2023 Research and Study

  • Commentary
  • publication date:2023/07/10

Understanding Middle East’s "Tectonic Shift": Strategic Retreat of the US and the Emerging Middle East-led Diplomacy

MEIJ Commentary No.1

Kenta Aoki, Executive Research Fellow, MEIJ


The Changing Order in the Middle East

Intra-regional relations in the Middle East have changed rapidly in recent years. Examples include the Abraham Accords of September 2020, in which the Arab States and Israel agreed to normalize relations, and the Al-Ula Declaration of January 2021, which lifted collective sanctions on Qatar. Additionally, on March 10th, 2023, Iran and Saudi Arabia’s China-brokered agreement to restore diplomatic relations caught the world by surprise. In May 2023, Syria declared its return to the Arab League.


This essay explains the current situation by providing insights into both external and internal factors. The external factors mainly include the involvement of Great Powers, and internal factors include the Middle Eastern narratives, especially the ones of Iran. All these factors are important to understand this “Tectonic Shift.”

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)


The US Withdrawal from the Middle East and the Emergence of China and Russia

In January 1980, in his State of the Union Address, US President Jimmy Carter identified the Middle East as a core US interest because it includes the Persian Gulf, which has large oil reserves and is an important part of sea lanes[1]. During the Cold War, the US policy toward the Middle East had three objectives: securing oil and natural resources, containing the Soviet Union, and ensuring the security of Israel[2]. However, with the increased production of shale oil in North America, the first two have already lost significance, and the US seems to have moved away from the Middle East.


To illustrate this, the number of US troops stationed in and around the Gulf region decreased significantly after the Obama administration (2009-2017) launched its Asia-oriented rebalancing policy between 2011 and 2012[3]. The Obama administration formulated an exit strategy from the “forgotten war” in Afghanistan and pursued a military withdrawal from Iraq. Consequently, the number of US troops in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries serving logistical functions for Afghanistan and Iraq also decreased. Moreover, between 2013 and 2014, the Obama administration did not take any military action when allegations of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime in Syria were reported, even though the red line had been crossed.


The US did not change its position between 2017 and 2021, even during the Trump administration. It avoided military action in response to a September 2019 drone attack by Yemen’s Ansar Allah, commonly known as the Houthis, at a Saudi Aramco oil facility that caused extensive damage. This series of events made the Gulf countries wonder if they could continue to rely on the US for national security. Regardless, the US came forward with the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Syria while signing the Doha Agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan to begin the complete withdrawal of its forces. After the inauguration of the Biden administration in January 2021, the US did not make any major changes to its policy toward Afghanistan and completed the withdrawal of its troops. This resulted in the collapse of the Afghan government and its takeover by the Taliban in August 2021.


China and Russia are expanding their influence amid the strategic retreat of the US from the Middle East, which can partially be attributed to the escalation of the US–China confrontation. Utilizing its strong economic and trade ties, China is now expanding its influence in the Middle East in the military and political arenas[4]. In 2017, China established its only overseas naval base in Djibouti and, in 2023 brokered an agreement to restore diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as aforementioned. Russia is also beginning to look to the Middle East as a new partner amid its tight finances following the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and severe economic sanctions imposed by the West.


To summarize, the current phenomena of the US withdrawal and the rise of China and Russia are not due to the individual ideologies or beliefs of any US president but rather due to a structural shift, as the past three US administrations have consistently sought a strategic retreat from the Middle East.


The Position of Iran and Its Strategic Vision

How do Middle Eastern countries respond to this new reality in the face of changing external environments? To examine this, the following section focuses on the Iranian perspective.


“Today, we see that the indicators of America's power and unilateralism are declining, and new and emerging powers, such as regional organizations, especially in Asia, are forming.”

“The regime (the Israeli government) has never been as bad as it is today, and these are significant indicators and manifestations of the formation of a new world order.”


On June 3rd, 2023, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said this at a ceremony marking the 34th anniversary of Imam Khomeini’s death[5]. More recently, phrases like “new world order” and “the fall of the US” are increasingly being used by Iranian high-ranking officials.


Since the Iranian revolution in February 1979, Iran emphasized the application of Islamic precepts under the idea of guardianship of Islamic Jurists (Velayat-e Faqih) and tried to strengthen itself to counter perceived threats—Israel, which endangers the Muslim community (Ummah), and the US, which is an arrogant oppressor[6]. In recent years, the unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear agreement by the Trump administration in May 2018 led to the “Maximum Pressure” campaign in the US that imposed severe financial and oil trade restrictions on Iran. This caused Iran to deepen its rift with the US, pushing it toward China and Russia.


The hardline policy of the US toward Iran inevitably instilled a strong sense of distrust in Iranians. Supreme Leader Khamenei repeatedly stated that the US could not be trusted. For example, on December 16, 2020, the leader in front of the family of late Qasem Sulaimani, the Quds Force Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) stated the following:


“My firm recommendation is not to trust the enemy. The hostility (against Iran) is not just from Trump’s America, which supposedly some could say would end when he leaves, as (President Barack) Obama’s America also did bad things to the Iranian nation.” Khamenei also said, “Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, the three European signatories of the nuclear deal, also did not implement their commitments and hurt Iran, so they must not be trusted.[7]


In an environment where distrust toward the West was increasing, hostility further intensified when President Rouhani, who sought international cooperation, left office in June 2021, and a conservative 13th government was formed. These three branches of power are now dominated by conservative hardliners, and the presence of the IRGC in the government is increasing[8]. Meanwhile, in terms of diplomacy, Iran is pursuing a balanced foreign policy to establish a resilient economy, where it tries to build multifaceted and close relations with China, Russia, neighboring countries, Muslim countries, regional organizations, and anti-US states (see Figure 1).


Figure 1. The list of countries that President Raisi visited between August 2021 and June 2023








Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit



Economic Cooperation Organization Summit




Summit with President Putin



Summit with the Emir of Qatar Tamim



Summit with the Sultan of Oman Haitham



The Fifth Caspian Summit



Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit


The US

United Nations General Assembly General Debate



Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) Summit




Summit with President Xi



Summit with President Assad



Summit with President Jokowo


Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba

Summits with each head of state

(Source: Open resources collected by the author)


In the military sphere, Iran has been working on its domestic ballistic missile program and drone technology to keep pace with Israel’s capability, which is rumored to possess nuclear weapons. Surrounded by US military bases in the Gulf States and having a hostile relationship with Israel, Iran seeks to strengthen its “axis of resistance” through support for non-state actors like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and pro-Assad militias in Syria. Under its “forward defense strategy,” Iran maintains and enhances its deterrence capabilities through the development of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, missile and drone development, and destabilizing activities within the region.


Advancing INSTC and Challenging the US Dollar as a World’s Reserve Currency

In terms of regional connectivity, Iran has begun to focus on the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC), a combined road, rail, and sea transportation route connecting Mumbai (India) to Moscow (Russia) via Iran and Azerbaijan. Although the initiative was first conceived in 2000, no significant progress had been made in the past 20 years owing to a lack of political momentum. However, this concept began to attract attention after the major players, Russia and Iran, started to require alternative transportation routes due to severe economic sanctions, and India began to turn its attention to the Central Asian and European markets as it aspired to become a major power.


To advance the initiative, on May 17th, 2023, Iran and Russia agreed to build the Rasht-Astara railroad[9]. On May 31st, 2023, when Supreme Leader Khamenei met with the Chairman of the Turkmenistan People’s Council Berdimuhamedow in Tehran, he stated the following: “We are determined to complete the North-South transit route, which can connect Turkmenistan and its neighbors to the Sea of Oman.[10]” This statement emphasizes the Iranian government’s emphasis on developing INSTC initiatives.


Iran is also increasing its opposition to the world’s reserve currency, the US dollar. Iran is accelerating its efforts to materialize transactions in its currency with Russia and has implemented a transaction system that allows direct communication with Russian banks[11]. During a visit by India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval in May 2023, Iran suggested that bilateral economic transactions be conducted in its own currency. On June 1st, 2023, at a foreign ministers’ conference for BRICS which Iran is interested in joining, their joint statement included the following: “Ministers underscored the importance of encouraging the use of local currencies in international trade and financial transactions between BRICS as well as their trading partners,[12]” indicating that the BRICS is moving toward a multi-polar financial and monetary system.


In sum, based on the view that US domination in the region is coming to an end, Iran stopped placing excessive expectations on the West and is shifting its focus to regional actors to respond to the new world order. Like Iran, other Middle Eastern countries are noticeably diversifying their foreign relations to adapt to changes in the international environment[13].


Summary: The Development of Region-Led Diplomacy in The Middle East

Often, great powers treat the Middle Eastern countries as objects for achieving their goals. However, it should not be forgotten that these countries are independent subjects with their own will. It is certain that the current “tectonic shift” in the Middle East is due to the strategic retreat of the US, which long held a great deal of influence in the region, and the simultaneous rise of China and Russia. Moreover, it should be noted that a major shift in mindset has taken place within the leadership of Middle Eastern countries. The case of Iran illustrates one aspect of the Middle East’s growing confidence in its ability to manage affairs on its own, as its confidence in the West has declined.


The Middle East is currently in a transitional phase, in which countries are taking the lead in seeking to establish peace and stability in their own regions. It raises questions like what kind of diplomatic policy Middle Eastern countries will develop in the future, what the political landscape would look like, and what role Japan should play in this process. We hope that more studies that take a closer and more detailed look at the reality of the region will be conducted.



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  • [2] Masaki Mizobuchi, “Emerging Order in the Middle East after the Arab Uprising: What Comes after the Pax-Americana?” Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, No.531, Jan 2018, pp. 22-37. 
  • [3] In 2011, there were 146,805 troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and GCC countries in total. However, it was reduced to a fifth of that, which is 29,964 troops. Kenta Aoki, “Trump and US Foreign Policy toward the Middle East: Focusing on Military Withdrawal and Hardline Policy toward Iran,” The Journal of International Security, Vol.49(2), Sep 2021, pp.59-78.
  • [6]  Since the Iranian coup d'état in 1953, in which the CIA heavily intervened, Iranian people started to develop hostile sentiment toward the US. The relationship between the two countries was discontinued in 1980 after the US embassy staff members in Teheran were held hostage in 1979.
  • [9]  At the signing ceremony in Tehran with the presence of President Raisi and President Putin (who attended online), Mr. Bazrbash, the Iranian minister for Roads and Urban Development, and Mr. Saveliev, the Russian minister for Transport, signed a deal worth 1.6 billion euros. This deal initiates the construction of the 162-kilometer-long railway that connects Rasht, a coastal town near the Caspian Sea, and Astara, a town next to its Azerbaijani border. Chuto Kawaraban No.22, May 18, 2023.
  • [13]  In the case of the normalization of the Saudi-Iranian relation, Saudi Arabia intended the diversification of foreign relations by bringing China into the deal. In fact, it was reported that Saudi Arabia asked China to facilitate the deal instead of the previous moderator, the Iraqi government. To add to this, China maintains close economic relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia and has won the trust of both parties, allowing itself to be the best candidate for moderator. The intentions of all three parties aligned in this sense, allowing China to attain maximum outcomes with minimal cost. Saeed Azimi, “The Story Behind China’s Role in the Iran-Saudi Deal,” Stimson Center, March 13, 2023.

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