Middle Eastern geopolitics III — non-Arab states

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 23 Jan 2024

Tarek Osman continues his series of articles on Middle Eastern geopolitics with a consideration of the region’s non-Arab states


The interactions between Arab and non-Arab sociopolitical projects have been at the core of Middle Eastern geopolitics since the end of World War I.

The three non-Arab states in the Middle East – Iran, Israel, and Turkey – have mobilised their resources for the current moment, which they correctly regard as extremely important for their strategic positions in the region.  

Each of them, however, confronts a set of challenges.

Iran has been one of the most successful states in Middle Eastern geopolitics over the past 20 years, and the Islamic Republic has strengthened its presence in three strategically important areas.

In Iraq, Iran has established a major influence in this very rich country’s political economy. In the southern Arabian Peninsula, on the border with its arch-competitor Saudi Arabia, Iran has built a strong political and military presence through its close ally, the Houthi group in Yemen. In the Eastern Mediterranean, Iran’s closest ally Hizbullah, arguably an integral part of the political and military structure of the Islamic Republic itself, has become a major political, economic, and military force that has succeeded in establishing a situation of détente with Israel, Iran’s arch-enemy, over the past 15 years.

The establishment of a solid presence on the Eastern Mediterranean has been a prime Iranian objective for centuries, irrespective of the ruling regime in Tehran. Iran has always harboured ambitions to expand its political and cultural influence beyond its borders in what is a natural instinct for all wealthy civilisations.

However, Iran cannot expand to the north towards Russia, despite the existence of republics in the Russian Federation whose history and heritage are anchored in Persian culture. It also finds it difficult to expand eastwards towards lands where India has for centuries been the dominant cultural frame of reference.

Towards the west, however, from Iraq to the eastern Mediterranean, Iran has found a more malleable political landscape over the past 20 years.  

Religion has played a role in this expansion. For centuries, important Shia centres of learning in today’s Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran have cross-cultivated each other’s thinking, and a community of scholars has emerged in them that has become a leading reference for Shia communities in the Mashreq as a whole.

It is for this reason that Iran’s presence across the region, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean, has become not only highly valuable for its strategic positioning, but also, and equally importantly, a major civilisational achievement.

Yet, this success has come at a cost. Despite the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia in early 2023, the latter fully understands that a significant part of the Arabian Peninsula, and one that is close to its most important strategic assets, is subject to major Iranian influence.

The situation is even more fraught in the Eastern Mediterranean. There are strong arguments that Israel will attempt at some point to seriously weaken Hizbullah’s military capabilities, which it deems to be a considerable threat to its national security. As a result, Iran must remain vigilant and effectively mobilised in preparation for the major confrontation it knows the future is likely to bring, entailing colossal costs in resources and military attention.

Israel is in an almost exactly opposite strategic position. Israeli society has developed in curious ways over the past two decades. Its most successful segments have established themselves in the most economically and technologically advanced circles in the world, and their attention is turned away from the Middle East and its problems and towards the most vibrant parts of California and Massachusetts in the United States.

As a result, some of the brightest minds in Israeli society have created bubbles for themselves in which they work and socialise away from the troubles of their neighbourhood. On the other hand, other sections of Israeli society have retreated into extreme religiosity, rejecting the secular for the sacred.

Some 75 years since the creation of the Israeli state, many in Israel, for opposing reasons, have moved away from their country’s attempts to entrench Israeli society into the wider fabric of the Middle East, something that was official policy some decades ago, into mentally and culturally eschewing the region altogether.

Such socio-political developments manifest themselves in geopolitics, and the internal divergences within Israeli society impose on the country’s strategists the difficult challenge of forging strategic goals that reflect opposing conceptions of the state’s identity and therefore also of its future.

The Gaza war has created another problem. There is now a new generation of Arabs and Israelis who not only see no prospects of peace in the foreseeable future, but whose feelings have also now become highly inflamed and who view the other through the prism of rage and revenge. As a result, Israeli strategists are forging their country’s strategic positioning not only amidst internally diverging views of identity, but also on scenarios anchored on a troubled past rather than on any future promise.

Turkey shares elements of the challenges facing both Iran and Israel. After a period of expansion in the years immediately after the Arab uprisings of 2010-2011, Turkey realised that the costs of its expansion exceeded its potential gains. But curtailing that expansion then created a dilemma for the country.

Despite the major socioeconomic benefits that Turkey gained from its Western orientation and convergence with the European Union in the 1990s and early 2000s, it remains as a result of the weight of history and culture gravitated towards the Islamic and Arab worlds. By reorienting its geopolitical compass towards the Middle East and the Caucasus, Turkey has arguably aligned its international outlook with this historical experience. But in that reorientation, Turkey’s attention has been channelled away from Europe’s rich meadows and tranquil mountains towards the Middle East’s dangerous plains.

The problem for the country is that it is trying to navigate the Middle East’s flames at a key time for the Arab countries, as a previous article in this series argued, when they are themselves developing their strategic priorities. Turkey’s reorientation is proving to be a delicate strategic exercise as a result.  

The timing of it adds further problems, and the current historical moment echoes loudly in the Turkish psyche. It is now almost exactly a century since the establishment of the Turkish Republic after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and identity after World War I. Turkey has achieved a lot in that century, and as it now remembers its bygone empire, some of its strategists are seeing promise in trying to resuscitate elements of that old identity as a potential frame of reference in a Middle East that is undergoing its acutest transformations since the end of World War I.

Resuscitating elements of Ottoman identity often corresponds to the cultural nostalgia for the 19th and early 20th centuries that is still prevalent amongst some segments of the elite in several Arab societies. But cultural nostalgia is different from geopolitical calculation. Looking into the past informs the present, but it can hardly form the future.

The next article in this series will look at Middle Eastern geopolitics from the perspective of powers outside the region, mainly the US, Russia, China, and the European Union.

* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: