The Cold War in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran is coming to a head. So far carried out with the help of proxies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere, it’s in danger of turning into a military confrontation between the two regional powers.
A number of factors indicate that the Great Game is entering its most dangerous phase. First, the battle against the Islamic State has reached its final phase. As the territory under IS control has shrunk and as the fall of the IS appeared imminent, it has set off a fierce competition among various players, not just Saudi Arabia and Iran, to take control of strategically important vacated territories, not least in eastern Syria.
The Syrian Kurds are engaged in carving out an autonomous entity in the region and Turkey is busy trying to deter them from doing so. Some reports indicate that Iranian-supported forces, including Assad regime troops, Hizbullah and Iraqi Shia militia, are making a dash to control parts of eastern Syria that would provide Iran a corridor connecting it through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon where its ally Hizbullah is the strongest military and political player thus helping it to project power throughout the so-called “Shia Crescent”.
While this may be an exaggeration, the increasingly frequent reports of Americans bombing Iranian backed militia and Assad forces in eastern Syria indicate that Washington takes that assessment seriously. Since the Saudis have little direct military presence in Syria other than their material support to rebel groups that have increasingly proved ineffective, anti-Iranian American actions in Syria can be interpreted as protecting Saudi interests in the Middle East in addition to advancing American objectives directed at containing Iran.
Iran’s recent missile attacks against IS targets, although ostensibly in retaliation for the Tehran bombings claimed by the IS, are seen by many observers as sending a signal to the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel that Iran is capable of using ballistic missiles to protect its interests militarily. The argument that the missile’s main political target was Saudi Arabia is borne of the fact that important Iranian groups, including the IRGC, have directly blamed Riyadh for the terrorist attacks on the Iranian parliament and on Ayatollah Khomeini’s tomb.
As if the escalations in Syria wasn’t enough, Saudi Arabia, increasingly nervous about losing ground to Iran in its own backyard, orchestrated a crisis in the Gulf this month by imposing a blockade on its small next-door neighbor Qatar with the help of UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and the ineffectual governments of Yemen and Libya. The move, undertaken in the immediate afterglow of President Trump’s visit to Riyadh in which he praised the Saudis and damned the Iranians, was ostensibly aimed at forcing Qatar to stop supporting “terrorists” in the region. However, the move has created a quandary for American policymakers since Qatar hosts the largest US airbase in the Persian Gulf which is essential for the conduct of operations in Syria and Afghanistan.
The real reasons for the embargo, as it became clear when the list of demands was finally presented to Qatar, was to force Doha to cut ties with Tehran, dismantle the al-Jazeera network and stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Jazeera, although it has recently toned down its criticism of Arab regimes under the pressure of the Qatari government, has become a thorn in the flesh of Arab autocrats because of its expose of their misdeeds. The Saudis in particular have been gunning for the network for a considerable period of time. The Brotherhood has been banned in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE for the last few years. Qatar was an outlier in the GCC in that regard as it has kept its links with the Brotherhood despite expressions of displeasure by Saudi Arabia.
However, Riyadh’s main concern seems to be Qatar’s relatively friendly relations with Iran with whom it shares the world’s largest natural gas field. In addition to directly targeting Qatar, the move is a warning to Oman and Kuwait, two other members of the GCC who have maintained fairly normal relations with Iran. It’s a signal to all GCC members that they must accept Saudi Arabia as the grouping’s overlord and fall in line, especially in the context of its rivalry with Iran. It may, however, end up being counterproductive if Oman and Kuwait defy Saudi wishes and that leads to the breakup of the GCC set up to institutionalise Saudi predominance in the Gulf. It’s also likely to provide Iran with the opportunity to improve relations with Qatar. President Rouhani has made clear that ‘The siege of Qatar is unacceptable to us [Iran}… The airspace, land and sea of our country will always be open to Qatar as a brotherly and neighboring country’.’ Tehran, with Ankara, has been supplying Doha with essential commodities following the imposition of the Saudi-led embargo.
The blockade of Qatar is a brash measure. It has upset several GCC members, alienated the US State Department and provided Iran with the moral high ground in the Qatar crisis. But this is one in a series of impetuous steps undertaken by Riyadh since King Salman’s ascension to the throne in 2015. His favorite son, now the Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Salman has been the chief architect of this “forward” policy, which began with Riyadh’s disastrous intervention in Yemen. MBS, as he’s known for short, believes in projecting Saudi power in its neighborhood and making clear that Saudi Arabia is still the boss.
MBS is viscerally anti-Iranian. In an interview in May he accused Iran of planning to take over the holy city of Mecca. He went on to say ‘We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia…We will work so that the battle for them is in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.’ With an impetuous person who holds such xenophobic views at the helm in Saudi Arabia and with Iran itself in the midst of a tussle for power between the Supreme Leader and the President following Rouhani’s re-election, the Persian Gulf appears to be on a short fuse. One wrong step by either party may see the energy-rich region descending into a major conflagration.