Subimperialism in the Middle East

Image: Jessica Lewis


Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran rival each other from sub-imperial settings

Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran are competing for primacy in a new context of regional highlighting of Middle East tensions. This gravitation is registered by many analysts, but conceptualizing this role requires resorting to a notion introduced by Marxist theorists of dependency. Sub-imperialism applies to these cases and helps to clarify the peculiar intervention of these countries in the traumatic scenario of the region. The category is relevant and common on many levels, but it also has three very unique meanings.


Characteristics and singularities

Sub-imperialism is a parallel and secondary form of contemporary imperialism. It is found in middle powers that maintain a significant distance from the centers of world power. These countries develop contradictory relations of convergence and tension with the hegemonic forces of global geopolitics, and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran fit this profile.

The sub-empires emerged in the post-war period with the massive extinction of colonies and the growing transformation of semi-colonies. The rise of national bourgeoisies in dependent capitalist countries substantially changed the status of these configurations.

In the upper segment of the periphery, sub-imperial modalities erupt, in line with the contradictory process of global persistence of the center-periphery gap and the consolidation of certain intermediate segments. The main theorist of this mutation described the main characteristics of the new model in the 1960s, observing the dynamics of Brazil (MARINI, 1973).

The Latin American thinker placed the emergence of sub-empires in an international context marked by the supremacy of the United States, in tension with the so-called socialist bloc. He highlighted the alignment of these formations with the first power in the Cold War against the USSR. But he also emphasized that the rulers of these countries vindicated their own interests. They developed autonomous and sometimes conflicting courses of action with the American commander.

This relationship of international partnership and its own regional power was consolidated as a later feature of sub-imperialism. Regimes that adopt this profile have conflicting ties with Washington. On the one hand, they assume closely intertwined positions, while demanding respectful treatment.

This dynamic of subordination and conflict with the United States happens with an unpredictable speed. Regimes that appeared to be puppets of the Pentagon embark on piecemeal acts of autonomy, and countries that acted with great independence submit to orders from the White House. This oscillation is a characteristic of sub-imperialism, which contrasts with the stability prevailing in core empires and their alter-imperial varieties.

Regional powers that adopt a sub-imperial profile resort to the use of military force. They use this arsenal to strengthen the interests of the capitalist classes in their countries, within a limited radius of influence. Warlike actions are aimed at disputing regional leadership with competitors of the same size.

Sub-empires do not operate in the planetary order and do not share the ambitions of their larger relatives for global dominance. They restrict their sphere of action to the regional sphere, strictly in line with the limited influence of medium-sized countries. The interest in markets and profits is the main driver of expansionist policies and military incursions.

The gravitation carried out in recent decades by intermediate economies explains this sub-imperial correlate, which did not exist in the classical era of imperialism at the beginning of the XNUMXth century. It was only in the later post-war period that this influence of the middle powers came to the fore, and it has become even more significant today.

In the Middle East, the geopolitical-military rivalry between actors in the region itself has been preceded by some economic development of these actors. The neoliberal era accentuated the international predominance of oil, social inequality, precariousness and unemployment throughout the region. But it has also consolidated several local capitalist classes, which operate with greater resources and make no secret of their appetites for greater profits.

This interest in profit drives the sub-imperial gear of countries equally situated in the middle of the international division of labor. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran are hovering around this insertion, without approaching the club of the central powers.

They share the same global location as other economies in between, but supplement their presence in this sphere with powerful military incursions. This extension of economic rivalries to the realm of war is a determining factor in its sub-imperial specificity (KATZ, 2018).


current and roots

Sub-imperialism is a useful notion for recording the substratum of economic rivalry that underlies many conflicts in the Middle East. It allows this class interest to be noticed, as opposed to diagnoses centered on disputes over the primacy of some aspect of Islam. Such interpretations in religious terms obstruct the clarification of the real motivation behind the growing conflicts.

The disputed deals between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran explain the unique character of sub-imperialism in these countries. In all three cases, bellicose governments at the helm of states run by militarized bureaucracies are at work. All use religious beliefs to strengthen their power and capture greater shares of disputed resources. Sub-empires have sought in Syria to conquer the spoils generated by the destruction of territory, and the same competition is taking place in Libya for the sharing of oil. There, they are engaged in the same struggles as the great powers.

At the geopolitical level, the sub-empires of Turkey and Saudi Arabia are in tune with Washington, but they do not participate in the decisions of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or in the definitions of the Pentagon. They differ from Europe on the first ground and from Israel on the second, and are not involved in determining the battle that US imperialism is waging to regain hegemony in the face of the challenge of China and Russia. Its action is restricted to the regional orbit. They maintain contradictory relations with the power of the United States (USA) and do not aspire to replace the great rulers of the planet.

But its regional intervention is much more relevant than that of its peers in other parts of the world. Sub-imperial actions of the same magnitude are not seen in Latin America or Africa. Sub-imperialism in the Middle East is linked to the ancient historical roots of the Ottoman and Persian empires. Such a connection with long-standing foundations is not very common in the rest of the periphery.

The rivalries between the powers include, in this case, a logic that refers to the ancient competition between two great pre-capitalist empires. It's not just the animosity between Ottomans and Persians that goes back to the 2019th century. The latter conglomerate's tensions with the Saudis (Shias versus Wahhabis) also have a long history of battles for regional supremacy (ARMANIAN, XNUMX).

These great local powers have not been diluted in the modern era. Both the Ottoman and Persian empires held their own into the XNUMXth century, preventing the Middle East from simply being taken over (like Africa) by European colonialists. The Ottoman collapse at the beginning of the next century gave rise to a Turkish state that lost its former primacy but renewed its national consistency. It was not relegated to merely semi-colonial status.

During the Kemalist Republic, Turkey sustained an industrial development of its own, which did not have the success of German bismarckism or its Japanese equivalent, but shaped the middle capitalist class that runs the country (HARRIS, 2016). A similar process of bourgeois consolidation took place under the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran.

Both regimes actively participated in the Cold War against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to defend their border interests against the Russian giant. They hosted US bases and followed the NATO roadmap, but bolstered their own military arrangements. Sub-imperialism, therefore, carries ancient foundations in both countries and is not an improvisation of the current scenario.

This concept provides a criterion for understanding ongoing conflicts, overcoming the vague notion of “clashes between empires”, which does not distinguish global actors from their regional counterparts. Sub-empires maintain a qualitative difference with their larger peers that goes beyond the simple scale gap. They adopt roles and perform functions very different from those of dominant imperialism and its associates.

They also conflict with one another in shifts of external alignments and in conflicts of enormous intensity. Due to the magnitude of these confrontations, some analysts registered the presence of a new “inter-Arab cold war” (CONDE, 2018). But each of the three current cases has very specific characteristics.


the turkish prototype

Turkey is the main exponent of sub-imperialism in the region. Several Marxists have discussed this status in polemics with the contrast of the semicolonial diagnosis (GÜMÜŞ, 2019). They emphasized the country's signs of autonomy, as opposed to the opinion that it is heavily dependent on the United States.

This debate correctly highlighted the obsolescence of the concept of a semi-colony. This status was a feature of the early XNUMXth century that lost weight with the subsequent wave of national independence. From then on, economic subjection gained pre-eminence over explicitly political domination.

The dispossession suffered by the periphery in recent decades has not altered this new pattern introduced by decolonization. Dependency takes on other forms in the current era, and the notion of semi-colony is inadequate to characterize medium-sized economies or countries with a long tradition of political autonomy, such as Turkey.

O status Turkey's sub-imperial status is reflected in its regional policy of external expansion and its contradictory relationship with the United States. Turkey is indeed a NATO link and hosts a monumental nuclear arsenal in Pentagon custody at the İncirlik base. The bombs stored in this facility would make it possible to destroy all neighboring regions (TUĞAL, 2021).

But Ankara takes many actions on its own without consulting the American Guardian. It buys Russian weapons, disagrees with Europe, sends troops to various countries without consultation, and competes with Washington in many trade deals.

Turkey's role as an autonomous power was, in fact, recognized by the United States as a regional chess piece. Several White House leaders have tolerated Ankara's adventures without vetoing them. They turned a blind eye to the annexation of Northern Cyprus in 1974 and allowed the persecution of minorities between 1980 and 1983.

Turkey does not challenge the American ruler, but takes advantage of Washington's defeats to intensify its own actions. Erdogan made several alliances with American rivals (Russia and Iran) to prevent the creation of a Kurdish state.

The president's swings illustrate typical sub-imperial behavior. A decade ago, he inaugurated a project of neoliberal Islamism linked to NATO and destined to connect with the European Union. This course was presented by Washington as a model for the modernization of the Middle East. But in recent years, State Department spokespersons have drastically changed their tone. They turned from praise to criticism, and instead of praising a sympathetic political regime, they began to denounce a hostile tyranny.

This shift in the ranking of its controversial US partner was accompanied by Turkey's own swings. Erdogan kept his foreign policy in balance while managing internal tensions with relative ease. But he was sidetracked by operations beyond his borders when he lost control of the local course. The trigger was the democratizing wave of the Arab Spring, the Kurdish revolt and the emergence of progressive forces.

Erdogan responded with counterrevolutionary violence to the street defiance (2013), Kurdish victories and the advance of the left (2015). He opted for a virulent and repressive authoritarianism, joined forces with reactionary secular variants and launched a counteroffensive with nationalist flags (USLU, 2020). Under this banner, he pursues opponents, arrests activists and directs a regime that is close to a civilian dictatorship (BARCHARD, 2018). His behavior fits the authoritarian profile that prevails across the Middle East.

In a few years, it transformed its initial neoliberal Islamism into a threatening right-wing regime, which undermined the bourgeois opposition. The ruling classes finally endorsed a president who displaced the former Kemalian secular elite and excluded the most pro-American sectors from power.


External adventures, internal authoritarianism

Erdogan opted for a pro-dictatorial course after his colleague Morsi's failed experiment. The conservative Islamic project of the Muslim Brotherhood was demolished in Egypt by Sisi's military coup. To avoid a similar fate, the Turkish president has reactivated external military operations.

This militaristic course also includes a more autonomous ideological profile of the West. Official speeches extol the national industry and call for the expansion of multilateral trade in order to consolidate Turkey's independence. Such rhetoric is intensely used to denounce the “unpatriotic” positions of the opposition. Without abandoning NATO or questioning the US, Erdogan distanced himself from the White House.

This autonomy led to serious conflicts with Washington. Turkey has established a “safety belt” with Iraq, strengthened its troop presence in Syria, sent troops to Azerbaijan and is testing alliances with the Taliban in Afghanistan. These ventures – partly funded by Qatar and paid for with funds from Tripoli – are so far limited in scope. These are operations of low economic cost and high political benefit. They distract domestic attention and justify repression, but they destabilize the relationship with the US.

Erdogan reinforces the protagonism of the armed forces, which since 1920 have been the main instrument of authoritarian modernization in the country. Turkish sub-imperialism is rooted in this bellicose tradition, which coercively standardized the nation through the imposition of one religion, one language and one flag. These banners are now being retaken in order to expand the foreign presence and conquer neighboring markets. A wilder variant of this nationalism has been used in the past to exterminate Armenians, expel Greeks and force linguistic assimilation on Kurds.

Turkey's president preserves that legacy in the new format of the Islamic right. It encourages expansionist dreams and exports internal contradictions with troops abroad. But he acts on behalf of the capitalist groups that control the new medium-sized export industries. These factories located in the provinces have driven growth for the past three decades.

As Turkey imports most of its fuel and exports manufactures, sub-imperial geopolitics seeks to sustain the development of industry. Ankara's aggressiveness in northern Iraq, the eastern Mediterranean and the Caucasus is in tune with the Islamic industrial bourgeoisie's appetite for new markets.

Erdogan's priority is to crush the Kurds. That is why he sought to undermine all attempts to enshrine the establishment of a Kurdish-controlled zone in Syria. He attempted several military offensives to destroy this enclave, but ended up endorsing the status quo of a border invaded by refugees.

Erdogan was unable to prevent the autonomy granted by the Syrian government to Kurdish organizations (PYP-UPP). These forces managed to repel the siege of Kobanî in 2014-2015, defeated the jihadist gangs and ratified their successes in Rojava. And the Turkish president is not in a position to digest these results.

The US strategy of partially supporting the Kurds – to create Pentagon facilities in their territories – accentuated Ankara's estrangement from Washington. The State Department's use of Kurds as a bargaining chip with the rebel president has changed dramatically. Obama supported the minority, Trump withdrew support without cutting them, and Biden has yet to define his line of intervention. But in all scenarios, Erdogan has made it clear that he does not accept the subservient satellite role assigned to him by the White House.

Tensions between the two governments have deepened over competing interests in partitioning Libya. To make matters worse, Erdogan challenged the State Department with the purchase of Russian missiles, which led to the cancellation of US investments.

The climax of the conflict was the failed coup d'état in 2016. Washington issued several nods of approval for an uprising that broke out in areas close to NATO bases. This conspiracy was sponsored by a refugee pastor in the USA (Gulen), who leads the most western sector of the establishment Turkish. Erdogan immediately dismissed all military officials sympathetic to that sector. The failed coup indicated the extent to which the US aspires to impose a puppet government in Turkey (PETRAS, 2017). In response, Erdogan reaffirmed his resistance to the obedience demanded by the White House.


Ambivalences and rivals

Turkish sub-imperialism balances remaining in NATO with rapprochements with Russia. This is why Erdogan started his term as a close US ally and then moved in the opposite direction (HEARST, 2020).

In the Syrian war, she was at odds with Russia and suffered a major shock when she shot down a Russian military aircraft. But later, it resumed relations with Moscow and increased arms purchases (CALVO, 2019). She also distanced herself from major NATO pawns (Bulgaria, Romania) and negotiated an undersea pipeline to export Russian fuel to Europe without going through Ukraine (TurkStream).

Putin is well aware of the unreliability of a leader training Azerbaijani forces in conflict with Russia. He does not forget that Turkey is a member of NATO and is home to the largest nuclear arsenal next to Russia. But he is banking on negotiating with Ankara to deter a permanent US fleet in the Black Sea.

Tensions with Europe are equally significant. Erdogan puts pressure on Brussels for millionaire sums in exchange for keeping Syrian refugees at its own borders. He is always threatening to flood the Old Continent with this mass of homeless people if Europe raises the tone of its questioning of the Turkish government or withholds funds to support this human tide.

At the regional level, Turkey mainly faces Saudi Arabia. The two countries fly divergent Islamic flags within the Sunni conglomerate itself. Erdogan has portrayed a profile of liberal Islam in contrast to the harshness of Saudi Wahhabism, but has been unable to sustain that image due to the ferocious behavior of his own agents.

Conflicts with Saudi Arabia are concentrated in Qatar, which is the only Gulf emirate allied with Turkey. The Saudi monarchy tried to frame this fractional mini-state with various plots, but failed to repeat the successful conspiracy that dethroned Morsi in Cairo, and bury Ankara's main geopolitical participation in the region.

Türkiye's other strategic rival is Iran. In this case, the dispute involves a counterpoint of different religious adherences between the Sunni and Shiite strands of Islam. The confrontation between the two escalated in Iraq, with Turkey's frustrated expectation of conquering a related area in that territory. That assertion clashed with the continued primacy of pro-Iranian sectors. Erdogan also asserts his presence, through the troops stationed on the border, to subdue the Kurds.

Back and forth has been the keynote of Turkish sub-imperialism. These swings were most visible in Syria. Erdogan first tried to overthrow his longtime competitor Assad, but he faced an abrupt shift to sustain that government when he saw the dangerous prospect of a Kurdish state.

Ankara first harbored the Free Syrian Army to create a regime in Damascus and then came into conflict with the jihadists, sent by Saudi Arabia for the same purpose. Finally, he created a buffer zone on the Syrian border to use the refugees as a bargaining chip, while training his own criminals.

In other areas, Turkey weaves the same kind of contradictory alliances. In Libya, it allied with the Sarraj faction against Haftar, in a coalition with Qatar and Italy against Saudi Arabia, Russia and France. He sent paramilitaries and frigates to get a bigger share of oil contracts and decided to establish a military base in Tripoli to compete for his share of Mediterranean gas. With the same objective, it is strengthening its presence in the part of Cyprus under its influence and disputing these fields with Israel, Greece, Egypt and France.

Turkey's sub-imperial advances are also being seen in more remote areas such as Azerbaijan, where Ankara has re-established ties with ethnic Turkic minorities. It supplied arms to the Aliyev dynasty in Baku and shored up territories conquered last year in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts. The desired Ottoman expansionism is gaining strength even in the most remote regions. Turkey trained the Somali army, sent a contingent to Afghanistan and expanded its presence in Sudan.

But Ankara has little room to play such geopolitical games. At most, it can try to maintain its autonomy in reshaping the Middle East. Its usual oscillation expresses a combination of arrogance and impotence, resulting from the country's economic fragility.

External militaristic ambitions would require a productive force that Turkey does not possess. The country's large financial liabilities coexist with a trade deficit and fiscal imbalance that cause periodic seizures in the currency and the stock exchange (ROBERTS, 2018). This economic inconsistency, in turn, recreates the division between the Atlanticist and Eurasian sectors of the ruling classes, which privilege business in opposite geographic areas.

Erdogan tried to unify this diversity of interests, but achieved only a transitory equilibrium. He imposed a certain reconciliation between the secular elites of the big bourgeoisie and the growing capitalism of the countryside and managed to moderate the structural imbalances of the Turkish economy, but he is far from being able to correct them. Erdogan commands an economically weak sub-empire for the geopolitical ambitions he encourages. That's why he's leading adventures with abrupt retreats, plots and somersaults.


The potential Saudi role model

Saudi Arabia has no sub-imperial antecedents, but it is moving towards such a configuration. It has been a traditional pillar of American dominance in the Middle East, but income hoarding, warmongering adventures and rivalries with Turkey and Iran are pushing the kingdom towards that troubled club.

This course introduces a lot of noise into the privileged relationship of the Wahhabi monarchy with the Pentagon. Saudi Arabia is the world's largest arms importer (12% of the total) and spends 8,8% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. The United States places 52% of its total military exports in the region and supplies 68% of Saudi purchases. Every contract signed between the two countries has a direct correlate to investment in the US. The Wahhabi monarchy provides strategic backing for the financial supremacy of the US currency.

Due to its decisive gravitation, all White House leaders sought to harmonize the impact of the LOBBY Zionist with its Saudi equivalent. Trump reached a maximum balance point by bringing the two countries closer to the eventual establishment of diplomatic relations (ALEXANDER, 2018).

US involvement with the Saudi dynasty dates back to the post-war period and the monarchy's role in anti-Communist campaigns. You sheikhs were involved in numerous counterrevolutionary actions to contain the rise of republics across the region (Egypt – 1952, Iraq – 1958, Yemen – 1962, Libya – 1969, Afghanistan – 1973). When the Shah of Iran was overthrown, the Wahhabi kings took a more direct role in upholding the reactionary order in the Arab world.

This regressive role was again visible during the Arab Spring of the last decade. The Saudi gendarme and their jihadist hosts led every incursion to crush this rebellion.

However, after many years of managing a huge surplus of oil, Riyadh's monarchs also created a power of their own, based on the income generated by the peninsula's oil fields. These flows enriched the emirates organized in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which consolidated an accumulation center to coordinate the use of this surplus.

In this administration, the old Saudi semi-feudal structure adopted more contemporary forms of rentism, compatible with the despotic management of the State. The few families that monopolize the businesses use monarchical power to prevent competition, but the enormous volume of wealth they manage increases rivalries for control of the Palace and the oil treasury that derives from it (HANIEH, 2020).

Riyadh's economic power fueled the monarchy's geopolitical ambitions and Saudi military incursions, setting the country on a path to sub-imperialism.

This course has been properly interpreted by authors who apply Marini's concept to the current profile of Saudi Arabia. They portray how this kingdom fulfills the three requirements outlined by the Brazilian theorist to identify the presence of such status. The Wahhabi regime actively promotes foreign direct investment in neighboring economies, maintains an antagonistic cooperation policy with the American dominator and implements a manifest military expansionism (SÁNCHEZ, 2019).

The Horn of Africa is the area favored by monarchs for this intervention. They have extended all disputes in the Middle East to this region, and there they resolve who controls the Red Sea, Asia's connections with Africa, and the transportation of energy resources consumed by the West.

Saudi gendarmes are actively involved in the wars that have ravaged Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan. They command the looting of resources and the impoverishment of the populations of these countries. Riyadh's brigades demolish states to boost profits for Saudi capital in agriculture, tourism and finance.

Regions overseen by monarchs also provide a significant portion of the exploited workforce in the Arabian Peninsula. Migrants without rights make up between 56 and 82% of the workforce in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait. These wage earners cannot move without permission and are subject to expulsion blackmail and the consequent cut off of remittances. Such a stratified division of labor – around gender, ethnicity and nationality – is the basis for a monumental flow of remittances abroad from the region.

Saudi aspirations for regional primacy clash with the prominence achieved by the ayatollahs of Iran. Since the rupture of diplomatic relations in 2016, tensions between the two regimes have been processed through military clashes between allies on both sides. This confrontation has been particularly bloody in Yemen, Sudan, Eritrea and Syria.

The dispute between Saudis and Iranians, in turn, resumes the divorce between two different historical processes of feudal regression and incomplete modernization. This bifurcation shaped the differentiated State configurations between the two countries (ARMANIAN, 2019).

Such a disparity in trajectories has also led to equally contrasting capitalist courses. While Riyadh has emerged as an internationalized hub of Gulf accumulation, Tehran is commanding a self-centered model of gradual economic recovery. This difference translates into very divergent geopolitical paths.


The Theocracy's Dangerous Uncontrollability

Saudi kings lead the most obscurantist and oppressive political system on the planet. This regime has operated since the 1930s through a compromise between the ruling dynasty and a layer of backward clerics who oversee the daily lives of the population. A special division of the police is empowered to whip people who remain in the streets at the time of prayer. Such a model portrays a finished form of totalitarianism.

The American press regularly questions the West's blatant support for this medieval group and hails the cosmetic reforms promised by monarchs. But in reality, no American president is willing to distance himself from a reign that is as unrepresentative as it is indispensable to the dominance of the world's leading power.

The main problem with such a closed regime is the potential explosiveness of its internal tensions. As all channels of expression are closed, discontent erupts into acts of revolt. The 1979 outbreak in Mecca had the same effect, as did bin Laden's projection. This figure from the theocratic layer accumulated the resentments typical of a displaced sector and channeled this resentment towards the American godfather (CHOMSKY; ACHCAR, 2007).

US imperial policy must also confront the dangerous foreign adventures of the ruling theocracy. You sheikhs who manage the world's main oil reserves have been loyal vassals of the State Department. But in recent years, they have made their own bets, which Washington is watching with great trepidation.

The ambition of the monarchs is to join an alliance with Egypt and Israel to control a vast territory. Such deadly expansion has ignited many powder kegs that complicate the aggressors themselves.

Tensions have risen to a critical point since Prince Bin Salman took the throne in Riyadh (2017) and implemented his rampant violence. He controls the unquantifiable wealth of the monarchy with complete discretion and wild ambitions for regional power.

First, he increased his control of the confessional political system, with a succession of internal purges that included arrests and appropriations of other people's wealth. He subsequently embarked on various military operations to contest geopolitical power. He leads the devastating war in Yemen, threatens his neighbors in Qatar, rivals Turkey in Syria and has demonstrated an unusual degree of interference in Lebanon, carrying out blackmail with the kidnapping of that country's president. Bin Salman is determined to up the ante of war against the Iranian regime, especially after the defeat of his militias in Syria.

The killings in Yemen are at the forefront of the Saudi push. Kings moved to capture the untapped oil wells of the Arabian Peninsula. After many decades of frantic extraction, traditional oilfields are starting to face limits, which leads to a search for other sources of supply. Riyadh wants to guarantee its primacy, with direct access to the three strategic crossroads in the region (Strait of Hormuz, Gulf of Adam and Bab el-Mandeb). Therefore, he rejected the reunification of Yemen and sought to divide Yemen into two halves (ARMANIAN, 2016).

But the bloody battle in Yemen has become a trap. The Saudi dynasty faces a quagmire there similar to that suffered by the United States in Afghanistan. She caused the greatest humanitarian tragedy of the past decade without gaining control of the country. It is unable to break resistance or deter attacks on its own rear. The shocking drone strikes in Saudi Arabia's oil heartland illustrate the scale of this adversity.

High-end missile technology has proven to be a double-edged sword when enemies can figure out how to use it. Riyadh's only response has been to tighten the food and sanitation noose, with deaths caused by starvation wholesale and 13 million people affected by epidemics of various kinds.

These crimes are hidden in the current presentation of the war as a confrontation between the subjects of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Tehran's support for the resistance against Riyadh is not the determining factor in a conflict stemming from the monarchy's appetite for expansion.

This ambition also explains the ultimatum to Qatar, which has established an alliance with Turkey. The Wahhabi monarchy does not condone such independence, nor does it condone equidistance with Iran or the variety of positions displayed by the channel. Al-Jazeera (COCKBURN, 2017).

The Qataris are home to a US strategic base, but have concluded important energy deals with Russia, trade with India, and do not participate in the “Sunni NATO” promoted by Riyadh (GLAZEBROOK, 2017). They also managed to disguise their oppressive domestic regime with a sports laundering operation that turned them into a major sponsor of European football. Bin Salman has not been able to deal with this adversary, and some analysts warn that he is planning a military operation to force his neighbors to submit (SYMONDS, 2017).


on the edge of the precipice

The Saudi prince's interventionism is taking hold at a breakneck pace. In Egypt, he is consolidating his influence by multiplying funding for the Sisi dictatorship. In Libya, he backs the Haftar faction against the Ankara-sponsored rival and awaits corresponding retribution in contracts.

In Iraq, the monarch sustains counter-offensives by Sunni factions to erode Iran's primacy. This support includes encouraging massacres and religious wars. In Syria, he sought to create a caliphate subject to Riyadh and at odds with Ankara and Tehran. The monarch's war fanaticism was embodied in the network of mercenaries he recruited through the so-called "Islamic Military Alliance".

Saudi Arabia is an international hotbed of jihadists that the Pentagon sponsored with great initial enthusiasm. But monarchs are increasingly using these groups as their own troops, without consulting the US and sometimes in counterpoint with Washington.

In Somalia, Sudan and some African countries, coordination with the US director failed. Furthermore, the significance of attacks by an organization such as Al Qaeda, which had the approval of the monarchy, has never been clarified. The terrorist actions of jihadists as a cross-border force are often inscrutable and often destabilize the West.

That lack of control clashed with Obama's strategy of defusing tensions in the region through coy tones with Turkey and the Iran talks. Instead, Trump played into Prince Salman's favor with increased arms sales, cover-ups of massacres and convergences with Israel.

But the monarch's unpredictable actions have generated major crises. The savagery he displayed in dismembering opposition figure Khashoggi sparked a scandal that has not healed. The journalist was a loyal servant of the monarchy and later forged closer ties with liberals in the United States. He worked for the The Washington Post and uncovered evidence of criminality under the Saudi regime.

The arrogant prince chose to assassinate him in Turkey's own embassy and was exposed as a common criminal when President Erdogan made the case transparent for his own convenience. Trump went out of his way to cloak his partner in some savage killer tale, but he couldn't hide the young king's direct responsibility.

This episode portrayed the uncontrollable character of an adventurous president, who, with the decline of Trump, lost the direct support of the White House. Now Biden has announced a new direction, but without clarifying what that path will be. Meanwhile, he postponed the opening of secret files that would shed light on the relationship between the Saudi leadership and the attack on the Twin Towers.

O establishment The North American has become increasingly wary of the adventurer who has squandered part of the kingdom's reserves on bellicose outings. The Yemen war bill is already visible in the gap in the budget, which has accelerated plans to privatize the state-owned oil and gas company.

Medieval theocracy became a headache for US foreign policy. Some architects of this orientation advocate more substantial changes in the monarchy, but others fear the effect of such mutations on the international petrodollar circuit. Washington ended up losing the loyalty of many countries that eased their dictatorships or moderated their reigns.

These dilemmas do not have pre-established solutions. No one knows whether Bin Salman's actions are more dangerous than replacing him with another prince of the same bloodline. The existence of a great royalty in the web of mini-states that make up the Gulf dynasties brings more solidity, but also greater risks to imperialist policy.

That's why White House advisers differ on whether they sponsor policies of centralization or balkanization of Washington's vassals. In both options, Saudi Arabia's deviation towards a sub-imperial path implies a conflict with the American dominator.


Contradictory reenactment in Iran

Iran's current sub-imperial status is more controversial and remains unresolved. It includes many elements of that behavior, but it also contains features that call that status into question.

Until the 80s, the country was a model of sub-imperialism, and Marini (1973) presented it as an example analogous to the Brazilian prototype. The shah was the US's main regional partner in the Cold War against the USSR, but at the same time he was developing his own power in dispute with other Pentagon allies.

The Pahlavi dynasty consolidated this autonomous gravitation through a process of modernization along Westernist anticlerical lines. It supported the expansion of capitalist reforms in successive conflicts with the religious caste.

The monarch sought to create a regional pole of supremacy far from the Arab world and laid the foundations for a sub-imperial project, which reconnected with the historical roots of Persian confrontations with the Ottomans and the Saudis (ARMANIAN, 2020).

But the shah's collapse and his replacement by the ayatollahs' theocracy radically changed the country's geopolitical status. An autonomous sub-empire – but structurally associated with Washington – was transformed into a regime surrounded by permanent tension with the United States. Every White House leader has sought to destroy the Iranian enemy.

This conflict alters the profile of a model that no longer meets one of the requirements of the sub-imperial norm. The close coexistence with the North American dominator disappeared, and this change confirms the mutable character of a category that does not share the durability of imperial forms.

Clashes with Washington changed Iran's previous sub-imperial profile. The old ambition of regional supremacy was articulated as a defense against US harassment. All of Iran's external actions are aimed at creating a protective ring against aggression that the Pentagon coordinates with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Tehran intervenes in continuous conflicts with the aim of safeguarding its borders, and chooses alliances with the opponents of its enemies and seeks to multiply the fires in the rear of its three dangerous attackers.

This defensive impression determines a very unique modality of Iran's eventual sub-imperial resurgence. The search for regional supremacy coexists with resistance to external harassment, determining a very peculiar geopolitical course.


Defenses and Rivalries

Iran's soft expansionism in conflict zones reflects this contradictory situation in the country. The ayatollahs' regime certainly runs a Shiite recruiting network with Shiite-affiliated militias throughout the region. But, in keeping with the defensive aspect of her policy, she treads more cautiously than her jihadist adversaries.

The regime's main victory was achieved in Iraq. They managed to bring the country under their command after the devastation perpetrated by the US invaders. They now use their control of that territory as a huge defensive buffer to deter the attacks that Washington and Tel Aviv continue to repeat.

The same deterrent purpose has guided Tehran's intervention in the Syrian war. The capital supported Assad and engaged directly in armed action, but sought to consolidate a cordon of security for its own borders. And the Lebanese militias of Hezbollah acted as the main architects of this buffer belt.

The bloody clashes in Syria have unfolded as rehearsals for the biggest conflagration the Zionists envision against Iran. That's why Israel unloaded its bombing on Shiite troops.

Washington has repeatedly denounced “Iran's aggressiveness” in Syria, while in fact Tehran is bolstering its defense against US pressure. In this resistance, it obtained satisfactory results. Trump played his cards to the various incursions of Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and ended up losing the battle. That failure underscores the general adversity facing Washington. After countless onslaughts, he has not been able to subdue Iran, and the mother of all battles is still pending.

On a more limited level, Iran disputes regional primacy with Saudi Arabia in neighboring countries' wars. In Syria, Riyadh's jihadists have favored attacks against troops trained by their rival, and in Yemen the Wahhabi monarchy is targeting militias that are in tune with Tehran. In Qatar, Lebanon and Iraq, the same tension can be seen in the dispute over the Strait of Hormuz. Control of the Strait of Hormuz could very well mean the winner of the game between the ayatollahs and the main Gulf dynasty. This route – which connects Middle East exporters to world markets – is the route through which 30% of the oil traded in the world circulates.

Like its Saudi adversary, the Iranian regime uses a religious veil to cover up its ambitions (ARMANIAN, 2020). He masks his intention to increase his economic and geopolitical power by claiming the superiority of Shia postulates over Sunni norms. In practice, both strands of Islam conform to regimes equally controlled by obscurantist layers of clerics.

The rivalry with Turkey does not present, until now, such dramatic contours. It includes misunderstandings that are visible in Iraq, but does not change the status quo nor does it take the risk of a confrontation as with the Saudis. The pro-Turkish Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt has maintained the regional balances that Iran wants. In contrast, tyranny – currently sponsored by Washington and Riyadh – has become another active adversary of Tehran.

Like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Iran has expanded its economy, and the government is looking to align that growth with a more prominent geopolitical presence. But Tehran pursued autarky development tailored to prioritize defense and resist external harassment. Oil exports have been used to support a scheme that mixes state interventionism with the promotion of private business.

All geopolitical developments were transformed by the ruling elite into profitable spheres, managed by big businessmen associated with the high state bureaucracy. Taking control of Iraq has opened up an unexpected market for the Iranian bourgeoisie, which is now also vying for the business of rebuilding Syria.

There are many unknowns on the chessboard between Iran and its rivals. The ayatollahs have won and lost battles abroad and face tough economic choices. The dominant clerical-military leadership, which prioritizes the oil business, must face the international financial disconnect imposed by the US. The regime has lost the cohesion of the past and must define responses to Israel's decision to prevent the country from becoming an atomic power.

The two main wings of the ruling party are promoting different strategies of greater negotiation or an increase in military armed struggle. The first course prioritizes defensive buffers in conflict zones. The second direction is not far from repeating the bloodshed suffered during the Iraq war. Subimperial reconstitution depends on these definitions.


critical scenarios

The concept of sub-imperialism helps to clarify the explosive scenario in the East

East and neighboring regions. It allows us to register the prominence of the regional powers in the conflicts of the zone. These actors are more influential than in the past and do not act at the same level as the great global powers.

The notion of sub-imperialism facilitates the understanding of these processes. It sheds light on the role of the most relevant countries and clarifies their continuing distance from the US, Europe, Russia and China. It also explains why the new regional powers do not replace American dominance and develop fragile trajectories corroded by uncontrollable tensions.

Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran rival each other from sub-imperial settings, and the outcome of that competition is highly uncertain. If one of the competitors emerges as the winner by outmaneuvering the others, it could usher in a sea change in the region's geopolitical hierarchies. If, on the other hand, the contending powers were exhausted in endless battles, they would eventually nullify their own sub-imperial status.

*Claudio Katz is professor of economics at Universidad Buenos Aires. Author, among other books, of Neoliberalism, neodevelopmentalism, socialism (Popular Expression).

Originally published in the magazine reorient, flight. 1, no 2.



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