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Biden and Mother Nature Have Reshaped the Middle East


Egypt and Jordan want to try to wean Syria and Iraq, the twin pillars of the Arab state system, away from Shiite Iran. Egypt also wants to export its gas to Lebanon, and cash-strapped Jordan wants to re-establish once-lucrative trade ties with Syria. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. even took their relations with Turkey out of the deep freeze, hoping to bring it back into the regional fold as a Sunni counterweight to Iran.

Iran, though, is probably thinking that the United States, while it will maintain sanctions, has lost any stomach for military action to curb Tehran’s push to enrich enough uranium to become a threshold nuclear weapons state.

“The U.S. is not pulling out entirely, but it is pulling back, and all of its Sunni Arab partners are now acting to protect themselves — and to stabilize the region — in an era when the U.S. will no longer be dominant there,” argued Martin Indyk, a longtime U.S. envoy in the Middle East, whose new book, “Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy,” is a gripping history of how the United States used peacemaking to supplant the Soviet Union as the dominant foreign power in the region. “But the U.S. will still be needed to deter Iran, should it develop a nuclear capability — and to defuse other conflicts.”

But the power to shape this region comes in many forms.

In keeping with the theme of Indyk’s book, I’d argue that just as we once supplanted the Soviets as the dominant shaper in the region, Mother Nature is now supplanting America as the dominant force.

In Mother Nature’s Middle East, leaders will be judged not by how much they resist one another or great powers, but by how much resilience they build for their people and nations at a time when the world will be phasing out fossil fuels, at a time when all the Arab-Muslim states have booming populations under the age of 30 and at a time of intensifying climate change.

The United Nations recently reported that Afghanistan has been hit with the worst drought in more than 30 years. It is crushing farmers, pushing up food prices and putting 18.8 million Afghans — nearly half of the population — into food insecurity. Over to you, Mr. Taliban: You broke it, you own it.

On top of stresses from Covid-19, Iran last summer experienced deadly water riots in its parched southwest — and its climate is predicted to get hotter and drier. Egypt is trying to contend with a rising Mediterranean pushing salty seawater into the irrigation systems of its Nile Delta breadbasket. Egypt and Ethiopia could actually go to war over the water-trapping dam that Ethiopia has built upstream on the Nile.


Source: Biden and Mother Nature Have Reshaped the Middle East

Thomas L. Friedman: Biden and Mother Nature have reshaped the Middle East | GUEST COMMENTARY


So, I just have one question: Should I point out how President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan is already reshaping Middle East politics — mostly for the better? Or should I wait a few months and not take seriously yet what one Gulf diplomat drolly said to me of the recent festival of Arab-Arab and Arab-Iranian reconciliations: “Love is in the air.”

What the heck, let’s go for it now.

Because something is in the air that is powerfully resetting the pieces on the Middle East chess board — pieces that had been frozen in place for years. The biggest force shifting them was Mr. Biden’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan and tell the region: “You’re home alone. If you’re looking for us, we’ll be in the Straits of Taiwan. Write often. Send oil. Bye.”

But a second factor is intensifying the pressure of America’s leaving: Mother Nature, manifesting herself in heat waves, droughts, demographic stresses, long-term falling oil prices and rising COVID-19 cases.

Indeed, I’d argue that we are firmly in a transition from a Middle East shaped by great powers to a Middle East shaped by Mother Nature. And this shift will force every leader to focus more on building ecological resilience to gain legitimacy instead of gaining it through resistance to enemies near and far. We are just at the dawn of this paradigm shift from resistance to resilience, as this region starts to become too hot, too populated and too water-starved to sustain any quality of life.

More on that in a minute — first, let’s go back to Mr. Biden. He was dead right: America’s presence in Afghanistan and tacit security guarantees around the region were both stabilizing and enabling a lot of bad behavior — boycotts, occupations, reckless adventures and brutal interventions.

Our staunch support for traditional allies, whether they were behaving badly or well, encouraged people to reach beyond their grasp, without fear of consequences. I am talking about the Saudi and United Arab Emirates intervention in Yemen and their boycott of Qatar, Turkey’s various machinations in Libya (or against the Kurds in Syria and Iraq), the now-fallen Afghan government’s idiotic refusal to negotiate with the Taliban and Israel’s expansion of settlements deep into the West Bank.

President Barack Obama’s pullback from the region and President Donald Trump’s refusal to retaliate against Iran — after it sent a wave of drones to attack a key Saudi oil facility in 2019 — were the warning signs that America had grown weary of intervening and refereeing in the Middle East’s sectarian wars. Mr. Biden just made it official.

And now, well, as the song says: The best part of breaking up is making up!

In recent months Saudi Arabia has begun patching up its broken ties with Iran and Qatar, and shrinking its involvement in Yemen. The UAE has withdrawn from conflicts in Libya and Yemen, and patched its relations with Iran, Qatar and Syria. Iraq has been mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both the UAE and the Saudis understand that with their U.S. big brother withdrawing, they cannot afford hostilities with a bigger Iran, and the Iranians understand that with their country still under so many sanctions, they need as many openings to the world as they can get. Bahrain and the UAE have built an open relationship with Israel, and Saudi Arabia has built a covert one. Meanwhile, Egypt and Israel are working together to defuse tensions with Hamas in Gaza.

Alas, though, the U.S. pullback has also become a get-out-of-jail-free card for Syria’s long-shunned, Iranian-backed president, Bashar al-Assad, who has been accused of genocide in quashing a revolt by his own people. For the first time in a decade, King Abdullah of Jordan recently took a phone call from Assad. The Jordanian Palace said they “discussed relations between the two brotherly countries.”

Egypt and Jordan want to try to wean Syria and Iraq, the twin pillars of the Arab state system, away from Shiite Iran. Egypt also wants to export its gas to Lebanon, and cash-strapped Jordan wants to re-establish once-lucrative trade ties with Syria. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE even took their relations with Turkey out of the deep freeze, hoping to bring it back into the regional fold as a Sunni counterweight to Iran.

Iran, though, is probably thinking that the United States, while it will maintain sanctions, has lost any stomach for military action to curb Tehran’s push to enrich enough uranium to become a threshold nuclear weapons state.

“The U.S. is not pulling out entirely, but it is pulling back, and all of its Sunni Arab partners are now acting to protect themselves — and to stabilize the region — in an era when the U.S. will no longer be dominant there,” argued Martin Indyk, a longtime U.S. envoy in the Middle East, whose new book, “Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy,” is a gripping history of how the United States used peacemaking to supplant the Soviet Union as the dominant foreign power in the region. “But the U.S. will still be needed to deter Iran, should it develop a nuclear capability — and to defuse other conflicts.”

But the power to shape this region comes in many forms.

In keeping with the theme of Mr. Indyk’s book, I’d argue that just as we once supplanted the Soviets as the dominant shaper in the region, Mother Nature is now supplanting America as the dominant force.

In Mother Nature’s Middle East, leaders will be judged not by how much they resist one another or great powers, but by how much resilience they build for their people and nations at a time when the world will be phasing out fossil fuels, at a time when all the Arab-Muslim states have booming populations under the age of 30 and at a time of intensifying climate change.

The United Nations recently reported that Afghanistan has been hit with the worst drought in more than 30 years. It is crushing farmers, pushing up food prices and putting 18.8 million Afghans — nearly half of the population — into food insecurity. Over to you, Taliban: You broke it, you own it.

On top of stresses from COVID-19, Iran last summer experienced deadly water riots in its parched southwest — and its climate is predicted to get hotter and drier. Egypt is trying to contend with a rising Mediterranean pushing salty seawater into the irrigation systems of its Nile Delta breadbasket. Egypt and Ethiopia could actually go to war over the water-trapping dam that Ethiopia has built upstream on the Nile.

Israel just signed an agreement to double the freshwater it provides to Jordan, one of the driest countries in the world. And former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu created a firestorm by claiming — crazily and without any facts — that his successor, Naftali Bennett, was being duped because “when he gives King Abdullah water, Abdullah is simultaneously giving oil — to who? To Iran.”

It is the first time I recall Bibi denouncing a rival for giving away not too much land but too much water. A sign of the times.

In fact, there may be a day, very soon, where the United States will need to return to active Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy — not based on land for peace, but sun and fresh water for peace. EcoPeace Middle East, an alliance of Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmentalists, recently put forward just such a strategy called the “Green Blue Deal.”

How would it work? Jordan, with its vast desert areas, has the comparative advantage to produce large amounts of cheap solar electricity to meet its own needs and also to sell to the Israeli and Palestinian grids to “generate the electricity for desalination plants that could provide all three parties abundant fresh water,” Gidon Bromberg, EcoPeace’s Israel director, explained to me.

This kind of ecosystem diplomacy could provide a sustainable way for the United States to re-engage in Mother Nature’s Middle East: All the parties there are ecologically interdependent, but they have unhealthy interdependencies rather than healthy ones. America could become the trusted mediator who forges healthy interdependencies — not as a substitute for an Israeli-Palestinian land-for-peace deal but as the necessary trust-building precursor.

Welcome to the real new Middle East — Mother Nature's Middle East.

Thomas L. Friedman (Twitter: @tomfriedman) is a columnist for The New York Times, where this piece originally appeared.


Source: Thomas L. Friedman: Biden and Mother Nature have reshaped the Middle East | GUEST COMMENTARY

US military presence in the Middle East: The less the better


It may not have been planned or coordinated but efforts by Middle Eastern states to dial down tensions serve as an example of what happens when big power interests coincide.

It also provides evidence of the potentially positive fallout of a lower US profile in the region.

Afghanistan, the United States’ chaotic withdrawal notwithstanding, could emerge as another example of the positive impact when global interests coincide. That is if the Taliban prove willing and capable of policing militant groups to ensure that they don’t strike beyond the Central Asian nation’s borders or at embassies and other foreign targets in the country.

Analysts credit the coming to office of US President Joe Biden with a focus on Asia rather than the Middle East and growing uncertainty about his commitment to the security of the Gulf for efforts to reduce tensions by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirate and Egypt on the one hand and on the other, Turkey, Iran, and Qatar. Those efforts resulted in the lifting, early this year, of the Saudi-UAE-Egyptian-led economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar.

Doubts about the United States’ commitment also played an important role in efforts to shore up or formalize alliances like the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel by the UAE and Bahrain.

For its part, Saudi Arabia has de facto acknowledged its ties with the Jewish state even if Riyadh is not about to formally establish relations. In a sign of the times, that did not stop then Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu from last year visiting the kingdom.

To be sure, changes in Washington’s priorities impact regional defense strategies and postures given that the United States has a significant military presence in the Middle East and serves as its sole security guarantor.

Yet, what rings alarm bells in Gulf capitals also sparks concerns in Beijing, which depends to a significant degree on the flow of its trade and energy from and through Middle Eastern waters, and Moscow with its own security concerns and geopolitical aspirations.

Little surprise that Russia and China, each in their own way and independent of the United States, over the last year echoed the United States’ message that the Middle East needs to get its act together.

Eager to change rather than reform the world order, Russia proposed an all-new regional security architecture modeled on the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) adding not only Russia but also China, India, and Europe to the mix.

China, determined to secure its proper place in the new world order rather than fundamentally altering it, sent smoke signals through its academics and analysts that conveyed a double-barrelled message. On the one hand, China suggested that the Middle East did not rank high on its agenda. In other words, the Middle East would have to act to climb Beijing’s totem pole.

“For China, the Middle East is always on the very distant back burner of China’s strategic global strategies,” Niu Xinchun, director of Middle East Studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), China’s most prestigious think tank, told a webinar last year.

Prominent Chinese scholars Sun Degang and Wu Sike provided months later a carrot to accompany Mr. Niu’s stick. Taking the opposite tack, they argued that the Middle East was a “key region in big power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics in a new era.”

Chinese characteristics, they said, would involve “seeking common ground while reserving differences,” a formula that implies conflict management rather than conflict resolution.

On that basis, the two scholars suggest, Chinese engagement in Middle Eastern security would seek to build an inclusive and shared regional collective security mechanism based on fairness, justice, multilateralism, comprehensive governance, and the containment of differences.

In the final analysis, Chinese and Russian signaling that there was an unspoken big power consensus likely reinforced American messaging and gave Middle Eastern states a further nudge to change course and demonstrate a willingness to control tensions and differences.

Implicit in the unspoken big power consensus was not only the need to dial down tensions but also the projection of a reduced, not an eliminated, US presence in the Middle East.

While there has been little real on-the-ground reduction of US forces, just talking about it seemingly opened pathways. It altered the US’ weighting in the equation.

“The U.S. has a habit of seeing itself as indispensable to regional stability around the world, when in fact its intervention can be very destabilizing because it becomes part of the local equation rather than sitting above it,” noted Raad Alkadiri, an international risk consultant.

While important, the United States’ willingness to get out of the way is no guarantee that talks will do anything more than at best avert conflicts spinning out of control.

Saudi and Iranian leaders and officials have sought to put a positive spin on several rounds of direct and indirect talks between the two rivals.

Yet, more important than the talk of progress, expressions of willingness to bury hatchets, and toning down of rhetoric is Saudi King Salman’s insistence in remarks last month to the United Nations General Assembly on the need to build trust.

The monarch suggested that could be achieved by Iran ceasing “all types of support” for armed groups in the region, including the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and pro-Iranian militias in Iraq.

The potential monkey wrench is not just the improbability of Iran making meaningful concessions to improve relations but also the fact that the chances are fading for a revival of the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

“We have to prepare for a world where Iran doesn’t have constraints on its nuclear program and we have to consider options for dealing with that. This is what we are doing while we hope they do go back to the deal,” said US negotiator Rob Malley.

Already, Israeli politicians, unhappy with the original nuclear deal and the Biden administration’s effort to revive it, are taking a more alarmist view than may be prevalent in their intelligence services.

In Washington this week, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan that Iran was “becoming a nuclear threshold state.” Back home Yossi Cohen, a close confidante of Mr. Netanyahu, who stepped down in June as head of the Mossad, asserted at the same time that Iran was “no closer than before” to obtaining a nuclear weapon.

There is no doubt, however, that both men agree that Israel retains the option of a military strike against Iran. “Israel reserves the right to act at any moment in any way,” Mr. Lapid told his American interlocutors as they sought to resolve differences of how to deal with Iran if a revival of the agreement proves elusive.

Meanwhile, a foreplay of the fallout of a potential failure to put a nuclear deal in place is playing out on multiple fronts. Tension have been rising along the border between Iran and Azerbaijan.

Iran sees closer Azerbaijani-Israeli relations as part of an effort to encircle it and fears that the Caucasian state would be a staging ground for Israeli operations against the Islamic republic. Iran and Azerbaijan agreed this week to hold talks to reduce the friction.

At the same time, Iran, Turkey and Israel have been engaged in a shadow boxing match in predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq while a poll showed half of Israeli Jews believe that attacking Iran early on rather than negotiating a deal would have been a better approach.

Taken together, these factors cast a shadow over optimism that the Middle East is pulling back from the brink. They suggest that coordinated big power leadership is what could make the difference as the Middle East balances between forging a path towards stability and waging a continuous covert war and potentially an overt one.

A Johns Hopkins University Iran research program suggested that a US return to the nuclear deal may be the catalyst for cooperation with Europe, China, and Russia.

“Should the United States refuse to re-join the agreement following sufficient attempts by Iran to demonstrate flexibility in their negotiating posture, Russia and China will ramp up their economic and security cooperation with Iran in a manner fundamentally opposed to US interests,” the program warned.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh announced this week that Russia and Iran were finalizing a ‘Global Agreement for Cooperation between Iran and Russia’ along the lines of a  similar 25-year agreement between China and the Islamic republic last year that has yet to get legs.

Even so, Iran scored an important victory when the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in which China and Russia loom large last month agreed to process Iran’s application for membership.

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Source: US military presence in the Middle East: The less the better



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