The Hybrid Twenties: How US-Iran Confrontation Is Changing the Balance of Power in the Middle East and in the World

Having attacked Baghdad airport and killing Qasem Soleimani, the United States has again proved to be an extremely unpredictable and irresponsible global player. Other key countries’ trust in Washington will decline, writes Valdai Club expert Dmitry Suslov. The United States took everyone by surprise, including its allies, and this will encourage the countries of the region to increasingly pay attention to other players and try to diversify their foreign and military-political ties. This automatically strengthens the position of Russia, because it can be seen as an alternative.

Donald Trump’s address on January 8 reaffirmed what was evident from the very beginning: no major war between the United States and Iran should be expected in the near future. It would be disadvantageous to either side. To Iran, because, first, it would obviously lose it, and, second, because the situation in the country is already extremely difficult due to the depressing economic situation, caused, first of all, by American sanctions. The Iranian leadership understands that a protracted war with the United States is fraught with the regime’s collapse. Therefore, Iran will act by asymmetric methods – this is the area where it is most efficient. First of all, it will seek Iraq to withdraw American military bases from its territory as soon as possible. It is already obvious that the Iranian attacks on the US bases in Iraq were purely symbolic in nature, without causing sufficient damage. Moreover, Iran warned of these attacks in order to avoid casualties among US troops. The task was not to push the United States towards further escalation and, judging by Trump's statement, this goal was achieved.

A direct war with Iran would be disadvantageous to Donald Trump as well. Trump, in principle, has never wanted to get involved in new wars, and this commitment remains unchanged. The assassination of Soleimani was a reckless, but targeted operation designed to put Iran in its place and demonstrate that the United States remains a superpower that can afford whatever it pleases. But Trump is simply not interested in getting involved more in the Middle Eastern affairs, when he needs to hold China in check and prepare for the presidential election. This is especially true as such a war would be protracted and difficult from the point of view of economic, and even human costs. There can be no other war in case with Iran. This is not Iraq of 2003 or Libya of 2011.

Trump does not need a war from the domestic policy perspective as well. The Senate is guaranteed not to support impeachment, and what Trump needs for his re-election is economic growth and disruption in the camp of the Democrats. Both things seem to have been achieved. The war, on the contrary, could hit economic growth due to a sharp rise in oil prices and a general destabilization of the world economy, as well as increase Democrats' attempts to further limit the powers of the president. In case of Trump, no rallying around the president could happen.

In tactical terms, the most important question now is how the crisis in US-Iranian relations will affect the balance of power in the Middle East. It seems that it has weakened the regional positions of both Iran and the USA and strengthened the positions of other players, primarily Russia and Turkey.

Why are Iran’s positions becoming weaker? First, the most authoritative, capable and influential figure was killed. In fact, Soleimani was the number two person in the Iranian establishment. It will require a long time for Iran to compensate for this loss. Iran’s operations in the Middle East – in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and even the support for the Houthis in Yemen – may decline or come to some disruption. Second, the crisis has demonstrated that Iran still cannot afford entering into an open military confrontation with the United States.

As for the United States, the assassination of Soleimani has shown it to be an extremely unpredictable and irresponsible partner, whose trustworthiness among other key players will decline. The United States took everyone by surprise, including its allies, and this will, of course, encourage the countries of the region – American allies and partners – to increasingly pay attention to other players and try to diversify their foreign and military-political relations. This automatically strengthens the position of Russia, because it can be seen as an alternative. The reaction of the Trump administration to Iran’s missile attacks on US bases in Iraq, on the contrary, was predictable and also leads to a weakening of the US’s position in the Middle East and the world as a whole. It turned out that attacking American military bases is something permissible, and this will not necessarily lead to a war with the “sole superpower.” For the first time in recent decades, a direct and open military strike has been launched against the United States — without devastating consequences for the aggressor.

Amid these developments Russia will be able to play the role of mediator between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel – it maintains positive relations with all these countries. Moreover, it will benefit from the current situation in Syria, because recent events have weakened both the American and Iranian positions in that country. There is already a hidden struggle between Russia and Iran for influence on Assad – and the assassination of Soleimani weakens Iran’s position in this struggle. In turn, the Syrian Kurds got another signal that the US could disregard their interests and concerns in the same way as it disregarded the interests and concerns of Iraq when it struck Baghdad International Airport.

Now is a very good moment for Russia to update its plan to create an inclusive security architecture in the Middle East, including all regional players: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, Iran, Egypt.

The crisis also strengthens the position of Turkey, which is pursuing an increasingly offensive policy in the Middle East and, importantly, is one of the Middle East’s heavyweights that are not directly involved in the Iran-Saudi confrontation. Therefore, Turkey can present itself as a responsible player and, to some extent, a broker and mediator to resolve the situation.

Strategically, the very first crisis of the 2020s has clearly demonstrated the essence of a new stage in the development of world disorder: the complete absence of rules, blurring the line between the state of war and peace. The Americans openly (and not reticently, as before) destroyed by air strike one of the top representatives of the Iranian leadership in the territory of a third country, which according to all canons is a casus belli, but stressed that they acted as part of “containment” and did not want to further escalate the conflict. After that, the US military bases got an open missile attack by Iran (for the first time in recent decades in peacetime), which is also classified as military aggression, but this also did not lead to war. On the contrary, both sides declared their “victory” and interest in de-escalation.

Does this mean that from now on other countries can also destroy officials of foreign states, officially included in the national terrorist lists and, in the absence of collateral damage among the civilian population, this will not be a declaration of war? Or that missile strikes against US bases will not necessarily lead to war? Is the most important thing in this case to avoid casualties among US troops and in advance warn the country where these American bases are located? It is impossible to answer these questions. But there is no doubt that the world has become even more hybrid, and international law has become even less consistent to the reality of international relations. On the contrary, the importance of deterrence and domestic political factors in foreign policy decision-making is growing.


Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.