Iran dominates the regional security agenda – while Turkey has weathered an attempted coup and turmoil in neighbouring Syria. These countries join Russia as the rising powers in the Middle East.

President Rouhani of Iran. Credit: Flickr/governmentZA By John Raine, Senior Adviser for Geopolitical due diligence

Recent events in the Gulf and wider Middle East, especially developments in Syria and Iraq, have re-set the regional strategic balance. The likely reactions and the impact on regional security will be two big questions framing our discussions at the IISS Manama Dialogue in Bahrain next month.  

Iran gains strategic advantage

On top of the chronic problems of the Syrian civil war and Islamic State (also known as ISIL or ISIS), which dominated last year's Dialogue, we now have a new layer of complexity. Iran's military engagement in the conflicts in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq has extended the country’s strategic reach and redefined its sphere of influence to the point where Tehran can dominate the regional security agenda. In particular, Iran’s expertise in enabling and directing allied militias has given it clear strategic advantage.

Iranian expansionism through militias and softer power has brought a strong reaction from the Gulf states, which have much to fear from an ascendant and assertive Tehran. It has also raised the prospect of Iranian influence as a determining factor in any Syrian peace settlement. However, Iran is too big as a patron, market and political force to isolate and ignore. So the diplomatic and security challenge facing its neighbours continues to be setting boundaries to Iranian activities beyond the country’s borders. 

This challenge seems more difficult in light of international divisions over the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the only current example of containing Iran by negotiation. Will confrontation and coercion limit Iran more successfully than such agreements? In today’s heated atmosphere, the space for negotiation is disappearing. But open, state-level conflict would be ruinous for confidence in the region.

Turkey and Russia emerge stronger

Like Iran, Turkey has emerged from the Syrian war with its political identity enhanced and strengthened (a failed coup against President Erdogan brought the same result). And like Iran, Turkey has secured a seat at the high table when the future of Syria is decided. But Turkey and Iran's long-term interests do not align, and tensions will inevitably surface. Erdogan's championing of conservative Islam, backed by an interventionist policy and powerful instruments of state (financial, defence and religious) has made his nation a shaping force regionally and across the Islamic world.

Russia's success in the past five years has been to re-establish itself as a power broker and patron in the Middle East. The country has secured workable alliances with Turkey and Iran, and Syria's Bashar al-Assad owes his survival to Moscow. Russia has a military presence in Syria and an energetic diplomatic presence throughout the region. It is no longer possible to envisage a lasting settlement to Middle East security challenges without Moscow.

But will Russia become a responsible guarantor of peace or a source of further destabilisation? What role will the United States seek, or be left with, after Russia, Turkey and Iran have played their hands and collected their winnings? And with Europe and the US focused on domestic concerns, what commitment will they show to the Gulf and the Middle East?

Islamic State still a threat – and Shia militias have flourished

Islamic State has been dispossessed of its territory, but not necessarily its ambition or capabilities. Fighters will disperse throughout the region or Europe, in search of havens and targets. The degree of inter-state cooperation required to monitor and contain the threat will be at least as great as that required to conduct a kinetic campaign. The new stresses in the region could imperil this joint working or divert resources to other targets. Without a solid phalanx of continued close security cooperation, including with Iraq, Islamic State could l slip through the net and re-form.

An even greater regional security threat may come from fighters serving in Shia militias, which now enjoy an unprecedented reach from Lebanon to Afghanistan. Such militias have flourished as an accident of Western focus on the immediate danger posed by Islamic State. They continue to be driven by a revolutionary ideology and have the advantage of a powerful backer, strategic momentum and battle hardening. This is particularly true in Lebanon, where domestic politics look to have been disturbed by the forces at play in the region. With Syria broken by war, the destabilisation of Lebanon would be a major backward step imperilling the stability of Jordan and prolonging the agonies of the Levant.  

The rift within the Gulf Cooperation Council over Qatar is a new and unheralded complication, one that is both a local difficulty and a major dislocation of the regional architecture. Economic, financial and political implications are hard still to assess. But they will grow in significance locally and globally if, as looks likely, the problem goes unresolved.

Long-standing threats to the region underlie its ongoing military conflicts. They will resurface, exacerbated by the effects of recent violence. Such issues include terrorism, the proliferation of both conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction, the tragedy of record numbers of displaced people, and the risk of economic stagnation. This formidable array of challenges requires a collective and sustained response. Carefulness in public diplomacy and foreign intervention is required from all players, regional and international. Rising regional tension and a universal nervousness over changes in the international order, raise the temperature still further.

This web of security and diplomatic challenges provides a rich and challenging agenda for the IISS Manama Dialogue 2017. The presence of representatives from across the Middle East will create a unique forum for exploring the region’s problems. We expect to hear new ideas and new approaches throughout the Dialogue’s plenaries, speeches and workshops, and in the powerful informal conversations on the margins of the event.

This is the first in a series of posts providing analysis and commentary from IISS experts throughout the IISS Manama Dialogue, to be held in Bahrain on 8–10 December 2017. 

For full coverage of the proceedings visit the IISS Manama Dialogue 2017 website. For a flavour of the debate on social media, check out #IISSMD17.

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