Iranian protesters Saudi 311 R.
(photo credit: Reuters)
Winston Churchill, speaking in the British House of Commons in 1922, discussed
the transformative effect of the 1914-18 war on Europe. “Great empires have been
overturned,” he said. “The whole map has changed, the modes of thought of men,
the whole outlook on affairs.” But, he continued, “as the deluge subsides and
the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone
emerging once again.” Churchill was referring to the durability of the Irish
A sense of the weary re-emergence of previous patterns is
apparent also in the revelations of the Iranian plot to kill Saudi ambassador
Adel Jubair in Washington. The plot’s revelation casts the spotlight on a
crucial fact underlying the upheavals that have shaken the Arab world this year:
Namely, for all the sound and fury that the ‘Arab Spring’ has wrought, the
underlying strategic contours of the Middle East remain largely unchanged. As
the wave of popular discontent begins to draw back, so these structures are once
again becoming apparent.
The contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia formed
the central dynamic in the larger regional cold war which has defined the Middle
East in recent years. Iran has sought very publicly in recent years to build its
regional popularity through enmity toward Israel. But the primary strategic
ambitions of the Islamic Republic are directed not westward toward the
Mediterranean – but rather southward, toward the Persian Gulf. Iran is the most
populous country of the Gulf region, with the largest army. It sees domination
of this area as a matter of manifest destiny. Tehran seeks to replace the United
States as the guarantor of the security of Gulf energy routes. This ambition by
its very nature brings it into a situation of conflict with the main beneficiary
of that American guarantee – the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
geo-strategic basis to Iranian-Saudi enmity is reinforced and deepened by the
stark sectarian and ideological divide between the two countries. Saudi Arabia
holds to an ultra-conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam which demonizes
Riyadh has long scorned the Iranian regime as a purveyor of
(discord) in the Muslim world.
Ayatollah Khomeini, meanwhile,
described the Saudi monarchy unambiguously as “heretics” and “vile and ungodly
Saudi-Iranian rivalries have underlain a number of recent
central events in the region – some related to the so-called “Arab Spring,” some
When the Shia majority in Bahrain proved restive, the
Saudis discerned Iranian fingerprints. A new regime in Bahrain aligned with
Tehran would mean Iranian control of the western littoral of the Persian Gulf.
The uprising was also interpreted as the beginning of an Iranian attempt to
spread Shia sedition southwards toward the majority Shia Saudi eastern province.
The Saudis led a military expedition to crush the revolt in its
In Syria, the Saudis see the uprising as an attempt by a Sunni
Arab people to throw off the yoke of an Iran-backed, heretical
Through his maternal line, Saudi King Abdullah has close kinship
ties with Sunni clans in Syria.
Riyadh discerns a strategic opportunity
in Assad’s current travails.
The Iranians too understand the disastrous
implications for them of the danger to the Assad regime, and are consequently
making every effort to preserve it. The Saudis were the first Arab country to
remove their ambassador from Syria, and to denounce Assad.
reports of Saudi links to radical Sunni preachers in Syria.
of course, members of the Iranian client Hezbollah organization are wanted by
the tribunal investigating the 2005 murder of Saudi citizen and former Lebanese
Prime Minister Rafiq al- Hariri. The Saudi-backed March 14 movement in the
country was eclipsed by the pro-Iranian forces after a brief clash in May/June
2008. Yet, by backing the opposition to the Assad regime in Syria, Riyadh hopes
to cut Hezbollah off from its hinterland and source of weaponry, leaving it
dangerously isolated on the Mediterranean.
In Iraq, with the US set to
leave, the Saudis and the Iranians are once again set to face each
The Shia-led government in Baghdad already enjoys close relations
with Tehran. Iran also sponsors powerful Shia militia groups.
meanwhile, has actively funded Sunni insurgents. The presence of US troops in
Iraq was a disincentive to more overt support.
With an increasingly
pro-Iranian Shia government in Baghdad this disincentive will no longer
The Iranians are by far the stronger of the two rivals. They have
compromised their ‘brand’ in the Arab world through their support for the Assad
regime in Syria. This, however, could be rapidly reversed in the wake of new
confrontations with the US or Israel. Their nuclear program is proceeding apace.
The Tehran regime looks safe in its seat at home. It still possesses powerful
assets across the region.
The Saudis, by contrast, can offer a credible
barrier to Iranian ambitions only as part of a larger, de facto alliance
including the US and Israel.
The Saudi-Iranian cold war was one of the
factors defining the Middle East prior to the upheavals of 2011. It has been a
significant element in determining the course of those upheavals so far. In
Bahrain and in Syria, the Saudis are winning. Iranian anger and frustration at
Riyadh and a desire to strike at it should therefore come as no surprise. As the
deluge subsides, the dreary minarets of Riyadh and Tehran are emerging once