Could Iran and Saudi Arabia’s willingness to use fellow Middle Eastern nations, like Syria and Yemen, as proxies in their conflicts against one another threaten to move the world closer to the brink of an Islamic Cold War?
In their efforts to win the battle to be the dominant regional power within the Gulf and to control the world’s oil markets, the history of the Saudi Arabian and Iranian relationship has taken many forms. With the Saudis claiming the cultural high-ground based on it being the birthplace of Islam and the Arabic language, and the Iranians feeling a cultural supremacy based on civilizational and historical legacy, the animosity each side feels toward the other does not appear destined to wane any time soon. The winding road of the relationship, and the security approaches taken by the two nations, seem to be largely based on Arabic tribal tendencies:
1.A disposition to appease rather than resist a powerful opponent if at all possible, and to avoid irreparable confrontation if a clash is inevitable.
2.A tendency to wait for events to unfold before reacting, rather than seek to anticipate them.
3.A propensity to give priority to immediate, clear demands rather than to long-term strategic considerations when the two come into conflict. (Safran)
Further complicating this relationship in the modern day have been the roles that the United States and Russia play. Both the United States and Russia have played politics within Iran and the surrounding region, supplying many of the weapons and money that have been used in various conflicts. The United States has also been pushing Saudi Arabia for years to strengthen mutual military ties in an effort to gain a bigger foothold in the Middle East. It is the US ‘meddling’ in this way that Iran has repeatedly used as a rallying call for many of the Shia fundamentalists rising up within the region, trying to push out the “Great Satan” and not coincidentally point to Saudi Arabia’s complicity in facilitating this ‘evil’ as an equal transgression.
It is the Syrian conflict, however, that appears to be the key crisis with the biggest global impact. When the Arab Spring moved into Syria the Assad regime came under siege from the majority Sunni community. Seen as an opportunity by Saudi Arabia to weaken the Iranian sphere of influence, it was quick to back Syrian rebels. Iran could not afford the loss of the Assad regime and so it engaged on his behalf. The intervention of both Iran and Saudi Arabia, however, has now seen this civil uprising become a war based on opposing Islamic ideologies and has ultimately fostered the unintentional rise of the Islamo-fascist group, DAESH. Meanwhile, the United States still sits with the ‘original rebels,’ desperately trying to convince everyone to keep the conflict as a purely civil insurrection against the Assad regime. The stakes could not be higher for all sides.
Currently the mass exodus of people from Syria trying to escape the violence threatens both the United States and all nations that are taking in the massive influx of refugees. Lacking even basic infrastructure to properly vet the tens of thousands of refugees flowing across borders, this represents a major threat not only to the immediate region but also to host nations as the oblivious importing of terrorist agents hidden within the refugee population is highly plausible. Currently the Sunni Gulf states have not accepted any of the refugees for just these reasons. With the instability that many of those countries already have at home, they are not keen to now import potentially even more security problems.
Also in January of 2015 Russia and Iran signed a military cooperation deal. According to the Associated Press, Iranian defense minister Hossein Dehghan emphasized that, “Iran and Russia are able to confront the expansionist intervention and greed of the United States through cooperation, synergy and activating strategic potential capacities. … As two neighbors, Iran and Russia have common viewpoints toward political, regional and global issues.” With Russia now moving military capabilities into Syria under the auspices of “fighting DAESH,” this now puts the United States and Russia firmly at odds and potentially face-to-face on the battlefield. Russia, however, does not find itself in quite the quandary that the United States does. Keen to continue its support of Saudi Arabia and not lose control of its relations with the other Gulf States, the United States must continue to engage in the fight against DAESH while still needing to support the Syrian rebels attempting to overthrow the Assad regime. This is the same regime, however, that Russia has declared support for and whom Iran also supports. America and Russia might find themselves in the very situation that they spent decades trying to avoid during the Cold War: direct military engagement against one another.
Aside from the obvious military threat that America now finds itself in, it also finds itself both target and victim of an artificial suppression of oil prices by Saudi Arabia. In a direct assault on American shale oil and natural gas producers, the Saudis have worked to keep production high and prices low. “When the price per barrel remains so low, these ‘alternative’ industries in America…have no choice but to cash in on the opportunity and refocus on its traditional industrial models. This slows down advancement in alternative fuels and repositions the Saudi-American energy juggernaut back into a place of primacy.” (Crosston) Additionally this suppression of oil prices also works to adversely affect Iran. As Dr. Matthew Crosston further states, “There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia enjoys keeping Iran in check and does not wish to see the wanna-be regional hegemon ever truly compete for supremacy in the region. Keeping world oil prices low does this quite succinctly and efficiently, without even having to engage in any verbal or diplomatic animosity with the Shiite Republic.”
Additionally, the recent Iranian nuclear accord (JCPOA) is clearly seen by Saudi Arabia as the biggest threat going forward. The deal paves the way for Iran to aspire to the role as dominant player in the region, leaving Saudi Arabia to feel backed into a corner. The deal also opens up Iran’s pipelines for the sale of oil and the added revenues would allow Tehran to flow even more money into Syria, Hezbollah, and possibly entertain new initiatives in the Gulf (many in Saudi Arabia feel the Houthi rebellion in Yemen is exactly what this kind of initiative could look like). There is almost no scenario where the nuclear agreement and an easing of the strife between the U.S. and Iran can be seen as a good thing for Saudi Arabia. And with many of the negotiations having happened behind closed doors the Saudis have long felt a sense of betrayal. If the situation within the Saudi monarchy worsens in terms of its own internal dissension and unrest, then America could find the royal finger pointed straight at it.
For Tehran the deal with the Americans is a political tightrope. It has an aging military and its economy has been hard hit. So there was tremendous internal pressure to make a deal. With the Russian agreement firmly in hand, Russian troops on their way to shore up Assad, and the nuclear deal struck, Tehran has to at least feel like maybe some breathing room is finally available. What remains to be seen is whether this breathing room is a new opportunity for global assimilation and responsible behavior or simply a respite before beginning in earnest an Islamic Cold War with its hated Wahhabist rival.