Middle Eastern reconciliation processes on hold

The level of conflict in the Middle East will remain high in 2024. This represents a threat to Norwegian military personnel and Norwegian interests in the region. The war between Israel and Hamas has put reconciliation processes on hold and heightened the risk of terrorism in the region.

Meanwhile, the Middle East is becoming an increasingly important arena for Russia and China in their attempts to challenge Western influence and secure their own interests. The tools used in the competition between the great powers are mainly diplomatic and economic. The US remains the most influential power, especially in terms of military force, but the countries in the region exploit the rivalry to pursue national ambitions.

Conflict lines persist

The war between Israel and Hamas shows that the underlying conflict lines in the Middle East persist. However, regional actors want to prevent the war from spilling over into other areas, and so far, it looks like the intensive fighting will be confined to Gaza. Nevertheless, Iran-affiliated militias continue to attack Western and Israeli targets in the Middle East. This affects the border areas between Israel and Lebanon, coalition targets in Syria and Iraq, and shipping in the Red Sea.

In 2023, after Chinese mediation, Saudi Arabia and Iran resumed bilateral relations after a seven-year freeze. The rapprochement has a damping effect on regional conflicts, potentially paving the way for a normalisation of Iran’s relations with other countries in the Middle East as well.

There is a broad consensus in the region that further reconciliation is needed, but the war between Israel and Hamas has made these normalisation processes difficult. For instance, the budding rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia is now on hold. However, the strategic goals of stability and economic growth remain unchanged, and the parties will seek to resume the process at a later stage.

Parallel and somewhat competing initiatives for dialogue are expected to continue in 2024. For example, the Gulf States’ ongoing attempts to normalise relations with the Assad regime are largely driven by a desire to offset Türkiye and Iran’s deep-rooted influence in Syria.

Fragile dialogue on nuclear deal with Iran

Negotiations for a return to Iran’s nuclear agreement with the West, Russia and China have been deadlocked since September 2022. Social unrest in Iran and Iranian weapons deliveries to Russia have made it difficult to keep the dialogue open.

Iran and the US resumed indirect talks in June 2023, focusing on trust-building steps such as the exchange of prisoners and transfer of frozen Iranian funds. Yet, the dialogue is fragile and the war between Israel and Hamas makes matters worse.

To what extent will key Western security interests, such as restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme, be included in the dialogue in the coming year? This remains uncertain. One important factor will be Iran’s view on the prospect of the US easing sanctions. Lack of progress on this track could push Tehran towards a more confrontational approach, which in turn could involve an intensification of the nuclear programme and military attacks in the Middle East, including against Western presence and international shipping in and around the Persian Gulf.

World powers battling for influence

As US security guarantees are perceived as less certain, regional actors in the Middle East want more diversified cooperation on security policy and increased flexibility. Many of the countries seek foreign investments, and growing Russian and Chinese interest in the region presents new opportunities. These countries seek to use the rivalry between the great powers to negotiate beneficial agreements.

Russia is showing greater interest in the Middle East after the invasion of Ukraine, since the region is important for Moscow’s ability to reduce the effect of Western sanctions, establish alternative security cooperation agreements and secure political support. However, Russia’s weakened position also gives the regional actors more leverage vis-à-vis Moscow. China’s interests in the Middle East are about establishing secure access to energy and other natural resources. For the Gulf States, having security cooperation with the US and economic cooperation with China is not contradictory.

Thus far, neither Russia nor China wants to challenge the US’s military role in the Middle East. On the contrary, all three powers want a Middle East without major military conflicts. Stability means that military resources can be directed elsewhere and makes it easier to pursue economic goals in the region. Syria is an exception, where Russia is more willing to confront the US militarily as long as it does not have any ripple effects.


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