Turkey and Iran, two neighbors with a long and storied shared history, require strong relations if they are to collaborate across a wide range of economic areas. At the present, however, common interests have not translated into a shared foreign policy approach. Indeed, Ankara and Tehran have pursued diametrically opposed objectives at times. It is against this backdrop that Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Turkey on January 24. The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening their bonds of trust and shared interests and discussed a range of bilateral issues, including security, energy, and trade.
During President Raisi’s visit, the leaders penned ten cooperation documents that promoted economic cooperation and bilateral cooperation. These agreements span energy, free trade zones, culture, media, and communication, as well as in the areas of power and rail transportation. Evidently, there is a strong willingness to strengthen bilateral ties and pave the way for new phases of cooperation. The visit also highlighted the need for both countries to work together to combat terrorism, following the deadliest terror attack in post-revolutionary Iran on January 3, 2024.
Improved energy cooperation between Iran and Turkey would prove a boon to Ankara, which needs a variety of energy inputs to maintain its post-pandemic economic recovery. A $200 million agreement has been concluded between the Iranian Grid Management Company and the Turkish Electricity Transmission Company (TEIAS) to operationalize the Khoy-Van grid line, which connects the 400-kilovolt BtB HVDC line between Khoy, Iran, and Van, Turkey. With the potential to expand to European countries, this is Iran’s first cross-border grid link utilizing HVDC technology, and facilitates electricity exchange between Iran and Turkey. The 600-megawatt, 400 kilovolt power line enables the trade of electricity itself, which can catalyze economies on both sides of the border.
These developments are simply the most recent in a long list of important bilateral accords that span the frontier between these neighboring states. Over the past half-decade, Ankara and Tehran have signed a raft of important agreements dealing with a multitude of economic sectors, including commerce in agricultural products, investment in oil and gas reserves, and gas exports. The neighbors have also established “free trade zones” along their border to promote economic growth. These zones, such as one in the city of Khoy, seek to promote yearly business development, ensure greater border area trade, and revitalize the region’s flagging transportation sector, with the goal of injecting capital into the local economy. During a meeting of Turkish and Iranian businesspersons, the head of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, Mines, Industry, and Agriculture (ICCIMA), Samad Hassanzadeh, urged greater collaboration between the Turkish and Iranian private sectors, in the hope that the two countries may realize a bilateral trade target of $30 billion—a goal that such zones bring within reach.
The Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul Road Transport Corridor, which commenced operations in 2021, serves as another example of efforts to boost cross-border trade. Under the auspices of the Economic Cooperation Organization, Turkey’s Commerce Ministry and its equivalents in Iran and Pakistan established this trilateral initiative with the goal of strengthening ties and facilitating commerce and transportation. A transportation agreement was also struck by Qatar, Iran, and Turkey, with Iran acting as the nation of transit between Qatar and Turkey. These partnerships are a part of larger initiatives to increase commerce and streamline the supply of commodities between the nations. The gas pipeline between Turkey and Iran and joint road transportation initiatives are important factors in bolstering Iran-Turkey energy and economic relations.
Security Issues Remain
Economic relations between Iran and Turkey are constantly complicated by the region’s complicated security dynamics, which have an impact on both regional and economic collaboration. Iran’s gas exports to Turkey have struggled over the past decade, including widespread disruptions and a significant decline in 2023 following shortages in the Islamic Republic. The two nations’ 25-year export contract expires in 2026, raising concerns that the agreement may not be extended amid pricing and sanctions concerns. Turkey’s exploration of alternative suppliers—notably gas-rich Azerbaijan, with whom Iran has a rocky relationship—adds even greater uncertainty to future imports. The future depends on negotiations, geopolitics, and the evolving regional energy landscape. The Middle East’s shifting geopolitical landscape, the transformation of worldwide energy patterns, and the possibility of heightened global economic rivalry may all impact future commercial ties between Iran and Turkey.
Even after President Raisi’s otherwise successful visit, a number of bilateral foreign policy issues remain outstanding: chief among these is the two countries’ differing attitude toward the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK), which Ankara regards as a terrorist group but Tehran has sometimes sought to accommodate. The security situation in Iraq is also a mutual concern, and is further complicated by Tehran’s connections to Sulaymaniyah and its limited cooperation with Ankara on PKK matters. This complexity was further increased in recent years by the PKK’s redeployment to the Iranian side of Qandil Mountain. Furthermore, Turkey is threatened in Iraq by parts of the Iran-allied Popular Mobilization Forces.
The security of Turkey’s safe zones in Syria is further jeopardized by Iran’s collaboration with the Kurdish YPG and, in turn, the YPG’s coordinated attacks on Turkish forces and the Syrian rebel groups in Idlib. The rise of Shiite militias across Iraq and Syria have contributed to demographic shifts across Turkey’s southern near-abroad. Indeed, Iran has capitalized on Russian retrenchment in this theater, as foreign troops have been withdrawn and deployed in Ukraine. Strategic flexibility from both sides will be needed to address common security issues and clear the path for greater economic cooperation.
That both sides continue to jostle for influence in the Caucasus does little to assuage geopolitical concerns. Turkey and Iran have adopted divergent policies toward Armenia and Azerbaijan, further stoking antagonism in Karabakh. The creation of the Zangezur corridor, which would link Azerbaijan to its western exclave through a route along the Iranian border, may cause significant anxiety in Tehran. For its part, Iran has worsened regional instability by collaborating with Russia to accelerate its nuclear program—a policy that has implications not just for the South Caucasus, but the whole Middle East. Turkey strongly opposes a nuclear-armed Iran, viewing Iranian nuclear brinkmanship as a potential flashpoint for regional escalation or an arms race; while Turkey has never demonstrated interest in developing a nuclear capability of its own, a nuclear-armed Iran could do much to change this calculus.
The recent accords agreed to by Presidents Raisi and Erdogan stand to benefit both countries immensely. However, sanctions and geopolitical unpredictability remain serious obstacles to the successful implementation of these agreements, which would bring about improved energy security and bilateral trade. In particular, the Khoy-Van grid link has the potential to transform cross-border electricity transfers entirely, marking a new era for Iran-Turkey cooperation.
Though the agreements are an encouraging first step, they of course come with potential drawbacks. Hyperinflation in both countries threatens to spill over into a full-on financial crisis, and the existing international sanctions regime renders it difficult for Turkey to engage with the Iranian market. Maintaining good ties still requires skillfully handling disagreements resulting from regional problems, such those involving Syria, Iraq, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To achieve leaders’ stated goal of $30 billion in annual trade, both sides must resolve major regional security issues with great care. Only then may the two states reach the lofty goals set during the January 24 state visit.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.
In an era marked by escalating geopolitical tensions and internal strife, Pakistan and Iran find themselves at a crucial juncture, grappling with a complex web of socio-economic, security, and political challenges that threaten the stability and prosperity of their respective nations. The intricate relationship between Pakistan and Iran was threatened in January 2024 as the two nations exchanged missiles strikes followed quickly by de-escalation. The two nations historically allied during the Cold War but whose paths have since diverged amidst regional conflicts and shifting alliances. Recent skirmishes underscore the fragility of their relationship, yet also highlight an underlying desire to avoid escalation. After a series of tit-for-tat missile strikes against militant targets across their shared border, Iran and Pakistan have agreed to de-escalate tensions, calming the volatile situation and saving the region from a confrontation that could have spelt disaster for both countries.
Pakistan faces a dizzying array of socio-economic, security and political challenges. The country’s next general elections are scheduled for February 8, but are obviously neither free nor fair. Imran Khan, the former prime minister until his removal from office under controversial circumstances in 2022, has been disqualified from the ballot; his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), was stripped of its electoral symbol, forcing its candidates to compete as independents. Many Pakistanis view the election as a coronation of sorts for the country’s powerful civil-military establishment, perhaps best symbolized by the return from exile of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. As Pakistanis prepare to go to the polls, the country is struggling with the resurgence of terrorism due to the government’s inability to rein in cross-border militancy from Afghanistan. Pakistan’s relations with India also remain tense. Against the backdrop of these complex challenges, the last thing policymakers in Islamabad could have wanted was a sudden flare-up of tensions along Pakistan’s border with Iran.
The Iranian regime, too, is under great pressure. Social friction continues to grow at home, despite the repressive tactics of the hardline government. Iran is also facing lingering economic woes. Tehran has not been able to ease interactional sanctions or make any progress on restoring a nuclear deal with the United States, so the country’s economic struggles are likely to continue. Instead, Iran is now facing increased threats of retaliation due attacks by Iranian proxies in Iraq on U.S. bases and Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen attacks on Western merchant ships in the Red Sea. In northeastern Jordan, a Iranian-backed militants launched a drone that struck a U.S. outpost near the Syrian border and killed three U.S. soldiers, leading the Biden administration to strike Iranian-linked targets throughout Iraq and Syria. With these tensions at the forefront, Iran can ill afford to engage in prolonged skirmishes with Pakistan.
Following its first round of strikes within Pakistan on January 16, Iran claimed that it had specifically targeted militants linked to Jaish-ul-Adal, an offshoot of another Sunni militant outfit, Jandullah. Pakistan and Iran have had minor border tensions in the past due to the presence of Sunni militants operating along the largely lawless 900-kilometer border, which separates Iran from the restive Pakistani province of Balochistan. Pakistan, in turn, retaliated by launching a missile which targeted ethnic Baluch separatist militants within Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province. While both sides blamed the other for collateral damage, they also issued conciliatory statements indicating that neither sought to stoke cross-border tensions further.
A Complicated Past
While Iran and Pakistan collaborated closely at the height of the Cold War, the two nations’ relations became far more tenuous after the Iranian Revolution. Pakistan has suffered significantly from the underlying proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—particularly after the emergence of hundreds of extremist Sunni Deobandi madrassas within Pakistan, which served to train “mujahideen” to repel the Soviet invaders. After the Kremlin withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, the civil war continued and many Pakistani militants returned to Pakistan, carrying out an insurgency against Islamabad in the mountainous northwestern region. In Afghanistan, Islamabad and Tehran found themselves backing opposing groups; Iran and India jointly supported the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, while Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE decided to recognize the Taliban regime in the late 1990s.
Pakistani and Iranian interests have converged more over time, however. Both states have strained but concrete relations with the new Taliban regime. Pakistan has no formal relations with Israel, and, unlike India, is quite sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. While sectarian violence within Pakistan remains a problem, it is not being fueled by Iran. Both Iran and Pakistan are close partners with China, which has invested billions of dollars in both countries and linked them to its Belt and Road Initiative. Thus, it is not surprising that while the United States strongly condemned Iran’s attacks on Pakistani soil, China simply advised caution and restraint.
The Way Forward
In this saga, cooler heads seem to have prevailed on both sides. After recalling their respective ambassadors, Iran and Pakistan have resumed high-level diplomacy. The Iranian Foreign Minister recently concluded a visit to Pakistan, and both countries have vowed to collaborate more closely to contend with cross-border militants which, after all, represent a threat to both governments. Iran and Pakistan have never disputed the border demarcation between them, meaning that leaders can avoid the political posturing that would otherwise make curbing cross-border militancy extremely difficult. Both states should capitalize on positive momentum gathered over recent weeks to regularize and expand trade in their recently operationalized border markets. Doing so would bring economic benefits to the local populace on both sides, which would be a much more judicious way of addressing grievances and preventing terrorism than heavy-handed police measures—or missile strikes.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.
Since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas conflict, numerous officials from Iran and Hezbollah have warned that the Middle East’s preeminent Shia powers cannot remain passive in the conflict. Indeed, leaders in Tehran and Beirut have suggested that they may intervene in the Gaza war in support of the Palestinian side. In this context, Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian went so far as to threaten Israel with a preemptive war. Additionally, Iran’s embassy in Damascus posted a message in Hebrew on Twitter, warning Israelis that “time is up.” Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, stated in virtual speeches that his fighters may enter the battle, even at the cost of their lives.
As verbal and diplomatic tensions escalate, the situation on the ground has also intensified, with frequent exchanges of fire across Lebanon’s border with Israel. Despite diatribes from Iranian and Hezbollah officials and half-hearted promises to deliver a forceful response against Israel, little kinetic action has been taken. Indeed, the Axis of Resistance has remained on the sidelines even in the face of direct challenges from Israel itself. Since October 7, Israel has been linked to the killing of Sayyed Razi Mousavi, the top Iranian IRGC general in Damascus, Saleh al-Aouri, Hamas’s second-in-command in Beirut, and Wissam Tawil, the commander of Hezbollah’s elite Radwan force. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have also killed more than 140 Hezbollah militants—a significant loss of life that has been met with muted response.
It could be argued that, contrary to their vitriolic public statements, the leaders of the Axis of Resistance have adhered to a policy of “strategic patience,” in effect tolerating short-term hardship in pursuit of conditions that would enable victory in the long term. This begs the question: why has the Axis of Resistance avoided all-out war with Israel? The answer to this question hinges on two motivations of state behavior: survival and the appeal of limited gains over decisive losses.
Refusing to Bet it All
The Islamic Republic is a survivalist regime, driven by an overriding desire to endure in the face of external and internal pressures. This is not mere speculation—the Iranian leadership has been explicit. Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder and figurehead of the Islamic Revolution, clearly stated, “Protecting the Nezam [political system] is the highest mandate [of the Iranian government]…and the regime must be protected even if it requires the suspension of standard practices of Sharia, including Salat [prayer].” In this context, Iran’s lack of desire to engage in a total war with Israel is reasonable, as Iranian leaders recognize that any war with Israel would result in military confrontation that would not only engulf the Middle East, but draw in Israel’s powerful backer, the United States. The U.S. has already signaled its intent to support Israel, deploying two aircraft carriers and an Ohio-class nuclear submarine to the region. These platforms—among Washington’s most expensive and powerful—clearly demonstrate the United States’ willingness to wage war if the Islamic Republic were to directly attack Israel.
While Iran’s reluctance to engage Israel directly is understandable, its hesitation to involve Hezbollah in Hamas’s conflict with the IDF is more questionable. After all, one of the primary reasons for the establishment of Hezbollah was to confront Israel and assist Palestinian militias. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to expel the PLO, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) deployed a division of 5,000 men, named the Prophet Mohammad Corps, to Syria. This contingent was then transferred to Lebanon and deployed against the IDF, marking the birth of Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s foundational purpose raises the question: why has the militant group thus far avoided confrontation? The brief answer is that Hezbollah is too valuable an asset to be deployed recklessly. Since its inception, Hezbollah has transformed from a guerrilla group of young men in Southern Beirut into one of the most sophisticated and well-equipped non-state armed organizations operating across the Middle East, possessing over 130,000 rockets aimed at Israel. As Hezbollah’s capabilities have evolved, its role and purpose for Iran has also expanded. In the 1980s, Hezbollah was primarily a local actor in Lebanon, with the relatively limited objective of expelling Franco-American and Israeli forces from the country. However, over the last four decades, the scope of Hezbollah’s activities has significantly expanded. First, it solidified its position as the main Shia actor in Lebanon, challenging the Syria-backed Amal movement. This competition led to a series of armed clashes between Hezbollah and Syrian forces under Hafez al-Assad during the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, Hezbollah emerged as the dominant force. In the early 2000s, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Hezbollah’s role further evolved under Iran’s direction. Leveraging its longstanding relations with Iraq’s al-Dawa Party, Hezbollah extended its influence into Iraq. In 2003, at the request of General Qasem Soleimani, then the commander of Iran’s IRGC Quds Force, Hezbollah established Unit 3800, also known as its “Iraq Bureau.” This unit, comprising experienced Hezbollah fighters, was sent to Iraq to train hundreds of Iraqi Shia militia members. The training included skills in hostage-taking, tactical operations, and the use of sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The scope of Hezbollah’s activities indeed extended beyond Iraq. In 2011, with the onset of the Syrian uprising, Hezbollah began to play a significant role by supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Starting in 2012, Hezbollah commenced the deployment of troops to Syria, leading to its full engagement across the country by 2014. Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria was marked by participation in key battles, showcasing its expanded regional role and military capabilities.
These key battlefields included the 2013 Battle of Qusayr, the three-year Siege of Deir-Ezzor, the East Aleppo offensive (January–April 2017), the Battle of al-Bab, the Daraa offensive (February–June 2017), and the Beit Jinn offensive. Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War cemented its status as one of Iran’s most important international proxies, operating alongside the foreign arm of the IRGC. The losses incurred in Syria did little to deter Hezbollah from extending its influence further across the Middle East. Since 2012, following the Houthi takeover of Sana’a in Yemen, Hezbollah coordinated with Iran to establish a foothold in Yemen by providing training to the Houthi forces. While the full extent of Hezbollah’s involvement in Yemen remains shrouded, there are indications that the group’s influence is significant. According to U.S. officials, Hezbollah continues to play a crucial role guiding Houthi attacks in the Red Sea area.
A Proxy of Last Resort
In light of Hezbollah’s involvement across various regional conflicts, it is reasonable to argue that the group—once simply a component of Iran’s policy in Lebanon—has become one of the primary instruments of Iran’s broader regional policy. Hezbollah today not only represents Iranian interests in Lebanon but also actively advances Iran’s regional agenda wherever necessary, be it in Syria against the remaining rebel forces, in Iraq against U.S. troops, or in Yemen against the U.S.-Arab coalition.
These involvements have been costly for Hezbollah in terms of manpower, but they reinforce the group’s commitment to realizing Iran’s strategic objectives. The militia is estimated to have lost between 2,000 to 2,500 fighters in the Syrian Civil War alone, a figure that surpasses its casualties in the 2006 war with Israel. Despite the significant toll, Hezbollah’s unwavering dedication underscores the value that Iran derives from its regional militias as a method of projecting influence and achieving strategic goals across the Middle East.
Indeed, Hezbollah plays a crucial role in Iran’s deterrence strategy. Iran recognizes the power disparity between itself and U.S.-led partnerships in the Gulf region. Tehran lacks the conventional military capabilities, such as a sophisticated air force or navy, to neutralize threats emanating from its adversaries. Without unconventional warfare capabilities like nuclear arms to serve as a security umbrella of last resort, Iran has relied on asymmetric methods of warfare to ensure its safety. These methods include guerrilla tactics and the stoking of conflicts across the region. This strategy is not aimed at winning a war against the United States and its allies outright, but rather at increasing the cost of continued conflict to a point where Iran might deter U.S. and allied aggression.
Hezbollah, as a major ally equipped with thousands of rockets aimed at Israel, plays a pivotal role in this security framework, as the militia is set to launch a full-fledged attack against Israel in the event of Israeli (or U.S.) attacks on Iran. Hezbollah itself is a hard target for Iran’s enemies, but the militant group is not an asset to throw away needlessly. Even if Hezbollah were to survive a conflict against the U.S. and its allies, the recovery would require significant time, effort, and resources. This makes Hezbollah a strategic asset that Tehran prefers to reserve for critical situations, rather than deploying it in support of groups less vital to its core national security interests, like Hamas.
Hezbollah’s foothold in Syria enables the country to serve as a land bridge for the supply of materials from Iran to Lebanon, which only adds another layer of complexity to regional strategic dynamics. In the event of an Israel-Hezbollah war, there is a likelihood that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would strike targets in Syria on a large scale, potentially weakening the network of Iranian militias across the country. Such an outcome could jeopardize years of effort and billions of dollars spent by the Axis of Resistance in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
These circumstances explain Iran’s cautious use of Hezbollah against Israel. The risk of destabilizing the hard-fought balance of power in Syria and endangering Assad’s regime is a significant deterrent, as is the potential devastation to its most important regional proxy. As a result, Iran may opt to use more expendable groups, such as the Houthis in Yemen or Iraqi militias, to exert pressure on the United States and Israel. These groups can engage in conflict without risking the strategic advantages that Hezbollah provides, thus, allowing Iran to maintain pressure on its adversaries while preserving its more valuable assets for situations where their engagement is deemed absolutely necessary.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.
Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis have bounced back after successive American and British airstrikes targeted the militant group’s offensive capabilities. Despite Western joint operations that sought to degrade the Houthis’ ability to threaten maritime traffic in the Red Sea, they have continued to strike merchant ships off the coast of Yemen in recent weeks. If the fighting continues, however, the group may adjust its strategy to address a new—and perhaps more critical—target: the lattice of undersea telecommunications cables that line the Bab el-Mandeb strait.
Rising Tide of Conflict
On December 24th, 2023, a Telegram channel linked to the Houthis published a map showing the networks of submarine communications cables in the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Persian Gulf. The image was accompanied by an ominous message: “There are maps of international cables connecting all regions of the world through the sea. It seems that Yemen is in a strategic location, as internet lines that connect entire continents — not only countries—pass near it.”
Though the statement did not specify a target, the threat coincides with perhaps the Houthis’ most aggressive military campaign against vessels in the Red Sea. Since mid-October 2023, the group has launched more than 100 drones and missiles at vessels transiting through the Bab el-Mandeb, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. The attacks have been so disruptive that at least one major shipping company, Maersk, announced that it would suspend shipping through the Red Sea and Suez Canal “until further notice.” Diverted ships must instead sail around Africa, significantly raising transit times and shipping costs; these costs will almost certainly be passed on to consumers, hiking prices worldwide for a variety of commodities. Although high-level U.S. officials stressed that they had not yet observed price increases due to the blockage, the crisis ultimately prompted the United States to create a new international maritime task force focused on stopping the group’s attacks.
Despite this show of force, it does not appear that the Houthis have any intention of stopping their attacks. In early December, the group threatened to attack any ships transiting through the Red Sea to Israel, regardless of their nationality. In the weeks since, they have attacked neutral vessels, promising to continue as long as Israeli forces remain active in Gaza.
As the Gaza war has threatens to escalate across the Middle East, the communications cables running underneath the Red Sea have come under increased scrutiny from the Houthis and their allies. On Telegram, both Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran-backed militias in Iraq released their own statements that suggested they would consider cutting the cables—a step that would mark a new evolution in the regional conflict.
Cutting the Cord
Many people—both in the Middle East and across the world more generally—take for granted the modern comforts provided by undersea cables. In the twenty-first century, these cables serve as some of the world’s most critical digital infrastructure—servicing more than 95 percent of international data flows and communications—including an estimated $10 trillion in financial transactions every day. Even partial damage to the undersea cables could eliminate internet access across vast areas, causing major economic disruptions for entire countries.
Even more concerning for the Gulf Cooperation Council states, the United States, and Washington’s allies, damaging these cables could cut off military or government communications. The cables are the only hardware with enough bandwidth to accommodate the terabytes of military sensor data that inform ongoing operations. In the years to come, as technologies like artificial intelligence develop, the amount of data required to sustain advanced military operations will only increase.
Yemen sits at a critical juncture for these cables. Much as the Bab el-Mandeb acts like a chokepoint for maritime traffic above the waves, the region is one of only three cable chokepoints in the world, making threats to this infrastructure of particular concern to great powers like China and the United States, who are already competing for control over the cable network.
An Easy Target?
So far, the cables have been kept safe more so by the Houthis’ relative technological underdevelopment than for a lack of motivation. Up to now, the militant group has primarily fought a land war against the internationally-recognized government of Yemen and its Saudi and Emirati allies; consequently, they have never developed a highly-trained navy or marine contingent, and while the Houthis have maintained the capability to harass surface shipping through missiles and fast attack craft, they lack the submersibles necessary to reach the cables.
With sufficient time and opportunity, however, the Houthis might be able to adapt some of their maritime tactics to target the vital communication infrastructure. In fact, the shallow waters of the Gulf—which only reach a depth of 100 meters—reduce the need for high-tech submarines to get the job done. In 2013, three divers were arrested in Egypt for attempting to cut an undersea cable near the port of Alexandria that provides much of the internet capacity between Europe and Egypt—highlighting the possibility that militants without special equipment or training could carry out a similar mission. The Houthis, who have undergone combat diver training, could employ a similar method of attack, and have an arsenal of naval mines with which to damage the cables.
In short, while the Houthis have long presented a threat to international maritime traffic, the group’s recent series of increasingly brazen attacks underscores its intention to play a larger role in the region moving forward. A network of vital underwater communication cables could be the perfect soft target for their next attack and this possibility should concern all nations that depend on this critical infrastructure, both near and far.
On January 8, Mohammad bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (MBZ), the leader of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), paid an official visit to Azerbaijan upon the invitation of his counterpart, President Ilham Aliyev. While MBZ’s visit to Baku signaled an era of deepening economic and energy ties between Azerbaijan and the UAE, it also reflected significant progress made in recent years. Indeed, the bilateral relationship has seen a raft of new projects and investments, particularly in the renewable energy sector. Notably, according to 2022 data, the Gulf countries are now among Azerbaijan’s top investment partners, though reciprocal investment remains low, compared to Azerbaijan’s other partners.
Breaking New Ground
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, energy importing countries across North America and Europe redoubled their efforts to develop alternative sources of clean energy, hoping to deprive the Kremlin of a powerful economic weapon and decrease their own dependence on fossil fuels. In light of Russia’s dwindling exports of oil and gas to Europe, EU and non-EU countries alike have significantly increased their investments in green energy-related projects. Of course, these efforts come amid a broader climate crisis, which has demonstrated the importance of a clean and secure energy future for the well-being of the planet. Hence, the current momentum toward adopting green energy resources can act as a turning point for many nations to build the policies and strategies towards sustainable development.
Azerbaijan, which is rich in oil and natural gas, has emerged as one of the foremost beneficiaries of the Russian invasion, as European nations pivoted to fossil fuel imports from Baku to meet their energy needs. Therefore, the small Caucasian country is an unlikely participant in the green energy revolution. However, the Aliyev administration has used the proceeds from greater oil exports to finance green energy initiatives across the country. These initiatives were granted a major boost in both 2020 and 2023, when Azerbaijan recaptured part—and then all—of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region from neighboring Armenia. Considering the hilly, high-elevation geography of the region, Azerbaijani authorities estimate that solar and wind power plants in this area could produce more than 9,200 megawatts of clean energy.
Baku found willing partners to assist with its green energy development in the UAE and Saudi Arabia—both among the world’s leading hydrocarbon exporters. Following bilateral meetings between Aliyev and these states, both indicated that they would invest in the construction of solar and wind power plants in Karabakh and the northern territories of Azerbaijan. In May 2023, Riyadh and Baku signed memoranda of understanding (MoU) that encompassed various fields including petroleum, petrochemicals, gas, electricity, and renewables. Following this, in October 2023, Saudi-listed ACWA Power and the UAE’s Future Energy Company, also known as Masdar, partnered with the State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) to develop 500 megawatts of renewable energy projects in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan.
During the face-to-face meeting between President Aliyev and the UAE’s MBZ, additional documents were signed to grow the green energy partnership between Baku and Abu Dhabi; the new documents emphasized joint exploration and investment opportunities to expand rooftop solar projects, explore green hydrogen, green ammonia, and sustainable aviation fuel production, and even touched on the export of green energy. In addition, the projects the two leaders discussed encompassed 2 GW of solar energy and 2 GW of onshore wind projects, along with 6 GW offshore wind energy. The UAE is set to finance the construction of two solar power plants and one wind plant in Azerbaijan between 2024 and 2027. According to the initial estimates, these new power plants will unlock access to 1 GW of alternative energy supply for stakeholders.
Open for Business
For Azerbaijan, cultivating an image of a reliable energy partner is of great strategic importance, as it falls within the country’s pragmatic foreign policy strategy of economic diversification. Moreover, this strategy allows Baku to establish closer ties to the wealthy Gulf monarchies, thereby lessening its dependence on European finance to power its economy. Considering recent diplomatic tensions between Azerbaijan and some European countries after its reconquest of Nagorno-Karabakh last year, Baku has sought to slightly distance itself from West and instead foster partnerships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE—two monarchies that generally avoid placing human rights or moral judgements at the center of their foreign economic policies, and which have so far avoided making any political statement regarding the post-war situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.
After successfully mulling green energy partnerships with an array of countries like Georgia, Romania, Hungary, and Serbia, Azerbaijan turned to the UAE and Saudi Arabia to make additional inroads into the Gulf region. It seems that the economic model of prosperity built by Saudi Arabia and the UAE is attractive to Azerbaijan, which is desperately keen on maintaining its leading role in the Caucasus. Moreover, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which have been diversifying their economies away from hydrocarbons, serve as an instructive model for Baku, which is also oil- and gas-reliant and hence shares an interest in economic diversification.
Blossoming Azerbaijan-Gulf relations may also help achieve another of Baku’s core interests: mitigating the threat posed by Iran, a longtime adversary. Like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan cautiously watches Iran’s growing hybrid warfare capabilities. Unsurprisingly, all three perceive Iran as a common threat, especially in light of renewed Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in the Red Sea. As such, the Gulf states may see Azerbaijan as a reliably anti-Iran bastion on the Islamic Republic’s northwestern border—and potentially even a partner in containing it, if cross-Gulf tensions worsen further.
The Red Sea remains a major focal point in West Asia following multiple U.S.-led military operations against the Yemen-based Houthi Movement—raising fears of an expanded regional war as Israel continues to prosecute its war in Gaza. In this context, the U.S.- and British-led strikes on the Houthis are likely to have a minimal impact on the Houthis’ willingness and capacity to fight, especially relative to the risks they are fostering.
The Ansarullah movement, more widely recognized as the Houthis, persistently adopts a militaristic stance in regional politics. They have leveraged Yemen’s crucial location along the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, orchestrating attacks on ships as a supposed act of solidarity with the Gaza populace. However, this seems to be a strategic move to bolster their image among Yemeni and Arab public opinion enraged by continued Gaza war without an end in sight.
After the United States conducted its first strikes on the evening of January 12, the Houthis promised to respond and pledged their readiness for a fight with the United States—a scenario that runs the risk of expanding the war in Gaza into a disastrous regional conflict. This scenario speaks to the folly of Washington’s “deterrence” and “credibility” arguments justifying the strikes on Yemen. Indeed, the bombing campaign against the Houthis simply marks the latest iteration of the United States’ deficient strategy in West Asia, focusing on military solutions to problems that require much more complex and creative approaches.
The Red Sea Front
On the evening of January 12, the U.S.-UK-led coalition known as Task Force 153 bombed Houthi positions for the first time since the group initiated its attacks on maritime shipping via the Bab el-Mandeb. For weeks before the strike, major Western capitals had released statements warning the Houthis of a military response to its actions and calling on the group to respect the internationally agreed upon laws of the sea. The operation targeted 28 Houthi military sites, including military camps and radar used to identify ships, and killed or injured roughly 10-12 Houthi fighters.
As the first strikes took place, the United States released a joint statement with multiple members of the Task Force, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Bahrain. In the statement, the countries highlighted the operation’s reasoning, claiming self-defense to legally justify the strikes. The Houthis quickly released a similar statement, stating, “The American and British enemy bears full responsibility for its criminal aggression against our Yemeni people. This aggression will not go unanswered. The Yemeni armed forces will not hesitate to target sources of threat and all hostile targets—on land and at sea—in defense of Yemen, its sovereignty and independence.”
Unsurprisingly, and judging from official Houthi rhetoric, the Task Force operation failed to foster a much-needed calm in the Red Sea and broader region. Instead, the U.S.-led airstrikes appeared to simply spur additional and stronger attacks on international trade flowing past Yemen. The Houthis responded to the January 12 strikes by launching an expanded barrage of drones and missiles, targeting passing ships without regard for their nationality or destination. On January 14, the Houthis unsuccessfully targeted the USS Laboon, a U.S. Navy destroyer; on January 15 and 18, they struck U.S.-owned cargo ships passing through the Bab el-Mandeb. In response to these attacks, the United States conducted additional strikes on Houthi positions in northern Yemen, where the Houthis are based, on January 16, 17, and 18.
The Houthis have now targeted maritime shipping and military ships in the Red Sea roughly 30 times, reflecting another front in the broader regional conflict underway because of Israel’s war against Hamas and Gaza. Indeed, the scale of disruption occurring along one of the world’s most important trade routes reflects this reality, alongside the risks of continued escalation in this theater—an option all immediate parties seem to be directly or indirectly supportive of in order to achieve their geopolitical goals.
The Geopolitical Map
The firsthand parties to the current conflict—Israel, Hamas, and the Houthis, with Hezbollah and Iran poised to join in—have rigid geopolitical goals, with serious implications for regional security. While Yemen remains one of the poorest countries in the world, it continues to play an outsized role in West Asia’s geopolitical makeup, given the strategic location of the Bab el-Mandeb. All parties involved in the Yemen conflict understand this fact, and have hoped to use it to their advantage. This was one of the foremost reasons for the internationalization of the war in Yemen, at the expense of the Yemeni people. Although the violence has subsided since the peak of the country’s civil war, the risk of escalation remains high, threatening ongoing peace efforts underway in Yemen and elsewhere.
The effects of an ever-expanding conflict in the Red Sea cast doubt on efforts to limit the Israel-Hamas war to Gaza and the occupied Palestinian territories. The Houthis are likely to follow the lead of other Iran-backed groups in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq in raising the costs of Israel’s continued military operations in Gaza. The group knows that disrupting international trade through the Red Sea, where roughly 12 percent of all global trade transits, will draw the United States deeper into the conflict while bolstering domestic calls for a ceasefire as the risk of a broader war expands and the cost of goods increases.
This concrete reality makes Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s most recent regional tour, focused on preventing an expanded conflict, somewhat ironic. During the tour in early January, Blinken repeatedly stressed the importance of containing the Gaza conflict and working with regional leaders to find sustainable solutions towards such a goal. However, as the Secretary concluded his trip on January 11 with an idealistic speech about regional actors’ shared interests in maintaining stability in the Red Sea, Washington decided to unilaterally bomb the Houthis—directly contradicting this message while introducing greater uncertainty to the regional geopolitical context.
In the aftermath of the U.S. strikes, regional states with deep involvement in Yemen understandably expressed concern. An official statement issued by the Saudi Press Agency on January 12 read, “While the Kingdom emphasizes the importance of maintaining the security and stability of the Red Sea region, as the freedom of navigation in it is an international demand due to its impact on the interests of the entire world, it calls for restraint and avoiding escalation in light of the events the region is witnessing.”
While Saudi Arabia has a clear interest in Red Sea stability and has consistently opposed the Houthis’ indiscriminate attacks on commerce prior to January 12, the statement reflects the Kingdom’s serious concerns about reigniting a war with the Houthis in Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen—initiated by then-Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman in 2015, with the expectation that it would be concluded in a matter of weeks—turned into an eight-year quagmire from which Riyadh has only recently managed to extract itself. While negotiations with the Houthis continue to advance, as evidenced by the roadmap agreement announced on December 23, Riyadh likely views increased tensions and direct fighting as a threat to its stability and Vision 2030 economic diversification projects.
Still, both the Saudis and the Houthis appear committed to advancing peace talks independent of broader geopolitical issues—a promising sign for the region. Saudi and Iranian officials are reportedly passing messages regularly, with Riyadh sharing U.S. messages while also likely hoping to decrease misunderstandings with its regional rival. For their part, the Houthis could view the latest stage of the Yemen war and current geopolitical instability as reinforcing the importance of talks with Riyadh—at least for now—as they utilize fighting with the West to boost support inside.
Grasping at Straws
There is much less clarity surrounding President Joe Biden’s thought process in deciding to carry out the strike. While some will argue that striking the group was Washington’s least bad option, the details seem more complex and more concerning. Rather than reflecting a well-thought-out approach indicative of Biden’s national security priorities and stated interest in avoiding escalation, U.S. officials appear to be struggling to concoct real solutions to the ever-worsening situation in the region.
Recent comments from U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan encapsulate this dynamic. During the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 16, Sullivan pushed back on criticism surrounding the strikes, explaining, “We did not say when we launched our attacks, [the Houthis] are gonna end [their attacks] once and for all.” Rather, the Biden administration expected Houthi strikes to continue in the Red Sea—as most analysts predicted they would.
Indeed, Sullivan appeared to downplay deterrence as a justification for the strikes, suggesting that the administration conducted the strike to retain credibility—or perhaps to prevent Israel from taking unilateral action, given Tel Aviv’s threats against the Houthis. Yet such credibility arguments make little sense, given that the decision to strike directly undermined Blinken’s call for regional calm the previous day. Regional actors already hedging their relationships with the great powers may understandably view these strikes as an extension of the long-running, disjointed, and self-contradictory U.S. foreign policy of the last several decades. Such uncertainty is poisonous for America’s foreign relations, as the Trump administration proved—and as then-presidential candidate Biden rightly condemned.
The unfortunate reality is that the Biden administration appears to be grasping at straws. Administration officials have made proposal after proposal to rein in the conflict, while refusing to consider the only realistic solution: a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and an explicit commitment to establish a Palestinian state. Task Force 153, while an understandable response to the Houthis’ actions in an effort to protect maritime shipping, is fundamentally a knee-jerk reaction aimed at solving a symptom instead of a root cause. Some would argue the Houthis are themselves the root cause, but the reality is much less simple when considering Arab solidarity with Palestine and the real or superficial actions of regional stakeholders operating within and around that solidarity to advance Palestinian interests or their own. This reality is either lost on officials in Washington or ignored, with potentially disastrous results.
Ultimately, U.S. policymakers must understand that the much-feared “regional escalation” is already here. As Iran begins directly bombing the Islamic State (IS) and alleged Israeli intelligence assets across the region for the first time since October 7 and following the worst terror attack against it since the 1979 revolution, the Middle East has been gripped with greater and greater uncertainty. Under these conditions, America’s credibility can and should be couched in soft power and the ability to create peace, not war. If Biden and his team continue to espouse outdated approaches to the region, he will simultaneously risk a brutal regional conflict and, in turn, his own re-election. He would be wise to consider these risks, especially given the high stakes of the 2024 election. If Donald Trump were re-elected as president, after all, the Middle East would be the least of America’s problems.
On December 29, 2023, Turkey’s most storied football teams, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, planned to play the Turkish Super Cup final at Al Awwal Park at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Cup occurs annually between the winners of the Süper Lig, Turkey’s most prestigious football cup, and the Turkish Cup. Because this year’s Super Cup took place between two fierce rivals and coincided with the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of the Turkish Republic, the game was highly anticipated.
Saudi Arabia sought to host the game on its territory to increase its brand value and economic benefits. This would not be the first time for the Super Cup to occur abroad; the match was played in Germany from 2006 through 2008 and in Qatar in 2021. However, the match day saw unexpected tension within Saudi Arabia, eventually escalating to the match’s cancellation and the two teams’ return to Turkey.
Slogans Spawn Controversy
Soon before the match, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe supporters had planned to bring banners to the game that displayed quotes from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s modern founder, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the republic. Fenerbahçe planned to showcase the words “Peace at home, peace in the world,” while Galatasaray intended to present the quote, “How happy is he who can say, ‘I am a Turk.’” However, the Saudi authorities prevented supporters from carrying the banners into the stadium. Moreover, the players were forbidden from entering the pitch while wearing T-shirts bearing Atatürk’s image. Although the Saudi authorities accepted the singing of the Turkish national anthem and flying the Turkish flag, their apparent hostility to Atatürk, led both sides to publish a joint statement announcing the postponement of the game.
Atatürk’s statement, “Peace at home and peace in the world,” was interpreted by some observers as a reference to the conflict in Gaza. Though the meaning of the phrase in this context is ambiguous, it was reported that the Saudi organizers did not want to create the appearance of endorsing either side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, this slogan might not necessarily refer to Gaza at all, as some Kemalists use Atatürk’s statements simply to show their support for the founder of modern Turkey.
However, Saudi TV channels cited international rules and regulations as pretext for the ban. Riyadh Season, the organizing company, stated: “We were looking forward to holding the match on time in accordance with the international soccer rules and regulations that require the sport to be presented without any slogans outside its scope, especially since this was discussed with the Turkish Football Federation in the framework of the preparatory meetings for the match. Despite this agreement, it was unfortunate that the two teams did not adhere to what had been agreed upon, which led to the match not being held.”
Failing to Contain Controversy
Neither the Turkish public nor the media interpreted the banner ban as a silencing of support for Gaza and the Palestinians. Nor did they focus on the minutiae governing international football regulations. Instead, Turkish media, political figures, and the public honed in on Saudi Arabia’s refusal to display Atatürk’s image and his statements—presenting the Saudi reaction as an insult to Turkey’s founder himself. Indeed, a poll taken shortly after the incident showed that almost 55 percent of Turks believed that Saudi Arabia had intentionally disrespected Atatürk and Turkish national values. In some corners, this reaction predictably escalated to anti-Arab racism, including among the disgruntled crowd at the canceled game itself.
Some Turks also argued that the teams’ management hierarchies deserved a portion of the blame for the way that events had unfolded. Ali Koç, a member of Turkey’s wealthiest family and the chairman of Fenerbahçe, came under harsh criticism from some media outlets, which noted that his tenure as the club’s leader had been spectacularly unsuccessful. Critics have argued that the crisis amounted to a cheap and easy way for Koç to win favor with the public—and divert attention away from his own failures—as Atatürk remains revered by many Turks and is also protected by law. Koç’s appeal to Turkish patriotism during the incident may simply be a ploy to increase his popularity among the youthful fanbase of his club, rather than a genuine defense of Turkish values.
Regardless of how the Turks view the debacle, what is clear is that Saudi Arabia has emerged as the biggest loser from the ordeal; through the unnecessarily strict enforcement of international football regulations, it spurned the chance to host a major sporting event in a Saudi stadium and caused a minor international incident in the process. Although Riyadh Season can convincingly argue that it was following the letter of the law in its decision, the incident will likely cause Saudi Arabia to reexamine its policy of hosting sports and mega-events, which is a major pillar of its economic diversification strategy. As one host country of the 2034 FIFA World Cup, Saudi Arabia will surely find itself at the center of many controversies in the future. Therefore, Saudi football authorities must find ways to deal with international criticism in a constructive way.
Football and the rivalries that grace the sport have long been tied to politics. This connection is likely to cause considerable discomfort to Saudi leaders in the years ahead. As Saudi Arabia hosts a growing number of international events, it will increasingly find itself dealing with uncomfortable political messages, including its regional and domestic policies. How the authorities react to criticism will prove a significant test for Riyadh; neighboring Qatar, which hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2022, faced opprobrium from around the world after it attempted to ban pro-LGBTQ messaging from its stadiums. Considering the potential for negative diplomatic fallout, the Saudis should have clear guidelines about how foreign players, teams, and audiences may avoid crossing the Kingdom’s red lines. However, Riyadh must also learn to cut its losses and accept some level of discomfort. In the instance of the messages that Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray wanted to broadcast at the stadium, it is clear that Saudi Arabia should tolerate them.
Cooler Heads Prevail
The Turkish authorities deserve credit for attempting to calm passions surrounding the incident and heading off a potential diplomatic crisis. To avoid a bilateral crisis, the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) announced that the match had been “postponed to a later date as a result of the joint decision we took with our Clubs due to some problems in the organization.” The TFF’s follow-up statement did not name Saudi Arabia by name, instead stating that: it “We would like to thank the Football Federation, relevant institutions and organizations of the host country for their efforts for the organization of the Super Cup so far.”
Of course, the TFF’s reserved statement follows important geopolitical developments. Saudi Arabia, of course, had only recently restored full diplomatic relations with Turkey. Nevertheless, Turkish institutions and media remained steadfast in their support for Atatürk. As they covered the crisis, Turkish media organizations published statements praising Turkey’s founder— condemning his detractors in the same breath. Saudi Arabia may be wise to consider this incident a wakeup call for future contingencies, in which appearing to demean another nation’s cherished historical figures could precipitate a far more serious international crisis.
While sports and mega events form an excellent way to diversify the Saudi economy and open the country to the outside world, the country’s leaders must not dismiss the potential ramifications from snafus like the Turkish Super Cup final. Considering Saudi Arabia’s unique domestic situation and its regional and global ambitions, new controversies are almost certain to arise as international attention is paid to the Kingdom. Athletics—especially such popular sports as football—cannot be divorced from politics. And while Turkey has largely allowed the tensions surrounding the match to dissipate, other governments may not be so benevolent.