The new Middle East Cold War comes complete with its own spy-versus-spy intrigues, disinformation campaign, shadowy proxy war and supercharged state rhetoric and very high stakes.
There has long been blood between the Saudis and Iran. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni/Wahabi Muslim Kingdom of ethnic Arabs. Iran is a Shi’ite Islamic Republic populated by ethnic Persians.
Shi’ites first broke with Sunnis over the line of succession after the death of the Prophet Mohammad in the year 632. Sunnis have regarded them as a heretical sect ever since. Arabs and Persians, along with many others, have vied for the land of Middle East for almost as long.
These days, geopolitics plays a major role. The two sides have assembled allied camps. Iran holds in its sway Syria and the militant Arab groups such as Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Shi’ite radical factions in Iraq. In the Saudi sphere are the Sunni-Muslim Gulf monarchies, Morocco and the other main Palestinian faction, Fatah. The Saudi Camp is pro-Western and leans toward tolerating the state of Israel. There are even speculations that Israeli-Saudi intelligence services cooperate to some extend in the Middle East.The Iranian grouping defiantly opposes the U.S. and Israel.
For decades, the two sides have carried out a complicated game of moves and countermoves. With few exceptions, both prefer to work through proxy and covertly funded militias, as they did during the long Lebanese civil war in the 1980s,when Iran helped to establish Hizbullah and the Saudis backed Sunni militias. They currently deploy proxies in Iraq and Syria against each other.
The 1979 Iranian revolution was a major eruption that still looms large in the psyches of both nations. It began with anti-western ambitions and aspirations. Iran’s clerical regime worked to spread the revolution across the Middle East; Saudi Arabia and its allies worried that it would succeed. There were and still are large demonstrations and purported anti-government protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which has a large population of Shi’ite Muslim Arabs and in Bahrain where Shi’ites are a distinct majority.
On the other hand Saudis are financially supporting separatist movements on the boarders of Iran. The Saudis are convinced that Iran is stoking a rebellion in Yemen’s north among a Shi’ite-dominated rebel group known as the Houthis. Few outside observers saw extensive ties between Iran and the Houthis. But the Saudis nonetheless claimed ties between Iran and the Houthis.
Long before protests ousted rulers in the Arab world, Iran battled massive street protests and civil disobedience wanting regime change and establishment of a democratic, secular system. Saudi Arabia has kept a wary eye on its own population of Shiites, who live in the oil-rich Eastern Province. Riots have also taken place in Saudi Arabia. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia fear large democracy movements in their countries. Iran was quite content with the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt-in fact Ayatollah Khamenei presented them as part of a regional Islamic awakening inspired by Iran’s 1979 revolution. When the tremors of change reached Syria, Iran’s strategic partner, Iran’s leaders accused the United States and Israel of plotting against what they described as a legitimate and popular government.
During the initial bloody demonstrations in Bahrain, Teheran verbally blasted Manama, especially after GCC countries deployed troops to help Manama. Iran has accused Saudi Arabia of killing scores of Shi’ites, demanding an end to discrimination by the ruling Sunni minority. In addition Teheran has called the GCC intervention “unacceptable.”
The alleged Iranian-backed plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir has raised the Saudi-Iranian Cold War to the peak. Prince Nayef the Saudi Interior Minister has warned rioting Saudi Shi’ites in the past weeks not to act “at the behest of a foreign country” and promised that Saudi Arabia “would strike with an iron fist.”
Taking the above tensions into consideration the Iranian-Saudi Cold War is heating up and one can point out that the Saudis would not object to a military strike by Israel or/and U.S. against Iran.
Dr. Fariborz Saremi is a commentator on TV and radio (German ARD/NDR TV,SAT 1,N24, Voice of America and Radio Israel) on Middle East issues and a contributer to FreePressers.com, WorldTribune.com and Defense&Foreign Affairs.