Like the former Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, there is a new one in the Middle East that pits Saudi Arabia against Iran. And like most problems in the Middle East, religion lies at the root of the problem. In this Cold War, like the old one, there are often flare-ups in proxy nations. Neither side is averse to using its energy export profits to fund insurrections or quell insurrections and promote terrorism. For Iran, they do it with manpower while Saudi Arabia largely does it with money. However, there is a mutual hatred dating back years and is more ingrained in the psyches of these competitors than that which existed between the West and communism in the good old days. Instead of rooting out spies, sending them home, diplomatic blustering and some reciprocal action, these actors imprison and kill one another. A perfect example is the recent death sentence meted out by Saudi Arabia against a noted Shiite cleric, Baqur al-Nimr, who is held in high regard in Iran.
Iran has also complained that recent ISIL activity along the Iran-Iraq border in the north is attributable to Saudi Arabia. And like the old Cold War, this competition has created some strange bedfellows in the Middle East. For example, you have Saudi Arabia aligning itself with Israel trying to prompt a common ally- the United States- into finally doing something against Iran’s nuclear program. Saudi frustration with American intransigence has pushed Saudi Arabia and Israel closer together. Both have waged proxy wars in Iraq and Syria, and Iran has accused Saudi Arabia of instigating ISIL violence against Shiites in both countries.
Like the old Cold War, alliances are being forged, best exemplified by the Saudi-backed Gulf Cooperation Council, an organization that Iran views as a concerted threat against its integrity. Some members have recently instituted military conscription and Saudi Arabia continues to arm itself with American hardware. There are the confounding problems like terrorism where groups like Al Queda on the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, Al-Shabaab in Kenya, Boko Haram in Nigeria and Hizbollah in Lebanon receive financial “donations” from these gulf states, or Iran.
Unlike the old Cold War, these proxy groups use barbaric tactics such as kidnapping, public execution, beheading, car bombs, and suicide vests. There is no positioning of armies in neighboring countries, but a stealth army of terrorist proxies more than willing to do the bidding of their sponsors. It is why Iraq is so important since it sits at the crossroads of the two main protagonists.
For Saudi Arabia, the two current things that upset them about Iran is that country’s nuclear program and their sponsorship of the Assad regime in Syria. Saudi Arabia has tried like hell to get the United States to use military action against Iran’s nuclear program. And there is a certain truth to the Iranian assertion that Saudi Arabia is part of the ISIL problem. Despite these allegations, Saudi Arabia views Iran as the main protagonist in the Middle East and they remain fixated on thwarting their influence at all costs. This sounds suspiciously like the fixation on stopping the spread of communism, or capitalism.
Should an actual war break out between the two countries, it is the belief of most military experts that Iran would start with the advantage. Saudi Arabia is considerably more wealthy while Iran is better armed and has a larger population. Although they both lack an adequate navy that could project that military power, Saudi Arabia recently unveiled the fact that they possess Chinese surface-to-surface missiles that are more than capable of reaching deep into Iran while there is no secret that Iran has long range missiles. And that is why, like the old Cold War, Iran’s nuclear aspirations are so troubling. In the absence of nuclear weapons, this remains a proxy war but should Iran develop their weapons, it seriously alters the power structure from one of relative equality to one that severely favors Iran.
Most of the recent rhetoric and maneuvering is directly attributable to American disengagement in the region thus leaving a vacuum. Without some degree of American influence, the result is what we see. However, even with that influence, the mutual hatreds would still exist. The question then becomes whether we should become a major player in the region.
In one instance we should all agree that the answer is “yes:” Israel’s security. Oil diplomacy has dictated American foreign policy and geopolitics. As the United States exploits domestic reserves, we are less reliant on Middle East oil and do not have to bow at the altar of that oil any more. In fact, we can become a net exporter of energy. But, should we abandon an “ally” like Saudi Arabia in favor of Iran? Should we become the new Sweden and stay out of the dispute and negotiate hostage or prisoner transfers? Again, I believe the overarching guiding principle should be Israel’s security. Any country that pledges the same should be the American “friend” in the Middle East.