in 2009, I was sitting at a lovely breakfast in Al Ain, a small town in the United Arab Emirates, perusing the local newspapers. It was fascinating for its novelty: Jerusalem’s byline was always “OCCUPIED,” U.S. news was page 4 stuff, and the front page carried a headline, in rather understated language, about Saudi Arabia bombing Yemen.
Back then, the Houthi movement, a Yemeni Zaidiyyah militia, was still playing small time games with the Yemeni central government. The Arab Spring had yet to undo the stability we now pine for, and Islamic State’s forerunner, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, was nearly suppressed by a successful American counterinsurgency strategy.
In other words, it made a lot of sense that Saudi Arabia’s incursion back then didn’t garner the headlines it does today.
That’s because conditions have changed in the most dramatic fashion, and the Saudi Arabia vs. Iran cold war has caught fire. For now Riyadh is ready to spend blood and treasure to block Iranian power, an action that needs some explainin’.
First, them lovely cliff notes.
- The Iranian-Saudi conflict is the natural result of an upstart, geographically inferior power (Saudi Arabia) trying to challenge an established, geographically superior power (Iran) for domination of the Middle East.
- That it is sectarian is less an expression of religion than culture, with Arab pitted against Persian.
- The balance between Saudi and Iran used to be guaranteed by the U.S., but no more, as American interests have changed.
- So now Saudi Arabia feels it must act first before Iran can organize its superior power base and bring it to bear.
So first off, anyone who says this conflict has been going on “since the Bible” is speaking nonsense, and here’s why you ought to correct them.
Grab that person by the shoulders, and explain patiently to them that the modern Shi’a-Sunni conflict is as old as the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Prior to that, Saudi Arabia and Iran were allies as part of America’s anti-Soviet containment system. Moreover, while you have their attention, continue to explain the fight is more national than religious – with a powerful Iran seeking the top spot Iran has so often occupied in the Middle East.
As for Yemen, its current conflict is only about 10 years old, though Yemen’s perennial instability is the result of the country’s weak geographic and geopolitical footing. Yemen’s weak power base means that minority forces, like the Zaidiyyah, can arm, mobilize, and take territory faster than in other places. But Yemen’s geographic location means those forces are rarely left alone for long.
There are thus two starting points for this story: the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia and the Iranian Revolution.
Prior to the discovery of oil, nobody could set up a very powerful state in the Arabian peninsula. The early Muslim conquerors almost immediately abandoned Arabia for better bases in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, leaving Mecca as a religious but not political capital. Mecca’s geopolitical value was in propaganda (“Look at me! I control a Holy City!”) and taxes on pilgrims. But that was not enough to compete with places that had regular rain or rivers; hence the reason long-lasting Muslim states that controlled Mecca were in Egypt, Turkey, or Persia.
But the coming of oil allowed Arabia to buy up technology to change some of that. From dust came farms; from the sea came drinking water. Saudi Arabia has spent enormous sums of money overcoming its natural environment to considerable success: from the sands have emerged the makings of a well-armed regional power.
And during the early part of the Cold War, that caused no upset, since both Iran and Saudi Arabia were anti-Soviet and part of America’s alliance system. Iran’s Shah had little reason to worry about Saudi Arabia, who in the 1950s and 60s was still patting itself on the back for introducing light bulbs.
But the 1979 revolution changed much of the geopolitical equation. Iran’s elites were swapped out from anti-Soviet, compliant Shah-men to anti-Everything, strictly religious Shi’a theocrats. For a few years, these theocrats tried to walk the talk of their Revolution, setting up state institutions like the Revolutionary Guards whose main purpose was export the Iranian Revolution. Naturally, they found that easiest among Shi’a fellow travelers, but anyone anti-America or anti-Israel enough could end up with some Iranian guns or cash.
The stage was thus set for a power struggle: Iran wanted to remake the Middle East in its own revolutionary image while Saudi Arabia wanted to use its new wealth and power to secure its royal family.
Which helps reinforce the notion that this is a political and national struggle rather than a religious one.
It’s absolutely true that both sides are lining up based on sect: Saudi Arabia has assembled a large coalition of Sunni powers to bomb Yemen, including far afield places like Pakistan and Sudan. But the primary goal of the Yemen campaign is not to convert Yemeni to Saudi-style Sunni Islam, but to return to power the reliable Yemeni president that Saudi Arabia and its allies helped install in the first place.
So why is Saudi Arabia calling up favors and using fighter bombers on Yemen? Why not let America do the job?
Historically, Riyadh has been happy, even if its nationalists resent it, to let the U.S. destroy its enemies abroad. First the U.S. took on the Soviet and communist threat for the Saudis; then Saddam Hussein; then al-Qaeda; now Islamic State.
But history has now shown the limits of American power. First, the U.S. can’t be everywhere at once, and political support for yet another big war in America is weak. Quite frankly, the Russian threat is far more worth America’s power, and the subtle rise of China must be managed from a position of strength to ensure American security in the Pacific. Both of those foes are expensive. The U.S. has gone from controlling the Middle East, as it did so well in the 1990s and early 2000s, to merely managing its many, many wild cards.
That’s upset the Saudis something fierce, who are happy to tug on Republican contacts and inform them that Sunni Arab governments view Obama as weak. Obama is less weak than hamstrung: worldwide, America in 2015 is more reliant on regional allies than at any point since the Cold War. Why else do you think America’s not all that bothered that Japan is rebuilding its military?
Obama has rightfully realized that key to keeping America’s embattled hegemony in the Middle East is bringing Iran back into the fold. Hence the reason the nuclear negotiations are so key: should they succeed, a powerful bridge will be built between Tehran and Washington, one that will allow both to focus their forces on far less predictable threats, chief among them Islamic State.
That upsets the Saudis because a deal between Iran and America sidelines them. The Saudis are not convinced Iran will start playing nice in the event of a deal, and there’s good reason to think that. Even if America and Iran suddenly get along, Iran’s ambition to establish a regional hegemony will simply shift focus rather than substance. In other words, Iran will go from trying to overthrowing America’s rules to playing within them. The overall goal of Iranian domination will remain the same.
And that should scare Saudi Arabia, a state with a weak sense of nationhood, a simple economy depenedent on oil, and a bubbling dissident movement that, when it finally does boil over, will be ugly in the extreme. If America can get the same hegemony with half the hassle from Iran, why not let Saudi Arabia twist in the wind when pushes come to shoves?
Which means time is of the essence, and Riyadh must hit hard and fast to grab as much power as possible.
An Iranian-American alliance would, in the Saudi view, be just as bad as an Iranian atomic bomb. In both cases, Iran becomes invulnerable to Saudi power; an American alliance secures Iran just as permanently as a nuke (though not, be it noted, from America itself, which is key to understanding why the U.S. doesn’t want Iran with nukes).
While this nuclear deal, if successful, won’t do that overnight, it would open the door. That means that Riyadh must use all its geopolitical tools to roll back Iranian influence as much as it can before Iran earns American protection. The fact that the Americans are less interested than ever in the Middle East stings as well. If milk gets spilled, Saudi Arabia must clean it up lest it go fetid. America has mostly left the kitchen, worried now about flooding in the basement.
Saudi Arabia’s recent track record has been mixed, with successes in Egypt but stagnation in Syria.
Remember that Saudi Arabian proxy wars helped create al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Hezbollah in Lebanon, so the danger of blowback is high. With the U.S. mostly out of the affair, that blowback could come haunting the streets of Riyadh.
Still, Riyadh has reason to feel confident. It has spent decades building alliances with other Sunni powers; Pakistan’s participation in the campaign is the result of bribes going back to the 1980s. It has corralled the only Gulf state that threatened its vision, little Qatar, and with the United Arab Emirates it now boasts a powerful air force equipped and supplied with the latest Western tech. It has thrown billions into reversing the Arab Spring in Bahrain and Egypt, suppressing the Shi’a of Bahrain and helping crush the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Its cash has helped cake over the cracks in Jordan and Morocco, two other Arab monarchies threatened by change.
Saudi Arabia once successfully fought off a challenge from Egypt through Yemen: the North Yemen civil war in the 1960s pitted Arab nationalists supported by Egypt against traditional royalists backed by Saudi Arabia. In the morass of guerrilla war, despite 70,000 Egyptian troops and plenty of heavy equipment, Saudi Arabia stymied Egypt’s plans to dominate the region through Arab nationalism. Coupled with the blow of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Arab nationalism became a dead letter, and thus no longer a threat to Saudi Arabia, by the 1970s.
So Saudi Arabia no doubt hopes to replicate that success. There’s still some debate on the hows of a Houthi-Iran link other than ideology and sect, but the longer the Houthi remain in power in Yemen, the more open the country becomes for Iranian influence. Should Yemen or even part of Yemen fall under Iran’s sway, Saudi Arabia would face Iranian power on both its northern and southern flanks. The fear of two front wars, even guerrilla ones, even distant ones, is enough to rouse any state.
Meanwhile, Iran is just as put off by Saudi Arabia and wants to secure itself against Saudi power wherever possible.
Iran still hasn’t taken its eye off the Great Satan, but it’s also well-aware of the threat poised by a Saudi-led alliance of Sunni states. The entrance of Pakistan into Yemen should alarm Tehran quite a great deal: to make an enemy of nuclear-armed and quite formidable Pakistan is a development that certainly shifts the balance in favor of Saudi Arabia.
Worse still is all the ideological clap-trap coming from Saudi Arabia. Having accidentally birth al-Qaeda and having failed to reform its education system, Saudi Arabia is still nearly the top country exporting recruits for Islamic State. The royals may hate and fear IS, but its own people have mixed feelings on the group. Iran cannot be sure that one day a more radical Saudi king won’t come along and wage war on infidel Shi’a.
Moreover, Saudi is not above using oil as a political weapon, as it is doing now. Saudi Arabia has the cash reserves to survive a bad year, but Iran’s bigger and more diversified economy needs oil to lubricate its growth and social stability. Putting Saudi Arabia down a few rungs on the power ladder will make Saudi more hesitant to use oil in a way that might harm Iran.
Iran’s strategic needs haven’t changed since the 18th century, when Persian royals sought security through buffer states in Iraq and Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s backwardness keeps it from being a high priority for now, but the entrance of Pakistan as a threat on Iran’s eastern flank may inspire Iran to throw its hat into the Afghan fracas. Meanwhile, Iran has played hardball in Iraq to great results, while its support for Assad has kept at least part of Syria in Iran’s orbit.
Iranian power, in other words, is at its highest point since it went toe-to-toe with the Ottoman Empire in the 1700s. That’s pretty astounding, and to build on those gains Iran will exploit any opportunity it can, including the rise of a militia in Yemen they might not have thought twice about in decades past.
The cold war is getting hotter; watch the nuke deal for the next step.
If the nuclear deal takes hold, Saudi Arabia will be forced to accelerate its counterattack on Iranian influence. Key front lines in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen will see more Saudi-led support, with Saudi Arabia increasingly willing to build coalitions and use its military power to change the geopolitical situation throughout the Middle East. American missteps have created a huge amount of chaos; Iran has been adept at exploiting that. Now Riyadh must fight back. Its time is fast running out.
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