The Hegemon at a Crossroads

Journal Title: The Current Digest of the Russian Press

Issue Edition: Volume 71, No. 38

Author: Fyodor Lukyanov


By Fyodor Lukyanov, research professor at the National Research University Higher School of Economics. Rossiiskaya gazeta, Sept. 20, 2019, p. 8. Complete text:

US National Security Adviser John Bolton lost his job just before his possible shining hour. Bolton’s fervent desire (apart from his intense hostility toward nuclear arms control) was to do away with the ayatollah regime in Iran. As a matter of fact, his aggressive activism in this respect was one of the main reasons for his dismissal: [US President Donald] Trump was spooked by the prospect of being drawn into a spiral of military preparations. Right now, Bolton must be confident that his dismissal triggered the subsequent events. As far as the hawks in Washington are concerned, Tehran perceives any sort of indecisiveness as an invitation to even greater pressure.

The attack on Saudi Aramco’s [oil] facilities, which disrupted half the largest oil producing country’s [processing] capacity, is an unprecedented event. This incident is a landmark in a series of events that have been unfolding in the region for a long time. Reaction to it will reveal the real lineup of forces.

Yemen’s Shiite rebels, who claimed responsibility for the attack and threatened to carry out retaliatory strikes on the UAE and seize parts of Saudi territory, are brave guys, of course. However, the scale of the attack is clearly beyond their capability, so the general interest in the Houthis’ Iranian sponsors is understandable, to say the least. Regardless of the mechanics of this particular act, what is going on in the Middle East reflects a sharp rise in Tehran’s influence, which puts Saudi Arabia, the US, Israel and several other countries in a difficult situation.

The US has no one to blame. Washington’s policy over the past two decades has objectively helped Iran strengthen and emerge as the most powerful regional force. From ousting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to pursuing an incoherent and ill-advised policy toward Syria and Yemen, it seems as if the US has been deliberately destroying or weakening regional counterweights to Iran’s influence. The resulting situation is extremely unpleasant for the US administration. A threat to global oil supplies is a serious matter, [and] a country that is laying claim to global hegemony simply cannot afford to ignore it.

But what is to be done? A campaign against Iran is impossible for several reasons. First, no one can predict how it would proceed or what it would lead to. In any case, this operation must be far greater and therefore more dangerous than anything the Americans have done since the cold war, including [in] Iraq. Second, Trump is inherently against any military actions; they are not his forte. What’s more, the overwhelming part of his core electorate fervently supports the original slogan, “No more senseless wars!” Meanwhile, a [US presidential] election campaign is already in full swing.

If it is really necessary to punish an upstart, the US president would prefer to use [his country’s] regional rivals as a cat’s paw. However, that brings up other problems. Saudi Arabia has amply demonstrated its military and strategic prowess in Yemen. The kingdom has gotten seriously bogged down in a neighboring country with no prospects for either achieving a result or pulling out. It is simply impossible to imagine Riyadh clashing with an immeasurably more powerful rival; nor would the kingdom risk such a step. Israel is far more effective, but an Iranian-Israeli collision would create such a maelstrom in the Middle East and in the entire Muslim world that the consequences would outweigh any [positive] result. So Washington’s regional allies are actually hoping that the US will do most of the heavy lifting to curb Tehran’s ambitions.

The significance of the situation extends far beyond regional boundaries. Iran’s rise is a challenge to the US as a country laying claim to global domination. Iran is not the US’s global rival that is challenging America’s superiority as a whole – that role is being increasingly played by China. However, unless Washington demonstrates its ability to rein in a player that wants to dominate a key part of the world, then its global position will also weaken, not strengthen. At the same time, if an attempt to check Tehran leads to an even more serious crisis in the region (and everyone understands that this is quite possible), then the US’s influence will shrink even faster. It’s almost a zugzwang.

Trump has already indicated that he is willing to repeat the North Korea trick with Iran – i.e., to abruptly move from dire threats to dialogue. However, in the case of Iran, that is much more difficult to do. First, the extent of Iran’s demonization is incomparable even to North Korea’s. Israel is a factor here, but above all, it has to do with the memory of the late 1970s, when Islamic revolutionaries dealt an unprecedented blow to the US’s prestige (the seizure of the [US] Embassy [in Tehran] and the subsequent events). Second, last year, Trump successfully scrapped a product of the titanic efforts of diplomats in many countries, including the US and Iran – namely, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which brought Tehran’s nuclear program under control. So there is not much trust in the US president’s negotiating skills per se.

Indeed, this is quite a historic moment. Although the issue is seemingly regional, a response to it is of global importance. In this context, an interesting factor here is the role of Russia, which is generally acknowledged as a major player in Middle East politics, and the opportunities that the current situation creates for Moscow. But that is a topic for another commentary.

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