The Nature of Alliances in the Middle East:
Power or Identity?
The main question in this paper is about the nature of alliances in the Middle East as one of the most important, strategic and, of course, stressful regions in the world. In other words, the question is if the nature of alliances in this region, like similar alliances in the West, can be determined by identity-based solidarity and the formation of common and collective identities based on fundamental norms”. In addition, when discussing the nature and causes of alliances in this region, should the role of identity-based factors be downplayed in favor of the role of power and power balance as well as threat balance? The main argument of this paper is that contrary to Barnett, a theorist of international relations according to whom identity-shared determine the nature of alliances in the Middle East, the true nature of alliances in this region is rooted in the interests of governments. As a result, those alliances have been rooted in material conditions a result of the regional power balance and the need to repel threats.
Keywords: Alliance, Balance of Threat, Identity, Middle East, Power.
The Middle East is one of the most prominent geostrategic, geoeconomic, and geocultural regions of the world, which stands out among all regions in terms of importance. Buzan and Waever consider the Middle East as a security complex with three main subregions: 1. The Levant subregion, where the most important actors are Israel, Syria, and Egypt; 2. The Maghreb subregion, which includes North African countries as Libya, Tunisia and Algeria; and finally 3. The Persian Gulf subregion, including the member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council along with Iran and Iraq.
An important issue regarding the Middle East is how regional alliances and coalitions are formed. There are alliances and coalitions both at the regional inter-governmental level and at interregional inter-governmental level, that are alliances between regional governments and transregional powers. Therefore, the main goal of this research is to analyze the nature of these regional alliances and coalitions and to see whether Barnett is right to assume the identity and spiritual factors to be at the basis of such alliances or they must be seen in the light of the power balance. To answer this question, the first discussion focuses on an identity-based and power-based explanation of how alliances are formed in international relations from the viewpoint of the main theoretical currents, especially from the viewpoint of realists and neorealists. We will also discuss theories offered by constructivist and spiritualist groups. In doing this, we will discuss case studies of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as two alliances that can be explained from the standpoint of identity and identity-related commonalities.
In the second discussion, we will use case studies to assess the nature of alliances in the Middle East. Then, using a comparative approach, we will argue that the nature of alliances in this region, which is made up of totalitarian governments without a common identity, is the opposite of the nature of alliances in the West, where the common liberal democratic identity has formed on the basis of regional alliances and coalitions. It is this shared identity that creates a perception of common threats by governments in those regions. However, in the Middle East, different identities give rise to the conception of common threats within a framework of regional alliances and coalitions.
The remainder of this paper is organized as follows. Section 2 describes two types of alliances, i.e. power-based and identity-based alliances, in the West and the Middle East. Section 3 explains the power-based nature of alliances in the Middle East. In Section 4, the case of regional alliances in the Middle East is studied. Section 5 explains realism and balance as the two bases of alliances in the Middle East, and finally Section 6 concludes the paper.
2. Power-based and Identity-based Alliances
Seen from any angle, theories of alliance explain that in order to achieve their goals in the modern time, governments have to ally, and this is truer about those governments that share the same security, political, and economic concerns. Throughout history, alliance has been a core phenomenon in international politics. George Liska believes that any discussion of international relations would be incomplete in the absence of a discussion of alliances.
Main theories of international relations, especially realism and neorealism, maintain that countering common threats or perception of common threats (in neoclassical realism according to Stephen M. Walt) leads to the formation of alliance between governments or the main actors in the international system. In these theories, which are inspired by microeconomic theories, the game theory, and the rational choice theory, governments are considered as rational actors, which take into account their benefit and loss when faced with common threats and, then, on the basis of the expediency principle, form alliances with other governments that are faced with the same kind of threats. Therefore, an alliance in such theories is a factor that serves to repel threats and to balance the power against the source of threat.
Jack Snyder, a theorist of neoclassical realism, believes that when studying dynamism behind alliances, special attention must be paid to two main factors. One factor is an identification of the nature of the threat, and the other one is whether an alliance must form with others in reaction to a threat, and with whom such an alliance must form. Here, a decision on how to make an alliance and who to make an alliance with depends on the rational calculation of costs in addition to the rules that emanates from material factors. It also depends on the government’s relative military power against potential and existing threats. John Mearsheimer believes that alliances are confrontational reactions to aggressive behavior by another government in a bid to fend off a threat and maximize the power of the reacting government.
Kenneth Waltz, a theorist of constructivist neorealism emphasizes that alliances are a result of the security achievements of governments, maintaining that in an anarchic system, governments do not cooperate with each other, but create balance to confront each other. Alliances, then, form because weak governments must unify to counter big powers in order to survive within an anarchic international system. From Waltz’s viewpoint, such alliances also change the model of power distribution. Therefore, alliances are considered as a very temporary phenomenon, which easily changes when threats are repelled or the power distribution model changes.
Walt, a theorist of neoclassical realism, maintains that alliance is an official configuration for security cooperation between two or more independent governments. He relies on the theory of the threat balance rather than the power balance, believing that within an anarchic system, governments ally against threats rather than creating balance with the dominant power or balancing their own economic and military capabilities. Therefore, states ally when encountering other states that pose a threat to them, especially when there are factors such as geographical propinquity, aggressive military power, aggressive goals, and aggressive ideology.
Walt believes that although exact arrangements in any alliance are different from others, in general, alliances are some form of commitment to the mutual military protection of their members against some external actors under specific conditions, and this issue can encompass both official and unofficial commitments. He then introduces his theory of alliance by asking whether governments choose a bandwagon strategy when they encounter threatening powers or they prefer to create balance against them. To answer this question, he argues that the balancing behavior is much more common than the bandwagon strategy, because these countries bandwagon only under certain conditions, that is when the vulnerability of the target government increases due to its national power weakness and lack of access to alliances. Under such conditions, the government may decide that the threat balance is more possible than the bandwagon strategy.
Walt believes that ideology does not play a determining role in forming alliances, and as threat increases, ideological differences lose their importance. From his viewpoint, a common ideology can only serve as a facilitator, not the creator of alliances.
Liberal institutionalists take advantage of the concept of conventional wisdom to explain how alliances form between governments and, thus, they get closer to realists’ viewpoint. They believe that under the condition of anarchy, rational actors choose for cooperation in order to benefit from that cooperation. Of course, they do this under the influence of and through international regimes, which are used as regulating mechanisms. These mechanisms help build confidence among governments. Therefore, in both analyses, all issues concerning the nature and quality of governments and their definitions are completely set aside, and the main focus is put on the material conditions that create alliance among governments. Such alliance is based only on the expediency of governments, and their foresight in dealing deal with threats or drawing benefits from cooperation have been proven. In this group of theories, the calculation logic not only governs the formation of alliances, but also plays an effective role in keeping them alive. In other words, from this viewpoint, alliances continue as long as they protect the expediencies of all involved actors, especially their economic interests and power.
In addition to this power-based explanation of how alliances are done at regional and international levels, there are also spiritual and constructivist theories of international relations, which pay more attention to the common identity among governments and their identity-based commonalities as important factors that strengthen alliances. In this way, these theories replace material conditions with identity-related, spiritual, and ideal conditions, and place the greatest emphasis on the role of power. Such identity-based explanations also highlight collective identities to study the quality of alliances. Such identities not only provide a definition of self and friends, but also draw clear lines between us and others. Therefore, it is the collective identity and the norms that shape these concepts (including the norms of the political culture of democracy that shape the identity of liberal democratic countries). These norms determine suitable behavior toward friends and foes within an alliance.
From this perspective, perhaps one would be able to integrate Kant’s democratic peace theory into this approach through a constructivist reading. In Kant’s opinion, those governments that enjoy major democratic characteristics (the common identity of liberal democracy) can create a secure community among democracies and a region of peace among themselves. In fact, the norms of the political culture of liberal governments shape the same identity among political actors through processes such as socialization, communication, and law-making. These liberal governments also give them a friendly attitude toward each other in order to facilitate the establishment of an alliance among them: an alliance that stands in the face of “others”, who fall outside this identity-based circle.
According to Kant, it is this liberal identity that leads to an understanding of the common threat between the relevant governments. It was in line with this very understanding and common identity that France and England did not perceive any threat from the United States following the end of World War II despite the wide gap that existed between their power and that of the United States. They rather considered the government of the United States as part of “US”, which was included within the common identity that represented them. It was exactly for the same reason that they considered the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as the “other” for not sharing the same identity with it.
On the other hand, in spiritual theories, alliance is based on identity, and is intermingled with the internal values of the actors. Therefore, believing in the legitimacy of these alliances is internalized among the actors. Because they have opted for an alliance, not under the influence of the logic of calculation, but because they have accepted its legitimacy, and considered it as part and parcel of their own identity. On the other hand, although collapse of alliances is associated with the elimination of the common threat posed to their members in the neorealist logic, and with the condition in which the cost exceeds benefit in neoliberal views, the constructivist viewpoints maintain that the main factor leading to change alliances or even their collapse is the change of identities over the long-run.
In other words, given the mainstream theories, especially realism, neorealism, and Walt’s theory, change in the perception of common threats by the governments is the key factor that has ended the alliances. However, in those theories that are based on identity, it is the change in the identity of governments and the fall of their collective identity that can terminate alliances. Therefore, from this point of view, alliances last longer, and can even last when there are no common objective external threats.
2.1 The Identity-based Nature of Alliances in the West
Those alliances which have been formed in the West, such as the NATO or the European Union (EU), can be explained by their basic norms. Such alliances are based on identity-related commonalities and the creation of a collective identity among governments that have the same liberal democratic identity. These alliances have been defined on the basis of identity, and differentiate between “in-group” and “out-group” members. Therefore, actors within democratic governments achieve a common perception of themselves and others through the social identification process. Such social identification pushes them toward forming an alliance with each other in an unconscious manner, even in the absence of external threats. Such an alliance will not be based on expediency and necessity, but natural and identity-based.
In fact, the norms that are prominent in the political culture of Western liberal democracies strengthen the collective identity that characterizes the community among democracies, and are known as constitutive norms. At the same time, the rules of this liberal democratic culture institutionalize and determine the quality of good behavior toward the self and the others, and are known as regulatory norms. Such rules are represented by institutions created by these alliances. Therefore, it is a common identity, which first forms such alliances, and then creates a perception of a common threat (for example, perception of the Soviet Union as a common threat by NATO countries).
Riss-Kappen argues that the perception of the Soviet Union threat was not the main factor that led to the creation of the European Union, but only bolstered it. In line with this argument, one can explain why NATO did not fall in following the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
When reflecting on the alliance among Western governments, Doyle notes that liberal governments of the same feather benefit from the presumed cordiality and alliance among them due to their common liberal identity. Such an alliance is not based on necessity and expediency, and may have even been created toward a common threat, and may not be spontaneous either. On the other hand, these liberal governments, which share a common identity, only presume enmity to be necessary for the face of non-liberal governments, which do not share their common identity, and are considered to fall out of their alliance.
2.2 The Power-based Nature of Alliances in the Middle East
Here, we will present case studies on the most important instances of alliances in the Middle East, which include the alliance between the Arab members of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, between Arab governments and the United States, between Israel and the United States, and between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria. In doing this, we will also study the identity-based commonalities and differential points of the parties to these alliances. Finally, we will reach the conclusion that unlike the West, the nature of alliances in the Middle East is power-based, and they stem from material conditions and expediencies of governments in this region. Thus, alliances form in reaction to regional and transregional threats on the basis of deterrence. In the following, we will briefly discuss the presence or absence of a collective identity in the Middle East region.
3. The Collective Identity in the Middle East
The collective identity that Western states have defined for themselves is the first factor that forms, and then strengthens alliances in the West. The liberal democratic identity helps these states to come up with a common definition of themselves as friends while considering others as non-friend. Therefore, when the nature of alliances in the Middle East is under study, the first issue that must be considered is if there is a collective identity in this region.
Many analysts of international relations believe that there is no collective identity in the Middle East. This is true, because multiple Islamic, national, and ethnic identities, along with Iranian, Kurdish, Turkish, and Arabic nationalistic sentiments, are the most important factors assigning the course of disputes among governments, and are the most important impediment to profound convergence among countries in this region.
Even Islam has not led to a collective identity among countries in the Middle East, where all governments, except that of Israel, are Islamic. This is true, because what is called the Islamic discourse is mostly focused on the political aspect of Islam, which in turn makes way for various tendencies and interpretations. Examples of this issue can be seen in Saudi Arabia’s traditional conservative Islam, Turkey’s civil political Islam, Iran’s Shia and Ummah-oriented political Islam, as well as the fundamentalist version of political Islam advocated by al-Qaeda.
On the other hand, if a collective identity is to emerge among countries located in a region, governments in that region must first of all successfully complete the nation-government building process in a similar way and through a similar mechanism like that of the West. Such regional governments must not be in a period of transition too. However, a glance at the Middle East show that the national government in this region has been formed on the basis of a model, which bears no similarity to the prevalent model of national states in the West. In fact, the establishment of government in this region is a result of foreign interference, and governments in this region have not been able still to establish a connection between traditional and modern values. In practice, these governments have been vacillating between traditional and modern attitude, and some of them are just taking steps toward modernization while grappling with transition period problems. Some others have been stuck in a pre-modern stage, and have to put up with pressures of a modern world.
Instead of settling for a common destiny, promoting mutual understanding of one another, and building confidence, which is among the most important factors creating a secure community of nations and collective identity, countries in this region have been always competing with one another and attributing one another as the “other”. Countries in this region have been so engrossed with the issue of the security dilemma that they have found themselves in conditions similar to the prisoner’s dilemma. Therefore, unlike Europe, no type of regional identity and common identity has been formed in this region so far to cause its countries to feel that they belong to a region and, as such, lead to identity-based and coherent alliances among them. With this assumption, what follows in this paper is a discussion of the most important present alliances in the Middle East from the standpoint of identity or power.
4. The Case Study of Regional Alliances in the Middle East
4.1 The (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council
The (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is one of the most important multilateral alliances in the Middle East, which was established by littoral Arab states of the Persian Gulf, that is, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, in 1981. In the following, we will argue that the establishment of this regional alliance and its survival in later years have been based on simply realistic reasons with identity-related factors playing a negligible role in the establishment of this alliance, though it may seem the opposite at the first glance.
- The Pan-Arabism Idea and Formation of the GCC: Barnett is of the opinion that the formation of alliances among Arab states, an example of which is the GCC, can be seen to be based on the spiritual element of pan-Arabism. This idea gives preference to the alliance of Arab nations over and above the sovereignty of Arab governments within fake territorial realms established by the West. Therefore, Barnett establishes some kind of connection between the Arab identity and definition of threat by Arabs on the one hand, and their march toward establishment of a regional alliance on the other hand.
This paper, however, argues that the idea of pan-Arabism and Arab identity on the basis of the alliance among Arab governments. So, why Arab governments in the Middle East have made no effort toward the establishment of a single Arab government and strengthening of Arab nations? In other words, why Arab governments, in contrast with the member states of the European Union, show suspicion toward any kind of effort that would restrict their sovereignty or weaken their territorial basis of power? One can also say that at the present time, Arab governments that possess separate state identities are those that have preferred nationalism and maintaining their territorial sovereignty over a common Arab identity as well as a single Arab land and government. This tendency toward state and preferring it over nationalism has caused Arab governments to consider Israel as a legitimate member of the Middle East region or introduce the United States as their ally.
- Rejecting Membership of Arab Governments from Iraq, Syria, and Egypt: If the basis for the formation of the GCC is the Arab identity, why governments of Iraq, Egypt, and Syria, which are all Arab and Sunni, have been rejected for membership of this council? In addition, why GCC members have opposed membership of other Arab governments in this regional alliance? The answer given to this question by Barnett in his paper is that Arab states of the Persian Gulf consider themselves as a separate entity different from other Arab governments, including those in Yemen and Iraq. Therefore, if GCC was established based on Arab identity, they should not have made such a perceptual distinction to other Arab governments outside this alliance. It is noteworthy that during the Persian Gulf War, GCC members entered the conflict under the council’s flag, but other Arab states, such as Syria, joined the international coalition forces individually, which was a clear sign of the differentiation made between Arab states in the Persian Gulf and the rest of the Arab world.
- Another argument, which can be applied to the security-based or power-based nature of the Middle East alliances in general, and the GCC alliance in particular, is the arms race among these countries and the security dilemma that governs this region. Both these factors show that countries in this region are mostly countries with Arab-Islamic identity, which lack the sense of unity and identity-based identification toward one another, because if this was the case, they should have considered themselves as friends, just in the same way that member states of the European Union do. If this were the case, they would move away from the development of hard power and military hardware, and move on to the development of soft power and forging models of friendship. In fact, each country prefers to meet its own security needs In a separate self-help system.
- The Alliance between the Persian Gulf Arab States and the United States: Another reason for showing that identity is not the pivot of alliances in the Middle East, especially with regard to the GCC, is the very close allied relations that the Persian Gulf states have with extra-regional powers, including the United States. The collaboration between these two sides includes bilateral or multilateral defense cooperation and taking part in military training and maneuvers within the framework of security and defense agreements between the United States and these Arab countries. Such collaboration is representative of security-based or power-based alliances, which can be considered as an example of a bandwagon policy adopted by regional governments in their relations with the hegemonic power, which has been also mentioned by Stephen Walt. In other words, given the lack of identity-related commonalities between Arab states and the United States (which usually consists of the four major elements of common religion, ethnicity, history, and language), these alliances have been formed on a utilitarian materialistic basis. At the same time, both sides of such alliances, which are thought to be rational actors, look at these alliances from a utilitarian viewpoint and only seek to boost their absolute achievements. As a result, Nau believes that while the collaboration between the United States and European countries is based on common identities, the collaboration between the United States and Arab states of the Persian Gulf in particular and Middle Eastern governments in general are divergent in identity-related terms.
- The perception of threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran: The common perception of threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran by the Arab states of the Persian Gulf has played a significant role both in the establishment and survival of the GCC. One can claim that the creation of the GCC as an alliance based on security collaboration among its members has been primarily a result of their perception of peripheral threats, including after the Islamic Revolution in Iran followed by Iraq war against Iran. It can be said that the norm of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which was an ideological, anti-imperialist and reformist revolution, and the idea of exporting Iran’s revolution to countries around it, were totally at odds with the dominant norm of Arab countries, which was based on conservatism and maintaining the status quo. As a result, it led to a perception of threat by Arab states in the Persian Gulf. Another mutation was the war between Iran and Iraq, which also exposed Arab countries to the same security threats. In this regard, Barnett believes that this war could have involved GCC members directly or indirectly. Therefore, these states were forced to try and adopt security measures by creating regional alliances.
On the other hand, the continuation of this alliance also rested on the continued perception of the threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran, especially with regard to its military and nuclear capabilities. As stated earlier, from a realistic viewpoint, the threats and perceptions that they bring to governments within the international system are functions of asymmetric power. Given this, it can be said that acquiring nuclear capability, even of its civilian type, by the Islamic Republic of Iran can at least prepare it for breakout from near-nuclearization stage to full nuclear stage, and this intensifies the Arab countries’ perception of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a threat. On the other hand, the Islamic Republic of Iran has a symmetrical military power that in itself is considered as a source of threat by the Arab states, and creates some sense of common threat among them, prompting them to move toward forging regional alliances such as the GCC.
This Iranian threat is not only perceived by Arab governments, but also by the United States. It was already said that Arab states of the Middle East and the United States enjoy very close ties with each other. A reason for this closeness is this common perception of threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran by the two sides of this alliance despite their uneven identities. In the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment report prepared by the US intelligence community, which was announced by Dennis Cutler Blair, then the Director of National Intelligence of the United States, Iran was designated as a real threat to the interests of the United States and its allies.
Therefore, the conclusion that can be drawn here is that creating the alliance known as the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council and its continuation and even the alliance between Arabs and the United States are actually a result of rational calculations by Arab actors with a common perception of peripheral threats. They have nothing to do with identity-related commonalities. The GCC is an alliance, which is not based on common identity-related bonds but has its roots inexpediency, repelling threats and also a creation of a balance between those states that support the status quo on the one hand, and reformist states on the other hand. An interesting point in this regard is that from the viewpoint of traditional realism, the balance of power is centered on the power. From the viewpoint of Hans Morgenthau, power is balanced where it is distributed almost equally among a number of countries.
On the other hand, in Western alliances, which are made up of liberal democratic states, the norms of the liberal culture comes from both a common identity and some sort of social identification among these states. At the same time, they create mutual understanding and the understanding that liberal democratic governments are just and avoid war. Therefore, it is the norms of the liberal democratic culture that regulate relations among these states and, in addition to regulating their relations, determine favorable behaviors within the council. In contrast, when it comes to members of the GCC, which is made up of non-liberal states, there are no such norms that would define suitable behaviors. There are no norms that prevent disagreement between the GCC members, shape their collective identity, and draw a clear line between inside and outside of the alliance. Under such conditions, we have been witnessing security and military relations developing between Arab governments and such extra-regional powers like the United States, especially in a two-way manner.
4.2 The Alliance between Iran and Syria
The alliance between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria is one of the most important and perhaps the most sensitive alliances in the Middle East. Syria was the first country in the Arab world to recognize the Islamic Republic of Iran as its new ally against Israel after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, creating a strong alliance between the two countries.
Given the language, ethnic origin, history, and religion as the most important identity-related common grounds between two or more states, there is no identity-related similarity between Iran and Syria except for religion. Even in terms of religion, although both nations are Muslim, about 80 percent of Syrian Muslims are Sunni and only 10 percent are Alawite Shias.
Therefore, the alliance between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria as a state whose identity arises from its Arab nationality can contain streaks of realism, because these two countries are among few countries in the Middle East that are considered by the United States, which is the superpower in the international system, as a common threat and as the states that harbor Islamic terrorism and fundamentalism. Therefore, despite their totally different identities, these two states have the same perceptions of regional and peripheral threats (including from Israel and other Arab states in the region) on the one hand, and transregional threat, especially the United States, on the other hand. This is why they have been trying to create some sort of regional balance and repel external threats by forming an alliance between them.
It follows that the alliance between these two countries is not a sign of their identity-related commonalities, but of their engagement in an asymmetric conflict. Asymmetric conflict is a manifestation of the political and security action resulting from the unequal power of the actors. Under these conditions, actors who may have different identities ally to face threats from asymmetric conflicts.
In addition to the alliance between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria, another mentionable case is the alliance between Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement. This includes both strategic and utilitarian aspects for the state of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In fact, given that Hezbollah is currently a major threat to Israel, what it has done near to Lebanese border with Israel has had many outcomes. It has not only strengthened the movement’s position in Lebanon, but also it has increased Iran’s regional deterrence power, increased its strategic depth, reduced security index of Israel, and finally, has greatly reduced the possibility of any military strike against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
On the one hand, Iran’s alliances with Hezbollah or Syria can strengthen the Islamic Republic’s direct deterrence power in the face of symmetrical threats in the region, which are posed by Israel or some regional Arab states. On the other hand, it can enhance Iran’s indirect regional deterrence power with a view to repelling and countering asymmetric transregional threats posed by the United States.
4.3 The Alliance between the United States and Israel
The alliance between the United States and Israel is another Middle East alliance that cannot be analyzed in terms of common identity. With this in mind, Barnett believes that Israel’s identity cannot be appropriately governed by the narrative that defines Western society as well as the United States.
In general, there are three main components, which are also key factors in the formation of Israel’s collective identity including religion, nationalism, and the Holocaust. When these three components are taken as a basis, one can claim that, first of all, Israel enjoys a religious identity based on Judaism, and therefore is considered as a Jewish state. In fact, the Israel’s identity is based on a special reading of Judaism, according to which, the Israeli regime has been created as the only Jewish state in the world to protect the rights of all Jews in the world. As a result, Buzan stated that Israel had a unique religious identity, intertwined with the issue of ethnicity. In contrast, the US government is a Christian state of a very secular nature, though inclusive and based on the separation of religion and politics.
On the other hand, Zionism-based nationalism is another component of the Israel identity that has evolved in response to the persecution of Jews and their rejection by the European Christian community. In fact, Zionism is founded on the basis of the idea that Jews are not secure within the Western community of nations.
The third component is the Holocaust, one of whose most important lessons is that Jews cannot trust in non-Jews by providing them with security. Israel as the living memory of the Holocaust is there, constantly reminding the West that its history is in no way similar to its current image as a modern liberal intellectual tolerant state.
The alliance between the United States and Israel is a brainchild of strategic considerations and the result of rational and material factors. This is an alliance between two utilitarian rational actors, devoid of any identity-related factors. The purpose of this alliance is to counter common threats, including the threat posed by communism (during the Cold War), and the threat posed by Islam and Islamic fundamentalism (following the Cold War). The latter type of threat is caused by Islamist groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, the Palestinian Hamas movement, and the Taliban, as well as Islamic governments such as that of Iran and Syria. This alliance, as such, can be studied as a strategic alliance between two countries, which conforms to the logic of realism.
4.4 Future Alliances
One of the issues, which can be pointed out here to support the main hypothesis of this study, is the future alliances in the Middle East. When formed, these alliances will be devoid of common identity-related grounds, and will be power-based aimed at repelling common threats due to the common perception of those threats. A possible example of such alliances is the plan by the United States, as a transregional power, to build a major international coalition to fight ISIS. The main members of this coalition would be such Arab countries as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates plus Turkey despite their totally different identities. The key factor that could lead these countries to a strategic alliance is the common perception of ISIS as a threat to the entire Middle East.
5. Realism and Balance: The Bases of Alliances in the Middle East
After studying some of the most prominent instances of alliances in the Middle East, we in this paper agree Nye who believe that analysis of issues related to countries of this region is made better through the logic of realism. This is true because the governments in the Middle East are still considered as the most important actors and the main sources of power, especially when powerful totalitarian governments are compared with a weak civil society. As a result, military forces and their commanders are also among the most important political leaders in such countries. On the other hand, a very high volume of arms trade and military exchanges in this region compared to the rest of the world shows that military power is still the last word in this region. All these facts conform to the realistic assumptions of international relations.
Therefore, one can claim that anarchy is the nature of the regional order in the Middle East and there is no sign that power can be enforced through any form of regional organization or institution like what we see in Europe and the West. In this region, every government wants to boost its own power in its realistic form, which means further increase in hard and military power. In these circumstances, the only way to bring about peace and stability and prevent further conflicts is the balance of power, which is shown in regional alliances. Hinnebusch and Ehteshami believe that in such circumstances, symmetrical cooperation will take place in parallel to asymmetric collaboration between regional governments and transregional powers such as the United States. This type of collaboration is by no means included in the framework of identity-sharing.
Reflecting on this, Barry Buzan argues that many forms of interactions, rivalries, friendships, and enmities in the Middle East can be explained by power and its symmetry or asymmetry, not merely by ideas. Therefore, the power structure is the only component that has the most effect on the type of interaction in the Middle East. The power structure in the Middle East is a way to explain whether power in this region has been distributed in a symmetrical or asymmetric way. As a result, dynamism and statics of this complex are a function of power structure.
Some theorists believe that the crisis of identity and lack of adequate strength, which afflict governments in such regions as the Middle East, are a result of the globalization processes on the one hand, and internal challenges powered by ethnic, religious, and nationalistic tendencies on the other hand. These challenges face regional governments with similar threats from inside and outside, and force them to collaborate with other governments against the same type of threats. From this viewpoint, governments in the Middle East are investing in collaboration with neighboring regional governments or even transregional governments to contain domestic and foreign threats.
David calls this strategy “pervasive balancing”. Pervasive balancing is a form of foreign policy pursued by governments in the Third World to balance the internal and external challenges they face. From this viewpoint, domestic threats and challenges play a crucial role in establishing the power balance and determining the path of external alliances of governments. This concept was first used by Steven David, the American analyst of international politics and foreign policy, to analyze issues related to the Third World. In his paper in 1991, David noted that governments in the Third World were grappling with multiple threats from inside and outside, and the way chosen to fight such threats played a crucial role in determining foreign policy of these governments as well as their alliances.
Alliances in the Middle East can also be analyzed using the concept of cooperative security used by Robert Jervis. He believes that this kind of security requires the actors’ strategic rationality. Such rationality will make it possible for governments to start collaboration through partnership and assigning mutual interests: a point that is clearly visible in the Middle East alliances. The main infrastructure for this collaborative security is the mutual understanding of security and strategic matters among those governments. On the other hand, Jervis believes that collaborative security forms in anarchy and in such circumstances the great powers have an effective position and role. As said before, transregional powers, including the United States, play a crucial role in regional alliances in the Middle East.
All told, alliances in the Middle East form either on the basis of the power balance or to fight common external threats or to fend off internal threats. All of these factors can be analyzed from the perspective of components of power and the common interests of the governments. Such common interests are usually of a negative type, and are shown as a common sense of fear of other governments. In fact, social identification is the key factor among liberal democratic governments in the West that pushes them in an unconscious manner toward forming alliances with one another even in spite of the external threats. However, it is not likely that this factor will ever exist between totalitarian and undemocratic governments in the Middle East to be analyzed as a basis for alliance between them. This is true because there is no common ground among these governments to foster empathy, confidence, and care. The only powerful factor here is an effort to reach the power balance and repel threats. Even common perception of threats is not based on a common identity. Therefore, any kind of collaboration between governments in the Middle East that is usually based on objective interests and strategic necessities will be extremely fragile and, in the absence of powerful identity-related principles, will meet the standards of collaboration under anarchy.
In other words, according to the model of power balance in the Middle East, which can be used to study the existing alliances, no country is considered as a permanent friend or enemy by others, and such interpretations can totally change in response to a change in perception of threat. But if the alliances are really based on identity-sharing, the definition of friend and foe will be much more lasting.
This paper studied the nature of alliances in the Middle East through a comparative approach, together with case studies of alliances in this region in terms of power and identity. First, the mainstream spiritualists’ views on how alliances are formed on the basis of power and identity were presented. Then we noted that the mainstream in international relations, especially realism and neorealism, believe that the fundamental basis of alliances is the utilitarian tendencies of rational actors based on their own expediencies. Then it was explained that realists and neorealists believe that the most important motivation for such alliances is to strengthen the security of governments in the face of immediate external threats or possible future threats. Therefore, according to this view, governments seek alliances because they can strengthen their capabilities through solidarity with other governments, increase their influence in a high-risk area, and create some sort of alliance with other powers or threats. According to neoliberal theories, they seek to achieve their absolute goals through collaboration as rational utilitarian actors. In addition, rational logic, which governs the establishment of alliances, also helps such alliances to survive. In other words, from this viewpoint, alliances will last as long as they can protect the interests of their actors, especially their economic interests and power.
As well as power-based explanations of how regional and international alliances form, there are spiritual and constructive theories of international relations that place the greatest emphasis on common identity between governments and their identity-sharing. Such theories regard identity-related factors as key factors that strengthen alliances. In this way, these theories replace material conditions with identity-related and spiritual conditions, and emphasize on the importance of power. These identity-based explanations also study the quality of alliances by highlighting collective identity that not only defines the “self” and the “other”, but also draw a line between us and others.
Following these theoretical issues, the nature of alliances was discussed in the Middle East based on case studies. Given the low importance of identity-related factors compared to material conditions, we have reached the conclusion that unlike Western countries, social identification is insignificant in undemocratic and totalitarian countries of the Middle East. The reason for this situation is the absence of common values in political culture as well as the absence of a common identity we see in the West. As a result, alliances in the Middle East are based on objective interests aimed at repelling threats, and are also fragile due to the absence of deep cultural and identity foundations. In fact, due to the absence of a common identity, unlike what we see in the West, the norms that create and regulate alliances in the Middle East are weak and, therefore, there is no common perception of appropriate behavior toward friends or foes.
Unlike Western countries, countries in this region do to see one another as friends or even competitors, but in most cases, they see each other as enemies or threats. Therefore, even if they form an alliance, it is to repel threats and create a power balance. On the other hand, according to the Middle East’s power balance model, no country is considered as a permanent friend or foe, and the way countries see each other changes in accordance with their perception of threat. However, if alliances were based on a common identity, definitions of friend and foe would become more enduring.
Therefore, the main effort made by countries in the Middle East is aimed at creating the balance of power and repelling threats, and there is no common perception of threat on the basis of a common identity. As a result, any kind of collaboration between governments in the Middle East, which is usually based on objective interests and strategic necessities, will be extremely fragile, and in the absence of robust identity-related principles will meet the standards of collaboration under anarchy.
Ashqali, A. (2006). Military and Security Relations between the United States and the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council. Middle East Studies quarterly, 13, 87-118
Avineri, Sh. (1981). The Making of Modern Zionism. New York: Basic Books.
Ayoob, M. (2008). The Many Faces of Political Islam. Retrieved from http://Jmc.msu.edu.
Barnett, M. (2011). Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East (207-260). In P. J. Katzenstein, The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics (Trans. by M. H. Semati). Tehran: Research Institute of Strategic Studies.
---------- (1995). Institutions, Roles and Disorder: The Case of the Arab States System. International Studies, 37(3), 271- 296.
---------- (1992a). Confronting the Costs of War: Military Power, State, and Society in Egypt and Israel. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
---------- (1992b). Sovereignty, Nationalism and Regional Order in the Arab States System. International Organizations, 49(3), 479-510.
Blair, D. (2010). Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community. Retrieved from
Buzan, B. (1991). New Patterns of Global Security in the 21st Century. International Affairs, 67(3), 431-451.
Buzan, B., & Ole, W. (2003). Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Relations (Trans., R. Qahremanpour). Tehran: Research Institute of Strategic Studies.
Collard-Wexler, S. (2006). Integration Under Anarchy: Neorealism and the European Union. European Journal of International Relations, 12, 397-432.
Daheshyar, H. (2011). International Requirements, Domestic Considerations and the Fall of Pan-Arabism. The Middle East Studies Quarterly, 18(3), 5-23.
David, M. (1991). Explaining Third World Alignment. World Politics, 43(2), 233-256.
Doyle, M. (1986). Liberalism and World Politics. American Political Science Review, 80(4), 1151-1169.
Elman, C. (2007). Realism, In M. Griffiths, International Relation Theory for the Twenty-First Century. New York: Rutledge.
Garnett, J. (2005). Limited War, In J. Baylis, K. Booth, J. Garnett, & P. Williams, Contemporary Strategy: Theories and Policies. London: Croom Helm.
Golshani, A., & Baqeri, M. (2012). The Position of Hezbollah in the Islamic Republic of Iran's Deterrence Strategy. Political and International Research Quarterly, 11, 123-156.
Hinnebusch, R. A., & Ehteshami, A. (2003). Foreign Policy of Middle Eastern Countries (Trans. by A. Golmohammadi). Tehran: Research Institute of Strategic Studies.
---------- (2002). The Foreign Politics of Middle East States. Colorado and Lyndon: Lynne Rinner.
Ja'far, H. (2010). Pervasive Balance: The Model of Analyzing the role of Ethnicity on Foreign Policy with Emphasis on the Middle East. Politics Quarterly, 40(2), 77-93.
Ja'fari, A. A. (2012). Explaining Factors and Goals of Strategic Alliance between the United States and Israel in the Middle East Region. Geopolitics Quarterly, 8(26), 153-191.
Jervis, R. (1988). Realism Game Theory and Cooperation. World Politics, 40(2), 317-349.
Kant, I. (2001). Essential Readings in World Politics. New York: Norton and Company.
Lenore, G. M. (1998). New Frontiers in the Middle East Security. London: Macmillan Press.
Liska, G. (1968). Nation in Alliance: The Limits of Interdependence. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Morgenthau, H. (2005). Politics among Nations (Trans. by H. Moshirzadeh). Tehran: Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Mosallanejad, A. (2014). The Geopolitics of Identity and Security Policymaking in Regional Balance in the Middle East. Geopolitics Quarterly, 10(2), 70-98.
Omidi, A. (2008). The Quality of Comparative Foreign Policy: Case Study of Iran's Relations with Syria. Middle East Studies Quarterly, 14, 99-132.
Qahremanpour, R. (2004). Globalization and the Identity Crisis in Middle Eastern Countries. Middle East Studies Quarterly, 11(3), 21-44.
Qasemi, F. (2009). Theoretical Requirements of the Islamic Republic of Iran's Regional Deterrence. Foreign Relations Quarterly, 1(3), 55-83.
Rasouli Saniabadi, E. (2013). Protecting Ontological Security and the Militarism Trend among Member States of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council. Collection of Scientific and Research Papers for the Ninth Conference on the Persian Gulf (34-56), Retrieved from
Risse-Kappen, Th. (2011). Collective Identity in a Democratic Community: The Case of NATO (141-195). In P. J. Katzenstein, National Security Culture (Trans. by M. H. Semati). Tehran: Research Institute of Strategic Studies.
Simbor, R., & Esmaeili, A. (2013). Reasons behind Formation and Continuation of Iran-Syria Alliance. World Politics Quarterly, 2(2), 7-29.
Yazdanfam, M. (2011). Developments in Arab World: Configuration of Power and Identity in the Middle East. Strategic Studies Quarterly, 14(2), 47-75.