The Saudi-Iranian Cold War: Is This the Future of the Middle East?

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It’s easy to overlook the killing of a single person in violence-plagued Pakistan, not least in Karachi, a seaside metropolis ever in danger of boiling over into sectarian bloodshed. But the murder of a Saudi diplomat by unknown assailants ought to raise eyebrows. Saudi Arabia’s tangled, pervasive influence in Pakistan has been well documented (including by me), so an attack on one of the kingdom’s officials is not just surprising, but a possible harbinger of larger tensions. Before the shooting, bombs had earlier been hurled at the gates of the Saudi consulate (those caused no injury). Declan Walsh, the Guardian‘s Pakistan correspondent, suggests the attacks may have something to do with a deeper geo-political conflagration:

…decades-old Shia-Sunni tensions in Karachi have been reignited by turmoil across the Arabian sea in Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia deployed troops last March to help quell an uprising by mostly Shia demonstrators.

Shi’ite discontent in Pakistan over the brutal (and increasingly ignored) Bahraini crackdown on dissidents has also been further stoked by the efforts of Bahrain’s ruling monarchy to recruit Pakistani Sunnis into the security forces of the island kingdom, whose majority Shi’ite population bristles at the domineering, allegedly discriminatory rule of the country’s Sunni royals. Saudi Arabia — the most unabashedly orthodox Sunni state around — has done its best to curb the uprising in Bahrain, fearful in part of the Shi’ites on its own soil following suit. It’s a fear ultimately that has less to do with Bahrain (or, for that matter, angry Shi’ites in South Asia) and far more with the specter of Iran, the cradle of political Shi’ism, and a state that seems to provide the greatest existential challenge to the Saudi regime.

The sense of antagonism between the two countries is decades-old at this point, but has been heightened by the upheavals of the Arab Spring, which radically altered the geo-political map of the Middle East, toppling or undermining a host of authoritarian governments in the Arab world that had bought into the tacit U.S.-Saudi-Israeli authored status quo. The Saudis, though, are reeling with revolution and political transformation now the watchwords of the proverbial “Arab street.” They are miffed with Washington for not doing enough to protect longstanding allies like Egypt’s ousted Hosni Mubarak. Furthermore, they are deeply wary of the Arab Spring playing into Tehran’s hands — for its heated anti-imperialist rhetoric and championing of certain Muslim political causes, the Islamic Republic enjoys a modicum of “soft power” in the region. Noted Iran watchers Flynt and Hillary Leverett write:

On the regional front, the Saudis are discombobulated by what they see as a rising tide of Iranian influence across the Middle East.  The Islamic Republic’s allies have been winning, politically, in key venues—Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine.  Historically, the Saudis have never been big fans of pan-Arabism.  But, in recent years, senior Saudi princes have, with increasing frequency, denounced what they have come portentously to call Iranian “interference” in “Arab affairs”.  Now, with the Arab spring, the Saudis are alarmed that the influence of the Islamic Republic and political forces friendly to it will rise even more dramatically.

Dig through the layers of deep history between now and last November, when the first revelations of the cache of diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks came to light, and remember that most of the early headlines generated by the leaks had to do with the Saudis repeated insistence that the U.S. take strong, even military action against the Iranians. It seems now the Saudis have taken things in their own hands, drawing a line in the sand around the Arabian peninsula and using the region’s Gulf Cooperation Council — effectively a rubber stamp for Saudi policy — to protect Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy and ensure that whatever political change gets ushered in Yemen arrives on terms the Saudis dictate.

Nawaf Obaid, a strategist on the payroll of the Saudi princes, summed up Riyadh’s position in an op-ed in the Washington Post this weekend:

As Riyadh fights a cold war with Tehran, Washington has shown itself in recent months to be an unwilling and unreliable partner against this threat. The emerging political reality is a Saudi-led Arab world facing off against the aggression of Iran and its non-state proxies.

Those proxies supposedly include Hamas and Hizballah and, if we’re to believe Obaid, cells of support and radicalism in virtually every Arab state from “Yemen to Morocco.” Obaid lays out the oil-rich Saudis’ planned response:

To counter the threats posed by Iran and transnational terrorist networks, the Saudi leadership is authorizing more than $100 billion of additional military spending to modernize ground forces, upgrade naval capabilities and more. The kingdom is doubling its number of high-quality combat aircraft and adding 60,000 security personnel to the Interior Ministry forces. Plans are underway to create a “Special Forces Command,” based on the U.S. model, to unify the kingdom’s various special forces if needed for rapid deployment abroad.

We’re in territory here that’s light years away from Tahrir Square, and that’s what the Saudis want: to twist the narrative away from the popular regional desire for democracy and change and use the threat of Iranian subversion as justification for the defense of Saudi-friendly regimes in Bahrain, Jordan and elsewhere. Iran, for its part, is happily strolling into the melee, loudly denouncing the Saudi incursions into Bahrain and the desperate plight of the country’s repressed Shi’ites; a “solidarity flotilla” set sail from Iran to Bahrain this weekend though it will likely never reach the island kingdom.

The irony here is that, for all their mutual enmity, Tehran and Riyadh are each other’s greatest legitimizers. The Saudis need the bogeyman of the Islamic Republic, while discontent with the heavy-handed, archaic, encrusted ancien regimes of the Arab world provides Tehran with much of its revolutionary street cred. It’ll be a chill wind for the Arab Spring if either country succeeds in steering the upheaval to its own ends.