Understanding The Middle East: The Iran-Saudi Proxy War

Iran-Saudi Proxy War: Understanding The Conflict Tearing Apart The Middle East

With the snick of a sword, the long-simmering cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran heated up significantly at the beginning of 2016. A month later, and the first attempt at a major negotiation over the fate of Syria was on the verge of failing as soon as it began, Al Jazeera reported Sunday. Both of the Middle East’s theocratic heavyweights cynically see more to be gained in their proxy war, dooming hundreds of thousands to turmoil, conflict, suffering and death.

When a Saudi executioner lopped off Shiite Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr‘s head on January 2nd for advocating peaceful Shia protest against the rule of the House of Saud, it set a new stage in the Middle East’s most high-stakes clash. Rioters attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran, setting fires. Saudi Arabia and several of its allies ended diplomatic relations with Iran. The Persian Gulf’s two Titans — who hold sway over the world’s most lucrative oil fields, and Islam’s heartlands — slouch toward greater confrontation. The tit-for-tat continues, in various ways, with no end in sight.

The timing of the execution is impossible to ignore. Nimr’s execution was timed to occur just before “Implementation Day.” On Jan. 17, the JCPOA, or the nuclear deal negotiated between Iran and the US and world powers kicked in, and sanctions were lifted. The execution’s timing and ceasing diplomatic relations may have been a desperate attempt to torpedo the deal. It was, at least, a warning to Tehran that, while much of the world may see Iran as coming in from the diplomatic cold, Riyadh does not.

Balance Of Power in the Middle East Locks The Theocratic Heavyweights In Confrontation.

The most fundamental root of this conflict is the balance of power between the two states. Before the 20th Century, the Arabian peninsula was a geopolitical backwater. But the Persian Plateau is a fertile and naturally defensible terrain from which empires have launched and receded throughout the long arc of history. Saudi Arabia is terrified that it will lose control over the price of oil with the rise of Russian natural gas and Western tar sands, and it will have to raise drastically taxes and cut benefits, leading to the kind of domestic turmoil that other Arab countries saw in the Arab Spring.

The Saudis also fear that, meanwhile, Iran will integrate its much larger population into the world economy and once again eclipse the Arabs. Iran is also seeking the deal on its nuclear program with world powers to improve its diplomacy and trade, in direct conflict with Saudi Arabia’s goals. Both have dealt with this confrontation primarily by aggressively seeking greater influence in neighboring countries, and seeking to block the influence of the other, by force or through proxies. This has exploded into proxy war in countries across the Middle East, and violent political intrigue in others.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have jockeyed for primacy in the Persian Gulf (or Arabian Gulf if you ask the Saudis) region for decades. This has been true since the discovery of oil in the 1930s and the rise of the Saudi kingdom as a major Western client following the World Wars. And it was true even in the 1960s and 1970s when both Saudi Arabia and Iran were US allies and the State Department couldn’t ease their rivalry. The tension increased after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini saw Shia Islamism as a way of exporting the regime’s revolutionary ideology and described monarchy as un-Islamic. The Saudis saw this as a threat.

In the 1980s, the devastating Iran-Iraq war kept Iran’s influence in check. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq also served as a buffer state between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The secular Ba’ath parties in Iraq and Syria checked the spread of both Sunni and Shia Islamism. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 set events into motion that destroyed these safeguards between the two heavyweights. After the US dismissed Iraq’s Ba’ath government, Saudi-backed Sunni militias, and al Qaeda slugged it out with Iran-backed Shia militias. This was the beginning of the worst sectarian violence in Islam in centuries.

Iran won the proxy war in Iraq. Even before the US left Iraq, Tehran’s control over Baghdad was a fait accompli. After the US left, the Iraqi government shoved Sunnis out of power and began cracking down on them. This created the political space for the further radicalization of a splinter of al Qaeda into DAESH and its swift conquest of Iraq’s Sunni areas.

President Barack Obama came into office with a promise to a war-weary American populace to pull American soldiers out of Iraq. The Obama administration abandoned a 30-year-old policy of close alliance with the Sunni Gulf states and seeking to contain and isolate Iran. This was dealing with reality, as Iran’s growing influence in the aftermath of the Iraq war made the policy untenable. Under Obama, the US now pursues a policy of trying to reduce its role in the Middle East, while encouraging a balance of power between all the major power centers in the region, especially Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, and Iran.

The nuclear deal between Iran and the US and world powers is the latest episode in this saga. Obama was wise to eliminate Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb, and the potentially catastrophic instability that would have created.

But the view from Riyadh is that it came at a dire price. As sanctions are lifted, Iran will seek to improve its economic and diplomatic position. At the same time, Saudi Arabia faces economic and political uncertainty at home. Iran is rising as Saudi Arabia is falling and the result is likely to be greater tension in the Saudi-Iran cold war, not less.

While Iraq and Syria are the main battlefields of the Saudi-Iran cold war, their struggle has spread to other places, and now nearly consumes the entire Middle East.

Iran and Saudi’s Proxy War in the Middle East: Continued on next page …

Marc Belisle is the Reverb Press World Affairs Editor. He is a writer, activist and teacher. He has a Master’s degree in International Conflict Analysis from the Brussels School of International Studies. READ MORE BY MARC.

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Marc Belisle is the Reverb Press World Affairs Editor. He is a writer, activist and teacher. He has a Master’s degree in International Conflict Analysis from the Brussels School of International Studies. READ MORE BY MARC.

ReverbPress Mobile Apps ReverbPress iOS App ReverbPress Android App ReverbPress App