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Cold War in the Land of Oil

Ever since oil became the defining energy source for wartime militaries during World War Two, the world’s politically and economically dominant nations have done their best to control those nations where oil is located. This control was originally achieved through arrangements that were essentially colonial n nature. The host governments in the oil-rich nations agreed to deals whereby the colonialist nations of the Global North removed, refined and shipped the oil under the Middle Eastern countries’ surface. In return, they paid a small percentage of their profits to the host government while keeping the bulk of the profits for their own. Prices were set by the companies of the Global North and subject to their needs.

At the end of World War Two, Iran and Saudi Arabia sat at the top of this arrangement. British interests maintained control of Iranian production while US interests controlled that of Saudi Arabia. Things would change fairly quickly after the war ended. Britain was no longer the most powerful empire, while the United States was rapidly replacing Britain’s role. In addition, the Soviet Union was trying to expand its reach in the hope of defending its borders from the expanding reach of imperial Washington. In addition, the people of Iran were tired of their poverty in the shadows of the potential riches its oil could provide. By the beginning of 1953, Iranian oil had been nationalized and by the end of 1953, the US Central Intelligence Agency had overthrown the elected government of Iran and reinstated the monarchy in the guise of the Shah. This act would be a determining factor in Middle Eastern and US history for decades to come.

By placing the nations of Iran and Saudi Arabia at the center of his book Cold War in the Islamic World, author Dilip Hiro provides the reader with a perspective rarely found in most texts regarding the Middle East. Given that the fundamental reason for the economic and political status of these nations is the value of their resources, the rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran always has the potential to create a conflagration that could destroy the world. As Hiro’s text makes clear, the relationship between the two nations and with the United States is a story of political and religious rivalry, revolution and autocracy, double-talk and diplomacy. It is a history not just of two nations and their governments, but of those two nations’ power over their neighbors—friends and enemies. Cold War in the Islamic World describes the birth of the fundamentalist Wahabbist religion that rules Saudi Arabia and the revolutionary Shia doctrine that determines so much of Iran’s present.

In telling the story of these doctrines, the reader is taken through the labyrinth of Islamic politics and its manifestations in Middle Eastern governments and movements. Hiro discusses in detail the support from Iran and Saudi Arabia given to the Afghan governments of the past fifty years and to the forces mobilized to destroy those governments. The method in which he describes that history of reform, reaction, Shia and Sunni, civil and imperial war, is remarkable in its clear discussion of the twists and turns involved. The military and political support of different factions in Yemen is also discussed in the light of what Hiro terms the Islamic Cold War between these regional powers. While Hiro’s history of Iran is one of coups and revolutionary upheaval, his history of Saudi Arabia is more or less a narrative of palace intrigue. This does not mean one is more genuine than the other, nor does it mean one or the other is more important. Indeed, Hiro’s narrative makes clear that these essential differences in governance inform the rivalry between the two nations as much as their religious differences.

As the narrative closes in on the present period, Tehran’s support of Egypt’s Arab Spring and it’s ultimate defense of the Syrian government’s violent repression of that nation’s protests is described. Likewise, Saudi Arabia’s role in crushing the Arab spring in Egypt and manipulating the rebellion in Syria is discussed in similar detail. Similarly, Hiro weaves the story of the Saudi role in Yemen into his discussion. Furthermore, Hiro notes that the current trend in the relations between Riyadh and Tehran seems to point towards an intensification of their conflict. He surmises that this can be traced directly to US political and economic pressures and promises- the former in the sanctions on Iran and the latter in the ongoing favorable arms deals with Saudi Arabia. In addition, Tel Aviv’s role in the region seems to be expanding as the right-wing government of Netanyahu intensifies its manipulative alliance with Riyadh.

Hiro has written a detailed and well-researched history of the Saudi and Iranian relationship. Although it is at times a bit short on the global politics that inform this relationship, Cold War in the Islamic World more than compensates for that in its painstaking detail and nuanced portrayal of the complex history of these nations, their relationship and its consequences for the region and the world at large.