"The Saudi-Iranian Cold War"
Op-Ed, Agence Global
October 19, 2011
Author: Rami Khouri, Senior Fellow, Middle East Initiative
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Dubai Initiative
BOSTON -- As the Middle East continues to experience one of its most tumultuous moments of structural changes in several generations, and countries reconfigure both their domestic power structures as well as their intra-regional relations, we can expect much of the diplomatic maneuvering to revolve around the axes of two major ideological confrontations: the Arab-Israeli conflict and the invigorated Saudi Arabian-Iranian confrontation. It remains unclear if the national interests of both countries genuinely are threatened by the other, or we simply have mediocre leaderships using the exaggerated threat of the other and its own vulnerability to turn a local feud into a major axis of region-wide tensions and some active proxy warfare here and there.
I tend to believe the latter case is true, that Saudi Arabia and Iran do not really pose existential or serious security threats to each other because of their policies or intentions, but their rivalry has assumed regional proportions for some other reasons that remain unclear. The latest exacerbation was the American government’s announcement last week that it had foiled an alleged plot by Iranian officials to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. This follows nearly a decade in which the Saudi Arabian government has increased its rhetorical and political opposition to the Iranian government, and has even taken military action in places to stop what it sees as an Iranian threat to nibble around the peripheries of the Arab world.
Concerned about Iranian encroachment into Iraq following the Anglo-American overthrow of the former Baathist regime, and extensive Iranian strategic relations in Syria and Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Saudis have sounded the alarm for years about the threat of growing Iranian or Shiite influence across the Arab world. When the Shiite-dominate demonstrations for greater power-sharing and democracy erupted in Bahrain last Spring, and threatened to bring down or weaken the power of the Sunni ruling family, the Saudis panicked and sent in a symbolic military force to stop the situation from getting out of hand. They accused the Iranians of promoting the uprising in Bahrain, and vowed to crush it. This followed other examples of where Saudi political or military assistance was used to check the spread of Iranian influence through Arab friends or proxies, in Lebanon, Yemen, Palestine and Iraq, most prominently.
The Saudis are quoted on record as saying, as one of their officials told the Wall Street Journal Monday, that Iran “is a direct and imminent threat not only to [Saudi] kingdom, but to Sunnis across the region. They have shown this time and time again, in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. If Washington can’t protect our interests in the region, we’ll have to do it ourselves.”
Many observers of the region are not as convinced as the Saudi leadership that Iran is a real threat to Arab national interests or to Arab Sunnis, and therefore must be checked. Regardless of whether the Saudis are justified or not, their striking transition -- from concerns about Iranian policy to an outright dynamic political and military strategy to check Iran across the region -- is not a single issue process, but rather seems to reflect multiple layers of confrontation, concern and antagonism.
The Saudis seem to express the main battle lines in terms of Sunni-Shiite competition for dominance in the region, which has become an issue since the Iraq war opened the way for greater Iranian contacts, alliances and influence in Iraq. At another level, there is an older layer of Arab-Persian tensions that is national in character rather than religious. A third factor is the Iranian government’s policy of trying to export revolution around the region, which has largely failed. Only the strong relations with Hizbullah reflect any Iranian success in forging strong links with Arab groups, before the door was opened for them to walk into Iraq in force. Iran supports Arab Islamist movements (both Sunni and Shiite ones) that challenge the prevailing Sunni orders, while Saudi Arabia now projects itself as the guardian of that Sunni-dominated status quo. There is also tension between these two Gulf powers because of their opposing views of the role of the United States in the region, with Iran opposing American involvement and Saudi Arabia welcoming strong and close American strategic support.
This rivalry and open confrontation seems to be driven more from the Saudi than the Iranian side for the moment, because the Saudis feel more vulnerable that the world as they know it is threatened with change. Their ferocious response, relative to their traditional low-key style of diplomacy, is a sign that they feel genuinely in danger and will take the initiative to protect themselves, which is likely to elicit Iranian responses of some sort. A new regional cold war is taking shape, adding to the threats the region already faces from the repercussions of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global
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