Ideologies, Alignments, and Underbalancing in the New Middle East Cold War
by F. Gregory Gause, Texas A&M University
A notable element of current Middle Eastern geopolitics is the failure of other local powers to form effective balancing alignments against Iran, despite Tehran’s increased power in the region. This instance of “underbalancing” not only has important policy implications, but also makes an interesting case for testing more general theories about alliances. If sectarianism were truly driving regional conflicts, we should expect to see the Sunni states of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey cooperating against Iran. If capabilities-based power considerations were the driver of alignment, Israel should be joining the Sunni states against Iran. These logical balancing alignments have not formed because of the ideological differences among the regimes that govern these states. The regimes ruling Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have different, in some cases conflicting, notions of the role of Islam in their politics, and see each other as much as rivals and threats as potential alliance partners. The continuing Palestinian-Israeli conflict makes open alignment with Israel domestically impossible for these regimes. This instance of underbalancing is best explained not by sectarianism or capabilities-based understandings of power, but by concerns about ideological differences among the leaders of these potential allies and the effect those differences could have on domestic regime security.