Viewpoint: Robert Beck – Challenges in the Middle East

Robert Beck

Robert Beck COURTESY PHOTO

Published: 06-06-2024 11:31 AM

This is the first in a series of articles focused on key foreign policy challenges for the next U.S. president. The articles will run between now and the general election on Nov. 5.

Over the past half-century, the best intentions of U.S. foreign policy have invariably foundered on the rocks of the Middle East. While the United States no longer depends on hydrocarbons from the region, much of the rest of the world, including many of Washington’s closest allies, still does. Consider also that it is home to critical maritime choke points key to world trade and, by extension, the American economy. With that in mind, this fascinating yet profoundly tragic geographic domain will continue to pose immense challenges for whoever moves into the White House in January 2025.

When viewing the current Middle East, it is difficult not to begin this analysis with the ongoing cataclysm of the Israel/Hamas war. The conflict, for obvious reasons, has spawned reverberations across the globe, particularly in the United States. Violent campus protests, increases in antisemitism and anti-Muslim rhetoric and virulent calls from both ends of the political spectrum to do more to support Israel or the Palestinians are all manifestations of the complexity of this interminable source of insecurity across the wider area.

Regardless of who the next president is, the conflagration will require serious political and diplomatic pressure to effect a settlement that includes a sustainable, long-term cease fire, an international plan to rebuild Gaza, a public acceptance by the leading Arab powers, especially Saudi Arabia, of Israel’s right to exist; a firm commitment by Israel to a viable plan for a two-state solution; and immediate new elections in both Israel and the Palestinian territories. In fact, the last of these conditions may be the key, as both polities deserve a fresh start with leaders not tainted with the blood of the current violence.

While the war in Gaza represents the short term, the more-serious, long-term, strategic test for the new president will be Iran. The Shia theocratic regime in Tehran will persist as a source of instability, threatening not just Israel but also the oil-rich Sunni nations inhabiting the western littoral of the Persian Gulf. By supporting militant proxy groups in Lebanon (Hezbollah), Yemen (the Houthis), Iraq (various Shia militias) and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, Iran’s malign impact emanates far and wide from the Persian heartland.

At the same time, domestically, the regime in Tehran is hemorrhaging legitimacy, as evidenced by the violent demonstrations in late 2023 against the killing of Mahsa Amini. Although that insurrection was ultimately crushed, the Iranian theocracy is on the wrong side of history and will eventually fall. Washington, therefore, should hasten that eventuality through a judicious use of political, economic, diplomatic and measured military pressure aimed at isolating the mullahs in Tehran while simultaneously providing a beacon of hope for the country’s frustrated youth.

Accordingly, pushing for a comprehensive peace treaty between Israel and Saudi Arabia – the logical culmination of the Trump-era Abraham Accords – must be high on the next president’s agenda. The wider the ripples of Arab-Israeli cooperation expand, the less susceptible the region will be to Tehran’s baleful effect.

Middle East headaches for inside-the-Beltway policy-makers, however, do not begin and end with Iran and the Israeli/Palestinian enmity. Turkey, suffering under the increasingly debilitating rule of President Recep Erdoğan, will remain a wellspring of frustration for the next occupant of the White House. Ankara, though an important North Atlantic Treaty Organization member, has pursued under Erdoğan a regional, “Ottoman Empire 2.0” foreign policy that has frequently clashed with America’s interests in the eastern Mediterranean, particularly in Syria.

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Managing the relationship with Turkey will require seasoned political and diplomatic skills by the next president. Furthermore, the specter of nuclear proliferation looms large over the region. Should Tehran finalize its nuclear ambitions, multiple states – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt at least – will be strongly tempted to develop their own atomic arsenals. This would add exponentially destructive force to an inherently unstable slice of the globe on the southern fringe of Europe.

Lastly, heretofore unforeseen dangers await due to the growing effects of climate change. Besides a warming planet that will increase the adverse health consequences of living in Middle Eastern metropolises, many experts believe that the eastern Mediterranean and Fertile Crescent will be ripe for tension over access to water, the so-called water wars of the future. Resultant waves of climate migrants could swamp the European Union, widening political fissures among U.S. allies whose cooperation is critical to our efforts to counter Russia. That geopolitical hot potato, what to do about Moscow, will be the subject of a future column.

Robert Beck of Peterborough served for 30 years overseas with the United States government in embassies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He now teaches foreign policy classes at Keene State College’s Cheshire Academy for Lifelong Learning.