Round-table discussionWorld struggles for new Middle East order
following Iran's nuclear deal

February 20, 2016

The Iran nuclear deal framework reached last year has put the Middle East's complex and fragile power balance in jeopardy, with concerned parties unable to reach a consensus on how to resolve the violence and conflict in the Gulf region, according to Japanese experts on the Middle East situation.

Now it's official

In a recent discussion on the Middle East situation organized by independent Japanese think tank The Genron NPO, Sachi Sakanashi, senior researcher and manager of the Research Group at the JIME Center of the Institute of Energy Economics, said the severing of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia in January following the execution of Shia leader Sheik Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia for inciting violence and anti-government protests in 2011, and the retaliatory attack on the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran, brought to light the long-standing antagonism between the two countries that goes back to the Iraq War in 2003.

Sakanashi said the escalating row is likely to slow any efforts to resolve regional conflicts like the Syrian crisis as Saudi Arabia and Iran are both in one way or another involved in the various disputes. Resolving the conflicts requires a compromise through face-to-face negotiations, but that may be more difficult now, Sakanashi said.

Meanwhile, Takuya Murakami, research fellow at the Middle East Institute of Japan, said the cutting of ties between the two regional foes is unlikely to trigger any new conflict in the region since the two countries still communicate on a multilateral level, as seen in the closed-door meeting between Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month. "The situation has been ongoing for some time. It's just that it became official," Murakami said.

Rather, the two experts say the nuclear accord between the United States and Iran reached in July 2015 triggered a shift in the delicate balance of power in the Middle East. "For years, order in the Middle East has been maintained by isolating Iran, ever since the 1979 revolution when Iran turned against the United States," said Sakanashi. But with the Iran nuclear deal, it may appear, at least to Saudi Arabia, that Washington, its strongest backer in the West, may now try to actively involve Tehran in the region's peace process and may even try to go over its head in negotiating with Iran.

To ease such concerns among the anti-Iran allies in the Persian Gulf, U.S. President Barack Obama invited members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to Camp David to assure Arab leaders of the U.S. commitment to back its Gulf allies against any external threat. But Murakami says there is a very real possibility that Iran will participate in international conferences it had previously refused to attend, and the U.S. and Iran may try to discuss and resolve regional issues without the involvement of Saudi Arabia. "What concerns Saudi Arabia is not whether Iran has or doesn't have nuclear weapons, but that Iran's national power and influence in regional affairs will increase as Washington and the international community lift the sanctions they have been imposing on Iran," Murakami said.

Sakanashi also pointed out that one possible factor behind the Iranian nuclear deal is the expectation on the part of the U.S. that if Iran can contribute to the stabilization of the Middle East, it would benefit the U.S. as well. "With the power balance shifting in favor of Iran, the key is whether Saudi Arabia can accept the changing situation," Sakanashi said.

No 'right' answer to Syrian crisis

Regarding the Syrian crisis, the two experts point out that the involvement of so many different parties, and their varying vested interests, makes it difficult for the international community to reach a consensus on exactly how to resolve the situation. The Syrian civil war is not just about the conflict between Syria President Bashar Assad's government and anti-Assad forces. It has turned into a multisided armed conflict with Iran and Russia supporting the Assad regime, and Saudi Arabia and Turkey supporting the anti-government forces. Sakanashi said the reason so many countries became involved is probably because Syria once served as the key to order in the Middle East. "The biggest reason the Syrian crisis is so difficult to resolve is because there is no real consensus as to what exactly the 'solution' to the Syrian problem is," said Sakanashi.

The U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing a peace process to end Syria's civil war late last year began with negotiations between the Syrian government and its opponents to establish a transitional government that will write a new constitution, and hold elections within 18 months. But the U.N. resolution made no mention of the future of President Assad. While all agree that there is a need to restore a functioning government in Syria, involved parties cannot agree on exactly who to place in charge of the government. Saudi Arabia's refusal to participate in talks involving Iran is further making it extremely difficult for the involved parties to agree on Syria's future. "It's all up to whether the concerned parties can agree on who will head the new government," Sakanashi said.

IS linked to Syrian crisis (I presume this is a subhead??)

The situation where young Islamic State sympathizers from around the world gather to participate in the rogue militants' cause is a different issue from that of the power balance in the Middle East, Sakanashi says. But one of the background factors leading to the birth of the IS is the confusion in Iraq following the Iraq War and the resurgence of militants with the Syrian civil war. Before the IS became such a major global headache, it was merely one of the players in the Syrian civil war and its fighters were tolerated as long as they fought against Assad.

"Unless the Syrian civil war ends, there is no real solution to the problem of the IS," Sakanashi said, since even if the international forces manage to get rid of IS militants in Iraq, all the IS needs to do is move into Syria and "disappear" among the warring factions.

As the Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon recently said, "If the choice is between Iran and the Islamic State, I choose the Islamic State." The general consensus among the Gulf states is that President Assad and Iran pose a greater threat than the IS. "The prime enemy varies depending on each player," Murakami said. Hence efforts to create an international framework to oust the IS will be ineffective since for other players such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the IS is not their largest threat. Rather Iran is.

Declining U.S. influence amid views that Washington is not as committed to the Middle East and is being less assertive in the region are also hindering efforts to reach a resolution to the crisis, according to the two experts.

Japan as mediator

Japan may appear to be a distant country in East Asia to the Gulf nations, but the Middle East is an important region for Japan as a source of resources, whether it be oil or natural gas. Stability in the region is directly linked to stability in the lives of the Japanese people and Japan also needs to contribute to the peacekeeping efforts in the region, Sakanaka said.

One option the experts suggest is to take advantage of Japan's relatively "neutral" image in the Middle East, and to act as a messenger between countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as offer support to the smaller nations surrounded by the powerful Gulf countries. "Japan is good at such 'capacity building' and the countries in the region will likely appreciate such efforts by Japan," Murakami said.

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