Iran vs. Saudi Arabia: A New Middle Eastern Cold War

Apr 30th, 2011 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview

Last week, Iran and Egypt?s new government signaled they were moving quickly to thaw decades of frosty relations.  Iran said it appointed an ambassador to Egypt for the first time since the two sides froze diplomatic relations more than three decades ago.  Both the US and Israel are deeply concerned that such moves indicate that Egypt is reordering its foreign policy, which could further empower Iran and its regional clients Hamas and Hezbollah.  For decades, Egypt was a vital player in the regional balance of power.  With its large population, US-financed military and diplomatic ties with Israel, it was a counterweight against both Iran and Syria.  If this shift goes forward, it will also impact the role of Saudi Arabia as the chief counterweight to Iran.

This shifting balance of power in the Middle East is perhaps magnified in the ongoing struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  Let me summarize the depths of this struggle.

  • First, Iran has longed pursued a nuclear program that both the US and Saudi Arabia contend is aimed at producing nuclear weapons.  Were this to occur, Saudi Arabia may need to pursue its own nuclear program.  The Saudis have relied on the US nuclear umbrella and on antimissile defense systems deployed throughout the Persian Gulf region.  These systems are intended to intercept Iranian ballistic missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads in the not too distant future.  This basic balance, with Saudi Arabia relying on the US, could break down if indeed Iran acquires nuclear weapons.
  • Second, there is a basic difference in the type of Islam represented in each nation.  Saudi Arabia is a Sunni kingdom, while Iran is the world?s leading Shiite kingdom.  These differences exacerbate the ongoing struggle between Arabs and Persians for control of land and resources.  The holiest sites of Islam (Mecca and Medina) are under the care of Saudi Arabia.  The holiest sites of Shiite Islam are overseen by Iran.
  • Third, they differ in terms of geopolitical arrangements.  Iran has strong allies in Syria and of course Hamas and Hezbollah.  Saudi Arabia has close allies in the Persian Gulf emirates and monarchies, Morocco, Egypt and the Fatah organization of the Palestinian Authority.  As reporters Bill Spindle and Margaret Coker argue, ?The Saudi camp is pro-Western and leans toward tolerating the state of Israel.  The Iranian grouping thrives on its reputation in the region as a scrappy ?resistance? camp, defiantly opposed to the West and Israel.?  In addition, both prefer to work through ?proxy politicians and covertly funded militias, as they famously did during the long Lebanese civil war in the late 1970s and 1980s, when Iran helped to hatch Hezbollah among the Shiites while the Saudis backed Sunni militias.?  Even as far away as Indonesia, Iranian clerics are expanding their activities.
  • Finally, the Saudis view much of the current unrest in the Middle East as Iranian meddling.  For that reason, the Saudis have helped in Bahrain, where many Shiites openly nurture cultural and religious ties to Iran.  Iran uses ?state media and the regional Arab-language satellite channels its supports to depict the pro-democracy uprisings as latter-day manifestations of its own revolution in 1979.?  Nothing of course could be further from the truth.  Iran is not interested in democracy, only in fomenting more unrest so that it can take advantage of the unrest.  But neither are the Saudis interested in democracy.  So, the two giants of the Middle East come to the same conclusion but from very different perspectives.  Saudi Arabia will remain pro-western and will remain the principal bulwark against Iran in the Middle East.  There will remain a ?cold war? of sorts between Iran and Saudi Arabia.  But neither of these giants is that secure.  Major changes could be sweeping through the Middle East with tremendous uncertainty about where it will all end.

See Spindle and Coker?s very helpful essay in the Wall Street Journal (16-17 April 2011) and Matt Bradley on Egypt in ibid. (19 April 2011). PDF

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