US and Gulf region set to 'rebalance' alliance after Ukraine

Impact of Russian invasion could also create opportunity for a nuclear deal between Washington and Iran, say experts

A Ukrainian soldier sits on a tank near Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, where Russia have been building up forces. AFP
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The Ukraine war could “reshape and rebalance” American alliances in the Middle East, leading analysts have said.

Russia's invasion is having a significant geopolitical impact on international relationships, with the Gulf region potentially able to secure increased security guarantees from Washington, a webinar by London-based think tank Chatham House heard.

It could also see a temporary nuclear agreement struck with Iran and have an impact on Moscow’s relations with Turkey and the war in Syria, said participants.

America’s low-key reaction over continued aggression from Iran — including attacks by Tehran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen on Abu Dhabi in January in which three people were killed and on Saudi Arabia — had created “grievances” and “continued uncertainties,” Chatham House's Sanam Vakil said.

While she argued that a Nato-type treaty with the West was “unlikely”, the more probable scenario was “a strategic framework between the US, through United States Central Command, and Gulf players to co-ordinate on intelligence sharing … in a more multilateral way.”

She contended that for the Middle East the war provided an opening “to renegotiate their relationship with Washington … an opportunity for them to rebalance”.

The agreement could also build air and naval defences “to protect and shield the Gulf from the profound security threats from Iran”, Ms Vakil, deputy director of the think tank's Middle East and North Africa programme, said.

Over time, the arrangement could be broadened to bring in Jordan, Egypt and — potentially — Israel.

The idea was “a big sell and requires a lot of investment” but could emerge from the Ukraine war, she said.

John Sfakianakis, an associate fellow with the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa programme, said the interruption of key grain supplies from Ukraine and Russia might lead to crises in Egypt, Algeria and Jordan — “and of course Lebanon, which has been forgotten but has to be addressed at some point”.

A Russian Navy submarine sails in the Bosphorus, on its way to the Black Sea, in Istanbul, Turkey. Reuters

There had been grievances in the Gulf over the “uncertainty” of US engagement over the last decade that were “primarily driven by uncertainty over the revived Iran nuclear talks”, Ms Vakil told the webinar titled The war in Ukraine: Implications and responses from the Middle East.

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was agreed by Iran and major powers to curtail Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions being eased. In 2018, Donald Trump, US president at the time, withdrew his country from the deal.

Part of a new US arrangement would be a renewal of the deal in which there was “a determined amount of time where Iran agrees to freeze its nuclear programme in exchange for perhaps a tolerance of this status quo”, Ms Vakil said.

The proposal is reflected in an open letter from the European Leadership Network, a pan-European think tank, urging for the JCPOA deal not to be ignored, with America and Iran showing greater flexibility.

Talks in Vienna ― which include Russia — stalled after Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. This has raised “fears that previous progress will be undone”, said the signatories, who include two former heads of states, nine former foreign ministers and five former defence secretaries.

“At a time when transatlantic co-operation has become all the more critical to respond against Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, for US and European leaders to let slip the opportunity to defuse a nuclear crisis in the Middle East would be a grave mistake,” the letter said.

Another significant impact on the Middle East was that Turkey’s fracturing relationship with Russia was having significant consequences, said Galip Dalay, an associate fellow at Chatham House.

This had led to a “Turkish, French and Greek joint effort in Mariupol” — the southern Ukrainian port under siege from Russian forces ― between nations that had previously been at loggerheads.

Turkey could also play a role in the energy supply to Europe but more importantly its closure to all warships entering the Black Sea under the Montreux Convention could have a significant long-term effect.

“A more prolonged period will have an impact on Russia in the conflict zone in Syria and Russian presence in Eastern Mediterranean because now Russia will not easily move naval assets,” he said.

Turkey also closed the airspace to military and civilian traffic from Russia to Syria that could create long-term problems for Moscow.

“We will see more and more friction emerging in the Turkey-Russian relationship,” Mr Dalay predicted.

Updated: April 26, 2022, 6:07 PM