The recent severe earthquake in Iran near the Iraqi border reminded the world that the Middle East is subject to physical upheavals. As if to mimic nature, geo-political and social upheavals are following at a dizzying pace. At the moment (and next week things may have changed again) three unfolding developments are creating new realities for statesmen, soldiers, diplomats, businessmen and intelligence operatives to deal with as best they can, which is not very good.
The first was the unwise referendum on independence in Iraqi Kurdistan, followed by the shameful abandonment of the Kurds by the Western World (except for Israel). This circumstance, coupled with the defeat of the ISIS “Caliphate”, removed the last two impediments to Iran spreading its geo-political sphere of influence through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean, a millennial goal of successive Persian empires for three thousand years. The last time Persia succeeded in this goal was at the expense of the Eastern Roman Empire in the seventh century C.E., followed rapidly by its reconquest by Constantinople and shortly thereafter the defeat of both empires by the newly-Islamicized Arabs.
Secondly, the precipitous decline of US influence and the simultaneous rise of Russian influence in the region. Russia has dreamed of and plotted and fought for a position in the eastern Mediterranean for centuries. It now, for the first time in history, has it. The Black Sea has been turned into a Russian lake. Bits of Georgia and Ukraine have been taken over, including the highly-strategic Crimean Peninsula. Turkey has been thoroughly cowed and Russia has triumphantly entered the eastern Mediterranean with naval and air bases and a vigorous and successful intervention in the Syrian civil war on the side of the odious Assad regime. Russian hegemony has just been symbolized by successive meetings by Putin with Assad, Rouhani, and Erdogan, symbolically held not in Moscow but in Sochi, on the Black Sea. In the meantime, pre-occupied with the North Korean threat, the US continues its military slog through the morass of Afghanistan and Iraq, although it is entirely unclear what it hopes to achieve in either country.
Finally, the astonishing developments in Saudi Arabia. The Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), is simultaneously consolidating his own branch of the al Saud tribal complex, conducting an anti-corruption campaign resulting in the arrest of dozens of princes and businessmen, liberalizing the medieval Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam including the detention of many religious leaders, planning hyper-ambitious plans of economic/scientific/technological progress, and improving the position of women in Saudi society. And now, the unconfirmed report in The New York Times that the Saudis have devised a truly workable Israeli-Palestinian peace plan and given Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas two months to approve it or to resign.
As if that were not enough, MbS, who is also minister of defense, is conducting a war in Yemen and a diplomatic/political/economic boycott of Qatar, in association with Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt. This is an agenda that is beyond daunting, and is a multi-pronged attempt to confront Iran and its terrorist proxies, and assure the continuance, stability and prosperity of a new Saudi Arabia.
Of course, all this may be temporary. Russia and Iran may have a falling-out; the Turkish regime may collapse; MbS may fail in carrying out his plans, as is certainly the case so far in Yemen and apparently in Qatar. The Israeli factor also is not to be overlooked. Iran is an existential threat to Israel and the southern Sunni arc countries are real or potential allies, formal or informal. Iranian bases in Syria will not be tolerated and if established will be attacked militarily. Relations with Russia are surprisingly quite good, one reason being that Putin, the quintessential realist, has a healthy respect for Israeli military, security and intelligence capabilities, which he wants on his side, not arrayed against him.
But this makes him hostage to actions which may be taken by Iran, or more likely by its proxies such as Hezbollah. Any outbreak of open hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah would place the Russians in the awkward position of having to choose between Iran and Israel.
The one thing we know nothing about is the future, but with the new developments, added to the already toxic brew in the Middle East since the so-called “Arab Spring,” prediction is rendered all but impossible. Even the greatest of the Biblical prophets would quail at proclaiming what is going to take place, although the Book of Ezequiel comes uncomfortably close.