The new year started ominously in the Middle East. Aside from the raging war in Syria and the regression to military authoritarianism in Egypt, Iraq found itself again threatened by widespread sectarian warfare, and Lebanon appeared to be on the brink.
The discourse of a few years ago – the awakening of Arab youth, the longing for dignity and the fight for the rule of law – is long gone. It has been replaced by fears of a looming regional clash between Sunni and Shia Muslims, the resurgence of jihadis and the restoration of the old autocratic order.
Wherever you look these days, Middle East politics are defined by the power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. A proxy war largely confined to Syria for nearly two years is now playing out more manifestly – and with deadly consequences – in Iraq and Lebanon, and more quietly in Bahrain and Yemen.
Over the past few weeks, Iraqi Sunni towns such as Fallujah have been over-run by jihadis; assassinations have resumed in Lebanon; and bomb blasts have ravaged a Shia neighbourhood in a Beirut suburb.
In this climate of chaos, extremism has found a new opening. Al-Qaeda affiliates were on the defensive three years ago when a more peaceful form of protesting swept the region. But the Syrian civil war provided fertile ground for religious fanatics. As they joined the rebellion, the jihadis sought to assert a radical vision that alienated the rest of the opposition, and fed the regime’s narrative of a secular government fighting a jihadi menace.
North Africa’s extremists have been reinvigorated by the failure to restore a semblance of order to the Libyan state after the ousting of Muammer Gaddafi. Weapons have flowed out of Libya to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. This has presented an ill-timed challenge to the fragile state of Tunisia, complicating the one political transition in the region that still has a chance at democracy.
The return of the security state in Egypt is also radicalising Islamists. The overthrow of president Mohamed Morsi and the moves to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, declared a terrorist organisation, are risking long-term stability by driving the Islamists underground.
The changes in Cairo have the support of Saudi Arabia, which has been the region’s main counter-revolutionary force. But the trumpeting of what Riyadh considers a return to stability has been upset by potentially greater anxieties related to Iran, and Tehran’s renewed engagement with the west under Hassan Rouhani, the new president.
Much of the world greeted the election of Mr Rouhani as a rare sign of hope in the Middle East. The perception was reinforced by the landmark interim nuclear agreement with world powers in November.
Under the deal, Iran agreed to suspend the main parts of its nuclear programme for the first time in a decade in return for modest relief from punishing international sanctions.
The agreement paves the way for a negotiated solution that would ensure the Islamic Republic is prevented from ever acquiring nuclear weapons. These talks have yet to begin and will be difficult and protracted, but a breakthrough could have far-reaching and virtuous consequences for the rest of the region.
At this stage, though, the interim deal – and the prospects of ending 30 years of Iranian-American hostilities – has dismayed the US’s traditional Gulf allies, who fear a detente would allow Tehran to flex its muscles across the Middle East. Unusually, these Gulf states found themselves in agreement with their historic foe, Israel, whose government lobbied furiously against the Iran nuclear deal.
Relations between the US and its Arab allies were already strained by the Obama administration’s deal with Russia on dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. This removed the American threat of military strikes against Syrian regime targets, a strategy for which Riyadh and others had been clamouring.
For Saudi Arabia and some of its neighbours, the perception of shifting American priorities – towards engagement with Iran and diplomacy on Syria, where the US and Russia are sponsoring the first peace conference this month – are confirmation of US disengagement from the region.
Whatever reassurance the US provides, a growing, if misplaced, conviction in the Gulf is that an improvement in US relations with Iran will come at the expense of Arab states, an attitude that serves only to exacerbate the Sunni-Shia divide.