A cold war re-emerges

Jerusalem Post, 21/10/2011

The underlying strategic contours of the Middle East remain largely unchanged; the contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia remains central.

Winston Churchill, speaking in the British House of Commons in 1922, discussed the transformative effect of the 1914-18 war on Europe. “Great empires have been overturned,” he said. “The whole map has changed, the modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs.” But, he continued, “as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.” Churchill was referring to the durability of the Irish question.

A sense of the weary re-emergence of previous patterns is apparent also in the revelations of the Iranian plot to kill Saudi ambassador Adel Jubair in Washington. The plot’s revelation casts the spotlight on a crucial fact underlying the upheavals that have shaken the Arab world this year: Namely, for all the sound and fury that the ‘Arab Spring’ has wrought, the underlying strategic contours of the Middle East remain largely unchanged. As the wave of popular discontent begins to draw back, so these structures are once again becoming apparent.

The contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia formed the central dynamic in the larger regional cold war which has defined the Middle East in recent years. Iran has sought very publicly in recent years to build its regional popularity through enmity toward Israel. But the primary strategic ambitions of the Islamic Republic are directed not westward toward the Mediterranean – but rather southward, toward the Persian Gulf. Iran is the most populous country of the Gulf region, with the largest army. It sees domination of this area as a matter of manifest destiny. Tehran seeks to replace the United States as the guarantor of the security of Gulf energy routes. This ambition by its very nature brings it into a situation of conflict with the main beneficiary of that American guarantee – the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

This core geo-strategic basis to Iranian-Saudi enmity is reinforced and deepened by the stark sectarian and ideological divide between the two countries. Saudi Arabia holds to an ultra-conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam which demonizes Shia Muslims.

Riyadh has long scorned the Iranian regime as a purveyor of fitna (discord) in the Muslim world.

Ayatollah Khomeini, meanwhile, described the Saudi monarchy unambiguously as “heretics” and “vile and ungodly Wahhabis.”

Saudi-Iranian rivalries have underlain a number of recent central events in the region – some related to the so-called “Arab Spring,” some clearly separate.

When the Shia majority in Bahrain proved restive, the Saudis discerned Iranian fingerprints. A new regime in Bahrain aligned with Tehran would mean Iranian control of the western littoral of the Persian Gulf. The uprising was also interpreted as the beginning of an Iranian attempt to spread Shia sedition southwards toward the majority Shia Saudi eastern province. The Saudis led a military expedition to crush the revolt in its infancy.

In Syria, the Saudis see the uprising as an attempt by a Sunni Arab people to throw off the yoke of an Iran-backed, heretical regime.

Through his maternal line, Saudi King Abdullah has close kinship ties with Sunni clans in Syria.

Riyadh discerns a strategic opportunity in Assad’s current travails.

The Iranians too understand the disastrous implications for them of the danger to the Assad regime, and are consequently making every effort to preserve it. The Saudis were the first Arab country to remove their ambassador from Syria, and to denounce Assad.

There are reports of Saudi links to radical Sunni preachers in Syria.

In Lebanon, of course, members of the Iranian client Hezbollah organization are wanted by the tribunal investigating the 2005 murder of Saudi citizen and former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al- Hariri. The Saudi-backed March 14 movement in the country was eclipsed by the pro-Iranian forces after a brief clash in May/June 2008. Yet, by backing the opposition to the Assad regime in Syria, Riyadh hopes to cut Hezbollah off from its hinterland and source of weaponry, leaving it dangerously isolated on the Mediterranean.

In Iraq, with the US set to leave, the Saudis and the Iranians are once again set to face each other.

The Shia-led government in Baghdad already enjoys close relations with Tehran. Iran also sponsors powerful Shia militia groups.

Riyadh, meanwhile, has actively funded Sunni insurgents. The presence of US troops in Iraq was a disincentive to more overt support.

With an increasingly pro-Iranian Shia government in Baghdad this disincentive will no longer apply.

The Iranians are by far the stronger of the two rivals. They have compromised their ‘brand’ in the Arab world through their support for the Assad regime in Syria. This, however, could be rapidly reversed in the wake of new confrontations with the US or Israel. Their nuclear program is proceeding apace. The Tehran regime looks safe in its seat at home. It still possesses powerful assets across the region.

The Saudis, by contrast, can offer a credible barrier to Iranian ambitions only as part of a larger, de facto alliance including the US and Israel.

The Saudi-Iranian cold war was one of the factors defining the Middle East prior to the upheavals of 2011. It has been a significant element in determining the course of those upheavals so far. In Bahrain and in Syria, the Saudis are winning. Iranian anger and frustration at Riyadh and a desire to strike at it should therefore come as no surprise. As the deluge subsides, the dreary minarets of Riyadh and Tehran are emerging once again.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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