Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

The Cold War in the Middle East

Posted in Middle East and North Africa by Dan on September 2, 2009
A covert war is escalating between Saudi Arabia and Iran

A covert war is escalating between Saudi Arabia and Iran

In a short and concise, yet well-written piece, Robert Haddick of the Small Wars Journal raises the question of whether Yemen is becoming the new front in a possible Iranian-Saudi covert war in the Middle East.  Of course, what Mr. Haddick is referring to is the Yemeni Government’s most recent clash with Shia-militants on Yemen’s northern-most border; a domestic conflict that is only escalating in scale and ferocity.  Thus, it is understandable that Yemen’s domestic situation is drawing its fair share of worries from regional powers.

Although the death of hundreds of soldiers, civilians, and militants on all sides is an obscene development on its own accord, such figures do not accurately reflect the hidden and adverse dynamics of the Yemeni insurgency.  With the Islamic Republic of Iran acquiring a tremendous amount of clout and influence in the Middle East, and with the Saudi Royal Family attempting to buttress this Iranian resurgence, analysts and policymakers are correctly labeling Yemen as the third theatre in a wider Tehran-Riyadh Cold War.  It does not take a rocket scientists or an academic to recognize the hostility that has historically plagued relations between both countries…frosty engagement that has only become more strained since the power-vacuum in Iraq has widened after Saddam Hussein’s removal.

As Mr. Haddick writes, the Sunni-dominated Yemeni Government has charged Iranian agents with covertly funding and training the Shia insurgency.  So the reasoning goes, a successful Shia revolution would pave the way for Iran to take full control over valuable sea lanes in the Persian Gulf.  Such an assessment is especially realistic when one considers the declining value of crude oil in the world market, a natural resource that has virtually kept the Islamic Republic afloat despite Ahmadinejad’s sub-par fiscal policies (more Iranian sea-routes translates into more revenue for Tehran’s coffers).

However apocalyptic this argument seems to be to the ordinary observer, Mr. Haddick’s conclusion is right for reasons he fails to touch upon in his article; with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei losing respect in the wider Middle East, and with his regime consistently being bombarded by international isolation over its nuclear program, Tehran may be viewing Yemen as a nation that could be exploited.  Obviously, a full-scale invasion by Iranian soldiers is not what I am talking about (such a direct use of force would be angrily denounced by international organizations ranging from the European Union to the U.N. Security Council).  Rather, what I am referring to is the Islamic Republic’s efforts in establishing a pro-Tehran government within Yemeni territory, through covert activities.  Such an action would provide the Ayatollah with multiple advantages; both in terms of territorial gains and Islamic values.  Not only would a Yemeni-proxy provide Iranian hardliners with a strengthened position against Israeli occupation…it would also mitigate Khamenei’s image as a weak and illegitimate supreme political authority (both at home and abroad).

As projected, Iran has a rebuttal to Yemen’s many accusations, namely by citing Saudi Arabia’s direct assistance to the Yemeni Security Services in its fight against the pesky insurgency.  Although statistics and evidence on the ground fail to confirm Tehran’s remarks, confirmation is not needed to reasonably assume that an ongoing Iranian-Saudi rivalry is strengthening in Middle Eastern politics.  This rivalry has been known for quite some time, going back decades to when Saddam Hussein rose as Iraq’s leading authoritarian.

Saudi Arabia, a country with a large Sunni majority, prides itself on being a primary defender against a belligerent Iranian power intent on developing the world’s most devastating weaponry.  Sunni and Shia differences aside, Arabs worldwide routinely admire the tenants of the Saudi Kingdom, supporting Riyadh’s many endeavors to defend the Arab community against the “dangerous” interests of Persian “aggressors.”  In retrospect, Tehran loves to build itself up as the one and only nation devoted towards fighting for the rights of Shias on a global scale…whether through the regime’s indirect support for Hezbollah in Lebanon or through its military alliance with Shia groups inside Iraq.  As the common Iranian mantra goes, ‘Shia Islam will not allow itself to be repressed and defeated by the apostate Sunni majority.’

In short, the Middle East is headed for a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran; the same type of cold war that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union for more than fifty years.

Is Mr. Haddick’s piece really all that surprising?  When an analyst uses words as frightening as “cold war, covert,” and “nuclear,” one might think this is the case.  Such phrases certainly do not help construct a more peaceful and safe global order.  After all, how is the United States supposed to encourage dialogue between the Israelis and Palestinians when a potential conflict between the region’s two heavyweights is creeping up on the horizon?  While these questions are certainly credible, people must understand that this “cold war” has been heating up for quite a long time…as I have made apparent in previous blogs concerning Iran’s interference in post-Saddam Iraq.  Like I have predicted in the past, and as Robert Haddick appears to be predicting now, Americans and Arabs alike should expect a radical transformation in the coming years; sparked by a mounting hatred between Riyadh and Tehran, Sunnis and Shias, Arabs and Persians.  The fact that this proxy-war turbulence is already engulfing Lebanon and Iraq should give us all a sense of the coming calamity.  When adding nuclear weapons to the mix, the Saudi-Iranian proxy war could easily turn into a nuclear arms disaster (reports reveal that Saudi Arabia is developing an indigenous nuclear program, in response to Iran’s enrichment capability).

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Robert Haddick of the Small Wars Journal contributed to this blog.  His full article can be accessed at:  http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/08/28/this_week_at_war_the_middle_easts_cold_war_heats_up

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