channel between Iran and the United States, a connection exists via two intermediaries: Baghdad and Bern. The crisis proved to be short-lived, and a major war between the two countries was avoided, while the hybrid war continues. This proves that even the global actors considered to be most unpredictable or trigger-happy fear the consequences of an uncontrollable armed conflict.7
The global community reacted to the U.S.-Iran crisis with concern, and universal fear that it could escalate and ensnare others. Yet there were no real attempts by outsiders to stop a war breaking out. The UN Security Council was not convened for an emergency meeting. Moscow, which is usually quick to respond to any use of force by the United States, did not take the initiative to call for such a meeting. It’s interesting that neither U.S. allies nor Iran’s partners rushed to help “their” side. The United States and Iran were left entirely on their own to resolve their differences. Thus, solidarity—from both senior partners for junior partners and vice versa—is clearly of secondary importance to the national interests of specific states. This state of affairs reflects the growing fragmentation of the global community today, and its unwillingness to form blocs like those of the Cold War.
The United States is not so much stepping back from its position as a world leader as seeking to regroup and gather strength to compete more successfully against its rivals, having reduced some of its responsibilities and delegated some of its burden to its allies. Washington is increasingly focusing its attention on the fight against its main adversary, Beijing, as well as its secondary opponents, like Moscow and Tehran. The United States is deploying an increasingly wide range of means and methods in this fight: from sanctions—which have gone from being a tool of foreign policy to its substitute—to focused pressure on specific bodies and individuals, right up to their immobilization and, in rare cases, their physical removal. Foreign policy actions are thus becoming increasingly targeted and selective.
China is not yet ready for a full-on confrontation with the United States. Far from extending the front line of Sino-U.S. rivalry, China, on the contrary, seeks to limit the sphere of their disagreements. When the open conflict broke out between Iran and the United States, China was completing first-phase talks on an economic agreement with the United States. Within a few days after the U.S.-Iran crisis had subsided, a Sino-American deal was reached. While Beijing’s geoeconomic expansion is being followed by its geopolitical expansion, the latter still lags far behind the former, and the process will be long and trying. Despite its wide-ranging economic presence in the Middle East, China acknowledges the politico-military limitations there, and its lack of diplomatic experience. Furthermore, China doesn’t have all its regional economic interests focused on Iran; it has even bigger interests in countries that consider Iran to be their enemy, such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. Outside of East Asia, China will for a long time remain a primarily geoeconomic power.
European Union countries have long constituted precisely such a power. Despite occasional comments by certain ambitious national leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron, the EU does not qualify as a strategic actor. Nowhere is this more obvious than over the issue of Iran, the showpiece of European diplomacy. The EU was not able to prevent the United States from withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, and once the United States did so in 2018, the agreement effectively lost all meaning for Iran. As a result of the January 2020 crisis, Tehran rejected a number of restrictions put on its nuclear program by the agreement, though it stopped short of ending international monitoring of its nuclear activity. After the EU Big Three (the UK, Germany, and France) responded to Iran’s actions—under pressure from the United States—by launching a mechanism for restoring sanctions against Tehran, the EU all but lost its status as an intermediary between Iran and the United States in the eyes of the Iranians. Clearly, the latest demonstration of force by the United States is another argument for Iran in favor of creating the means to deter a hostile America.
In the last five years, Russia has become a very visible player in the Middle East, but its success is due less to its resource base and more to its focus on its own specific interests, its inside knowledge of the region, and its skill in manipulating relatively few resources and means. Russia has also found a way of maintaining relations with all the key players while avoiding both the dependency of an alliance with some, and outright hostility with others.
India is still at the early stage of its transformation into a great power, but the Middle East looks set to be one of the first regions where its role will grow, along with South and Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean basin.
Overall, however, the recent U.S.-Iran war alert has shown that the role and importance of all of the great powers in the international system is shrinking. This is happening as a result of regional players gaining military capabilities that previously only the main players had; a sharp decrease in the tolerance of the world powers for sustaining human losses; the decreased appeal of many countries as objects of economic interests or a strategic foothold; and the universal and growing trend for prioritizing domestic affairs, primarily socioeconomic policy, over foreign policy.
Throughout and after the Cold War, the Middle East was a textbook example—and one of the global centers—of geopolitical rivalry between the leading world powers. Today, the region demonstrates the shifting of that rivalry into other areas entirely (technology, including of course military technology; finance and economics; and the information space), while the former geographic playgrounds of the big players are being taken over by local powers. As for the big players themselves, they are increasingly compelled to act according to the immediate demands of their domestic politics, rather than pursuing geopolitical grand strategies founded upon ideological values. The Great Game may be over, but other games are still in progress.
1 U.S.-Led Coalition Notifies Iraqi Authorities of Troops Withdrawal” (in Russian), RIA Novosti, January 6, 2020, https://ria.ru/20200106/1563155027.html.
2 See, for example: Press release on Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s telephone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Russian Foreign Ministry, January 3, 2020, https://www.mid.ru/web/guest/telefonnye-razgovory-ministra/-/asset_publisher/KLX3tiYzsCLY/content/id/3989636?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_KLX3tiYzsCLY&_101_INSTANCE_KLX3tiYzsCLY_languageId=en_GB.
3 Russian Defense Ministry Calls Killing of Iran’s General Soleimani by U.S. Troops Shortsighted” (in Russian), Interfax, Military News Agency, January 3, 2020, https://www.militarynews.ru/story.asp?rid=0&nid=524754&lang=RU.
4 “Putin Responds to Question About Russian Mercenaries in Libya” (in Russian), RBC, January 11, 2020, https://www.rbc.ru/politics/11/01/2020/5e19ec739a7947935050700d.
5 Russian-German talks, President of Russia, January 11, 2020, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/62562.
6 For more detail, see: Marianna Belenkaya, “Coming Out of the Shadows. How the Meeting in Berlin Changed Russia’s Role in Libya” (in Russian), Carnegie.ru, January 20, 2020, https://carnegie.ru/commentary/80839.
7 See, for example, this analysis by my colleague Alexander Baunov, “Penultimate Word. Why Trump Decided Not to Go to War” (in Russian), Carnegie.ru, January 8, 2020, https://carnegie.ru/commentary/80732.
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
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