The Politics of the Cold War Between Iran and Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia and Iran are bitter rivals for power and influence in the Middle East and are engaged in a cold war in which proxy warfare is the preferred mode of conflict. Earlier, in 2008 Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah had famously called for the United States to “cut the head off the snake” by bombing Iran.

Today, Saudi Arabia and Iran back opposing sides in wars and have rival interests and alliances across the Middle East. Iran seeks leadership of the minority Shias, while Saudi Arabia considers itself as the natural leader of the majority Sunnis. Very often these regional conflicts see Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran supporting different factions that are often split down sectarian lines. Clearly, the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are also a struggle for religious authority in the Middle East.

Today, relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have deteriorated to a new historic low.

Very recently, Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince called the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “the new Hitler of the Middle East”, suggesting Iran’s expansion needed to be confronted. Earlier, Prince Mohammad said that the kingdom would make sure any future struggle between the two countries “is waged in Iran”.

The current unrest in Iran is adding to the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The protests began on Dec. 28, 2017 after the Iranian government announced plans to raise fuel prices and cut monthly cash handouts to lower-income Iranians.  These protests had initially focused on economic issues but later turned into wider anti-government sentiment. Clearly, Iran’s foreign interventions, along with falling oil prices, have tightened the flow of cash needed to support the national economy, which already suffered from high youth unemployment. Undoubtedly, Iran has its own domestic challenges to contend with. The current unrest has led to the death of 22 people. On January 7, 2018 Iran’s powerful Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said that the regime has ended the wave of unrest linked to the protests which has led to the death of 22 people.

As expected, Iran’s leaders are blaming Saudi Arabia, among others, for the current unrest in the country Iranian Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said on January 4, 2018 that the CIA and Israel’s Mossad were backing the protests as part of an alleged Saudi-financed plot to destabilize Iran. On January 5, 2018 Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused Saudi Arabia and the United States of colluding with the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) to “endorse violence, death and destruction in Iran.” Zarif stated on January 8, 2018 that the Saudi-led military invasion of Yemen is “one of the key factors creating tension in the region,” adding that after engaging in 33 months of futile warfare, the invaders should have come to the realization that Yemen’s crisis will require a political solution, and that negotiation and consensus alone can contribute to the ultimate resolution of the situation.

Meanwhile, confrontation with Iran is a popular cause in Saudi Arabia and most of its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council. Undoubtedly, recent Iranian expansionism has rattled Saudi Arabia. Iran has gained influence in the region as a Shia zone of influence was successfully established in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen which stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to Tehran. Russia has assisted Iran in this development. Earlier, in 2016, Saudi Arabia’s strongman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had sounded the alarm and talked of the danger of the rise of the Shia zone and further warned of Iran’s influence in Sudan, Pakistan and Djibouti.

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron has accused the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia of instigating a war as their mutual foe, Iran, was rocked by protests. On January 3, 2018 he called for dialogue with Tehran and criticized three of his international partners for pursuing what he considered bellicose policies toward a country the trio have increasingly sought to isolate and undermine in recent years.

Though Saudi Arabian media has eagerly carried news of the unrest in Iran, the government has kept its silence on the matter. Undoubtedly, Saudis are quietly acting through their proxies to combat Iran. Saudi Arabia, along with the United States is attempting to isolate Iran diplomatically and is very supportive of Trump admiration’s attempts to place Iran with new sanctions over its missile program and backing for groups designed as foreign terrorist organizations.

Earlier, Saudi Arabia convened its Arab League allies in Cairo for an emergency meeting to discuss what it said were “violations” in the region. The group criticized Iran and its Lebanese Shi’ite ally Hezbollah and called for a united front to counter Iranian interference. “The kingdom will not stand by and will not hesitate to defend its security,” Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir told the assembly.

Iran’s increasing support for Shiite militias is well-documented. Lebanese Hezbollah has evolved into a central pillar of Iran’s capability against Israel. The Hezbollah even provides ground forces to bolster the Assad regime in Syria. Iran has played a vital role in helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies overcome a 2011 uprising by jihadis and rebels, some of whom were backed by Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s support for mostly Shiite Muslim militias in Syria and Iraq helped put an end to the territorial expansion of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), but also gave Iran a larger foothold across the region, stretching from Tehran through Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.

In Iraq the Iranian-backed militias have been provided with Iranian air support, artillery, electronic warfare equipment and medical support. Badr, the main Shiite militia in Iraq, fought as a military division in the Iranian order of battle during the Iran-Iraq War. Badr now leads Iraq’s largest security institution, the half-million Ministry of Interior, and the Shia militias are being formed into a proto-ministry that resembles their patron, IRGC.

In a surprising move Saudi Arabia reached out to Israel to thwart the rising power of Iran, which they both fear and resent. On January 7, 2018, Israel’s energy minister confirmed that there had been what he called “covert” contacts between Saudi Arabia and Israel amid concerns over Iran but suggested that Saudi Arabia had wanted to keep “the ties quiet,”

Israel views Saudi Arabia as a natural ally due to their mutual enmity for Iran. Israel has labeled Iran an existential threat. Regional developments are now establishing an informal axis between the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Both countries were vicious critics of former President Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and have been proponents of President Donald Trump’s efforts to scrap it. Also, both Israel and Saudi Arabia have opposed Iranian support for foreign political and militant movements across the region. Iran was crucial in creating and supporting the powerful Lebanese Shia Muslim movement Hezbollah, which twice forced Israel into a stalemate in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia is destabilizing the region as it now involves the United States and Russia backing opposite sides. In Syria, Iran and Russia have consistently backed Assad; while Saudi Arabia is supporting rebel groups.  While, the United States fought against the Islamic State, it did not oppose the Assad regime in any meaningful manner. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has waged war against the country’s Houthi rebels, complete with a blockade of the country and airstrikes. The United States backs Saudi Arabia in its Yemen intervention.  More than 10,000 civilians have died in the conflict. In Iraq, the Saudi Arabia and Iran are at odds over efforts to rebuild after the collapse of the Islamic State.

In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia opposes Iran’s ally Hezbollah, which has wide influence in the country. However, the Saudis have failed in their attempt to contain the Hezbollah and Iranian influence in the country. Seemingly, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry has become the organizing principle for future Mideast alliances, with the United Sates backing Saudi Arabia and Russia backing Iran, and others taking sides.

The Iranian hardliners wish to continue their expansionist policy in the region. Further Iranian advances shall translate into an escalation of the confrontation with Saudi Arabia.  The conflict in Yemen between forces loyal to the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, a Sunni, and those allied to the Shia Houthi rebels is largely a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Earlier, in 2009, Riyadh had launched a short, failed military campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. This led to Saudi Arabian, Jordanian and UAE support for the anti-Houthi militias in Yemen. The Saudi Coalition airstrikes began in March 2015 in response to Houthi rebels’ seizing control of much of Yemen in late 2014. The Houthi uprising forced Hadi to flee abroad in March 2015 which led to the start of Saudi airstrikes. Saudi Arabia desires to restore the Hadi government while Iran backs the Shia Houthi rebels loyal to the country’s former President Ali Abdulla Saleh, who was killed very recently by Houthi rebels.  Today, the Houthis are inflicting heavy damage on the Saudi military, seizing terrain in southern Saudi Arabia and firing missiles at military bases deep within the kingdom. Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of backing the Houthis. Now the Gulf States are building up new proxy forces in Yemen to assist in the Saudi-led military campaign against the Houthis.

Meanwhile, Yemen’s destitute civilian population has been caught in the middle of the conflict.  The starved population has been pushed to the brink of famine and is facing the world’s worst cholera epidemic. Since March 2015, the Yemen war has claimed 10,000 victims with 20 million more in dire need of assistance. The Yemen intervention is proving costly for Saudi Arabia. Given the lack of a credible alternative, the Yemeni conflict shall continue..

Saudi Arabia also accuses Iran of intervention in majority-Shia Bahrain, where the pro-Saudi Sunni Muslim royal family blames Iran-backed militants for fermenting unrest in the past and also recent terrorist incidents.

The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran will continue unabated in the future, leading to further regional chaos. Iran is bent on a costly military buildup and is projecting its influence in the region. It has largely accomplished a decrease in Saudi Arabia’s regional influence and therefore thwarted a direct attack from its rival. Overall, the region will be further destabilized. Most likely, the current battlegrounds in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Pakistan and Lebanon shall continue to exist in the future. While, the existing pattern of proxy warfare between Iran and Saudi Arabia shall intensify, the possibility of a direct clash remains unimaginable.

Dr. Sohail Mahmood is Chairman of the Department of Politics & International Relations at International Islamic University, Islamabad.

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