The Middle East was a crucial arena in the Cold War. It was then that Israel first acquired its value to the US as a bulwark against perceived Soviet penetration into the Middle East. The Soviet Union perceived US activity in the Middle East as encircling them on their southern border. Nations chose blocks, and the Middle East was divided up into Cold War camps.
As the Second Cold War dawns, it has not yet risen over the Middle East. Most of the countries that had joined the American side are still on the American side. But if there is not a cold war, there is a cool war. Several countries that are on the American side and still look to the US are also glancing-at least a little – at Russia and China. And some that are not on the American side are moving firmly into a block with Russia and China.
The Syrian war brought Syria firmly into the Russian camp. Egypt entered into a multibillion dollar agreement with Russia for a nuclear reactor and, for the first time in a long time, restarted arms sales with Russia.
Even Israel, while firmly wed to the US, has enjoyed warm relations with Putin and Russia. Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent calls Putin a “philo-Semite” who “has gone out of his way to forge a strong relationship with Israel…” But Israel’s glance to the East goes beyond just Russia. Netanyahu had made growing ties with China a foreign policy and economic priority. In August, CIA director Bill Burns became the highest level US official to warn Israel about its welcoming of Chinese investment in Israel’s tech sector and infrastructure projects. The US has felt the need to warn Israel that deeper Chinese ties could compromise Israel’s security relationship with the US. The US has previously also pressured Israel to end economic relations with China since China has supported Iran.
But while Syria, Egypt, Israel and even NATO member Turkey glance more openly to Russia and China, the most important Second Cold War shifts are coming from historic enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran.
With the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the blocks changed. Saudi Arabia moved closer to Israel and into the US camp against Iran. Iran, isolated by the US, looked east to Russia and China.
In January 2020, the US assassinated Iranian general Qassem Suleimani while he was in Iraq. As the details of the assassination unfolded, it became clear that the Iranian general was in Iraq because he was couriering Iran’s response to Saudi Arabia’s de-escalation message. Saudi Arabia and Iran were talking. Saudi Arabia was glancing away from the US. It was only a plan B. But for the first time, they were openly looking at plan B.
Since then, the two enemies have met several times. And the secret meetings have become public: Iran has now confirmed publicly for the first time that they and Saudi Arabia are trying to resolve their differences. At the end of August, it was reported that Saudi-Iranian talks are set to resume with the new Iranian government.
As the two move carefully toward each other, Saudi Arabia is taking a further glance at Russia. On August 24, Saudi Arabia made the bold move of signing an agreement with Russia to develop joint military cooperation. This small dance step in changing partners may be an important Second Cold War signal to the US.
Iran, too, is taking what is more than a further glance at Russia. The Washington Post has reported that Iran and Russia have reached an agreement for Russia "to supply Iran with an advanced satellite system "that will give Tehran an unprecedented ability to track potential military targets across the Middle East and beyond."
Iran is also tightening ties with China. On March 27, the two countries signed a twenty-five year strategic and economic partnership worth $400 billion. On September 27, the US asked China to cut oil imports from Iran. China rejected the US plea, defended its right under international law to trade with Iran and reinforced that China and Iran cooperate "following the principles of equality and mutual benefit."
But of all the glances east to China and Russia, perhaps the most significant – and least noticed – is the move to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The SCO is much more important than the attention it draws. Composed of China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, it embodies 43% of the world’s population and four of its nuclear weapons powers. It is not intended to be a Cold War style block. It is not, Sakwa told me in a personal correspondence, even "anti-US." It is, however, intended as a counterbalance to an American unipolar world.
In September, 2021, Iran realized a fifteen year old dream and became a permanent member of the SCO. Slipping through US sanctions walls, SCO membership links Iran more tightly to China and Russia.
Iran’s joining the SCO is a major "diplomatic success" and a move more firmly into the Chinese-Russian block, but it is not as big a surprise as Saudi Arabia glancing away from the US to the Chinese-Russian block. On the same date, almost completely unreported, Saudi Arabia was admitted to the SCO as a "dialogue partner." So was Egypt.
During the Cold War, the Middle East was an important arena of competition. As the Second Cold War dawns, several Middle Eastern nations are glancing east. Of Syria, Egypt, Turkey and even Israel, the most significant could be the move toward each other and toward China, Russia and the SCO of Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.