Saudi-Iranian Rivalry And the New Middle East

Although Saudi Arabia and Iran have never actually gone to war, the two states have clearly perceived each other as enemies and acted accordingly, engaging in proxy war with one another. The two states' claim to being an Islamic state, both claim leadership and guardianship of the Muslims in the region.

Posted on 08/22/14
By Aydoğan Vatandaş | Via Today's Zaman
(Image via Google map)
(Image via Google map)

In September 1996, when the United States decided to launch missile attacks on Iraq, the Saudis were frustrated, not only because of the attacks but also because of the blockade against Iraq. They also rejected US requests to use Saudi Arabia as a base for the attacks.


There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia and Saddam’s Iraq were not allies. But Saudis were also reluctant to see the fall of Saddam’s regime. The collapse of Saddam’s regime would cause the end of Sunni dominance in Iraq and help to strengthen Iranian influence in the region. This came to pass exactly as feared after the US invasion of Iraq, when the Shiite majority seized the government in 2005.


Saudi influence in Iraq dates back to World War I, which brought the British Empire to Iraq, and with them, the Saudi dynasty. It is no secret that during the war the British government followed a policy of supporting the Arab revolt by the sharif of Mecca against the Ottoman Empire. Faisal, the first king of Iraq, was the third son of Hussein bin Ali, the sharif of Mecca. Famous British intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence (known as Lawrence of Arabia) at the time, in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” described his role in the Arab Revolt, which eventually led to the formation of Iraq and the independent Arab emirates previously ruled by the Turks.


However, subsequent to the formation of the new Middle East after the war, Saudi Arabia’s dominance of both the Arab and Muslim worlds has not gone unchallenged. After the revolution in Iran in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran challenged the Saudi vision and interests in the region on the basis of revolutionary Shiite ideology. As for the two states’ claim to being an Islamic state, both claim leadership and guardianship of the Muslims in the region.


Although they have never actually gone to war, the two states have clearly perceived each other as enemies and acted accordingly, engaging in proxy war with one another.


Until the revolution in 1979 in Iran, both countries were close allies of Washington and competition between the two was limited. However, after the revolution Iran ended the alliance with the US and started exporting its regime on the basis of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionist/Israel sentiments. Iran, instead of spreading Shiite doctrine in Muslim countries where Sunnis are the majority, followed this reactionary rhetoric in order to build political alliances and even spy cells.


While Saudi Arabia could claim to be the guardian of the holy cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina, Iran challenged the Saudis, claiming that the Saudi kingdom was corrupt and the guardian of the “Great Satan,” America. It is interesting to note that in secular countries like Turkey, for instance, Iran tried to make room for itself during the process of the formation of political Islam in Turkey by spreading similar sentiments, arguing that the Kemalist military establishment was the extension of American imperialism.


The anti-American position of the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis led to the US following a pro-Saudi foreign policy in the Middle East. Meanwhile, this eventually caused the isolation of Iran in the Western world.


But since 2012, American foreign policy makers have shown the tendency to alter this balance in favor of Iran. The first signal of this shift was the assignment of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, who has advocated the idea of holding talks with Iran since 2004.


Rather than favoring one over another, however, US President Barack Obama revised his vision to that of not isolating Iran but instead “getting Iran to operate in a responsible fashion.”


One of the significant results of this shift also led Saudi King Abdullah to replace Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief, with Youssef al-Idrisi. Iranians interpreted the removal of Prince Bandar as the removal of one of those who had taken an anti-Iranian position. Prince Bandar was the former Saudi ambassador to the US and quite knowledgeable about the Saudi network in the US. He had close ties with former US President George W. Bush as well.


Like Saudi Arabia, Turkey also supported the Syrian insurgent groups and followed a proxy war against Syria — which was backed by Iran.


No doubt, like the Saudis, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lost this proxy war against Iran. Many in Turkey believe that Erdoğan is now close to some pro-Iranian officials at the executive and decision-making level.


According to a report compiled based on a three-year-long probe into Tawhid-Salam conducted by Turkish police investigators, an Iranian spy network directed by Iranian intelligence operatives who report directly to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has successfully acquired close ties with Prime Minister Erdoğan’s associates.


The police officers that uncovered the Iranian spy cells in Turkey are now being arrested without any evidence or legal basis.


The US vision of proceeding with nuclear talks with Iran is obviously a positive development. An integrated Iran will be progress for world peace. But the US government should also consider that Iranian expansionism can trigger unrest in the region as well. The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) looks very relevant to this new equilibrium in the region.


Aydoğan Vatandaş is an investigative journalist based in New York. This article was first published in Today’s Zaman, a leading Turkish newspaper. Click here to go to the original.

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