The Middle East continues to experience one of its most tumultuous moments of structural change in several generations, and countries are reconfiguring both their domestic power structures as well as their intra-regional relations.
In this context, we can expect much of the diplomatic maneuvering in the region to revolve around the axes of two major ideological confrontations. The first is the Arab-Israeli conflict, the second the invigorated Saudi-Iranian confrontation. It remains unclear if the national interests of Saudi Arabia and Iran are genuinely threatened by the other side, or whether we are simply in a situation where mediocre leaderships are using the exaggerated threat of the other, coupled with their own sense of vulnerability, to turn a local feud into a major cause of region-wide tension and proxy warfare.
I tend to believe the latter case is true. Saudi Arabia and Iran do not really pose existential or serious security threats to one another because of their policies or intentions. Rather, their rivalry has taken on regional proportions for other reasons that remain unclear.
The latest exacerbation was the U.S. government’s announcement last week that it had foiled an alleged plot by Iranian officials to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. This followed nearly a decade in which the Saudi Arabian government had increased its rhetorical and political opposition to Iran, and had even taken military action in places to stop what it saw as an Iranian threat to nibble around the peripheries throughout the Arab world.
Concerned about Iranian encroachment in Iraq following the Anglo-American overthrow of the Baathist regime, and extensive Iranian strategic relations in Syria and in Lebanon through Hezbollah, 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 where Saudi political or military assistance was used to check the spread of Iranian influence – notably in Lebanon, Yemen, Palestine and Iraq.
The Saudis are on the record as saying, as one of their officials told The Wall Street Journal last Monday, that Iran “is a direct and imminent threat not only to the [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, then we’ll have to do it ourselves.”
Many observers of the Middle East are not as convinced as the Saudi leadership that Iran is a real threat to Arab national interests or to Arab Sunnis. Regardless of whether the Saudis are justified or not, their striking transition – from initially being concerned about Iranian policy to dynamically checking Iran’s political and military strategy across the region – is not a single issue process. Rather, it seems to reflect multiple layers of confrontation, concern, and antagonism.
The Saudis have expressed the main battle lines in terms of Sunni-Shiite competition for regional dominance, which has become an issue since the Iraq war allowed 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 Hezbollah reflected 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) that challenge the prevailing Sunni political orders, while Saudi Arabia now projects itself as the guardian of that Sunni-dominated status quo.
There is also tension between Riyadh and Tehran 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 side than the Iranian side for now, because the Saudis feel more vulnerable that their world, as they know it, is threatened with change. Their ferocious response, which contrasts with the traditional low-key Saudi style of diplomacy, is a sign that the kingdom feels in danger and will take the initiative to protect itself.
A new regional cold war is taking shape, adding to the threats the region is already facing from the repercussions of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.