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One thing Obama got right: They'll have to share the Middle East

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23.09.2019

In an April 2016 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic, President Barack Obama outlined his views on US Middle East policy in brutally frank terms. His obvious impatience with Middle Eastern affairs and his unconcealed disdain for regional partners - "freeloaders" is how he described them - aroused much criticism in the US and across the Middle East, where he was already viewed with considerable contempt by several Arab states, as well as Israel, for his Iran and Syria policies.

One of Obama's less barbed and more sensible comments also proved controversial. He was criticised for saying that "our friends as well as ... the Iranians ... need to find an effective way to share the neighbourhood." His detractors charged that he was abandoning the region, relinquishing America's position, enabling revisionist powers like Russia and Iran, alienating allies and so on.

Many saw this as a naive policy, a form of appeasement, or even betrayal. Opprobrium was especially forthcoming from Saudi Arabia which, alongside Iran, was the obvious target of Obama's comments.

Veteran Saudi diplomat Turki al-Faisal replied to Obama in an op-ed in Arab News saying: "You add insult to injury by telling us to share our world with Iran, a country that you describe as a supporter of terrorism and which you promised our king to counter its 'destabilizing activities'."

A Saudi analyst with ties to the ruling family likewise described the suggestion that Saudi Arabia should share the Middle East with Iran as, "patently absurd", while hawkish American analysts and lobbyists opted for alarmist conclusions: "Saudi Arabia must now indeed share the neighbourhood - not only with its archrival Iran but with the two aspiring superpowers of Russia and China… the Islamic State and other terrorist groups."

Sharing the region is anything but a straightforward proposition. There are powerful vested interests and ideological dispositions in all the capitals concerned that would oppose a sharing of the region except on their own terms. In Washington, it is not just neoconservative hawks who would object. Liberal proponents of American exceptionalism and the dogmatic belief that the US is a moral force for good are also likely to bristle at the thought of accommodating a revisionist power that ideologically positions itself against US dominance in the region.

There is also the mandatory political genuflection to America's commitments to Israeli security, which, despite its patent impregnability, is consistently framed as one Qassam rocket away from collapse. That's to say nothing of the billions of dollars tied up with America's weapons sales, security contracts and military foothold in the region that are directly dependent on Middle Eastern insecurity.

Likewise, in Tehran, there are those who refuse to accept normalisation with the US and rival powers on anything but their own terms. For hardliners, such a move needs to be a concomitant of victory and a validation of their ideology of resistance rather than a product of compromise and a pursuit of peace. Riyadh and Tel Aviv likewise have their own ideological drivers of intransigence and enmity that cannot countenance any accommodation with Iran absent a victory that bends it to their will.

Across the region, there is a strong feeling that the strategic gains made by Iran since 2003 cannot and should not be tolerated. Many believe that the priority is, therefore, not to share the region with the Iranians but to reclaim it from them. However, concern about the expansion of Iran's strategic reach cannot be decoupled from the conflicts that have simmered and raged in various parts of the Middle East since 2003 - conflicts that all concerned regional........

© Al Jazeera