Whenever the term “Cold War” is mentioned the vast majority of the world instantly thinks of the half-century long conflict between the United States and former Soviet Union, over the governing of the post-WWII world. Those who lived through it remember practicing duck and cover drills at school and stocking bomb shelters at home. The younger generations recall stories they read in their studies as well as those told by their veteran grandparents. Stories of young American men being sent as far as the jungles of Vietnam to the waves of the Caribbean in the campaign of countering communisms expansion. As far as their recollection goes, the infamous cold war ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, with the United States emerging as the worlds sole superpower. This piece exists to inform you that at the same time the Soviet Union and the west were threatening mutually assured destruction, another cold war was being orchestrated between another set of great powers. This piece was written to tell you about the cold war in the Middle East.
Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Middle East has been subjected to a massive conflict over ideology, geopolitical influence, and resource scarcity between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This cold war, like the one fought between the soviet bloc and western allies, has been dominantly fought through proxy warfare in neighboring states. Where Iran is successful in ties and relations you will find rebel groups under the Saudi payroll attempting to disrupt the establishment, and vice versa. The worlds remaining great powers haven’t hid their cards within this conflict. It’s well known that Saudi Arabia has the backing of the United States, Turkey, and the Gulf Sheikhs, where as Iran is supported by Syria, Russia, and China. Through many failed states, attempted revolutions, western interference, military coups, and an arms race, the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is only entering a new act within an epic struggle. A struggle that has yet to receive the serious attention of the international commuity nor the urgency that it demands towards restoring basic rest to a region and addressing the many humanitarian crisis that have emerged.
The Hostile Inception:
After enduring decades of political and religious torment under the monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and his brutal SAVAK forces, the Iranian public by 1979 had become sorely disenfranchised with the dictatorial and corrupt government it had already disposed of once in 1953, only to be reimplemented by the CIA shortly after. Under the Shah’s police state Islamic customs were being replaced, traditions insulted, political expression eliminated, economic reforms in limbo, and living conditions deteriorating. The SAVAK police force was infamous in its brutality towards protestors and the Shah allowed the countries vast oil wealth to become prostituted among greedy western businesses. In exile in France, the elder cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini produced revolutionary scripts, laced in Shiite Islamic ideals, that appealed to the struggling Iranian masses and became the doctrine of their revolution. In February of 1979, after massive nationwide rallies to dethrone the existing monarchy persisted, the Shah fled Iran and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to establish the Islamic Republic of Iran with himself as the Supreme Leader. The young revolutionaries that had successfully assimilated Islamic dominance into their government began to look past Iran and towards the entire region. Their campaign included the expansion of the revolution to the secular and monarchial states across the Arab world that they deemed a perversion of Islamic law. These revolutionary ideas brought great alarm and anxiety to Ba’athist Iraq and the Sunni dominant monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait. This is where the hostile relations between the Saudi Kingdom and the new Iranian Republic can be traced to, as well as when Ayatollah Khomeini criticized the Al Saud dynasty over it’s self declaration as the keeper of the holy sites Mecca and Medina, leading calls for a government overthrow by the Shia minorities.
“These vile and ungodly Wahhabis, are like daggers which have always pierced the heart of the Muslims from the back … Mecca is in the hands of bad heretics.” – Ayatollah Khomeini
Like the cold war fought between the United States and the Soviet Union, this feud between Iran and Saudi Arabia has never materialized into direct conflict. Rather, each side supports a rebel group within the state that has descended into conflict in order to produce a satellite state that is aligned with their respected ideology. In the last 40 years over a dozen skirmishes and proxy conflicts have been waged with Iran and Saudi Arabia pulling the strings. Here I have assembled a brief collection of some of the major proxies that have influenced regional stability and geopolitical value.
- Iraq – Under Saddam Hussein’s rule, Iraq was a strong buffer between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, Saddam took advantage of Iran’s disorder during the embryonic stages of the new republic and waged an offensive war in 1980. A war based on fears that the Iranian revolution would expand to influence Iraq’s Shia minority and pose a threat to his Ba’athist government. Western powers, the Soviet Union, and Saudi Arabia were quick to supply Saddam with chemical weapons among other devastating arms in what became known as the Iran-Iraq war. After 8 years of merciless trench warfare, human wave attacks, and chemical weapons bombardments, the war ended in a stalemate leaving a million dead and both countries gaining virtually 0 assets. After Saddam’s downfall due to the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraq descended into a literal hell where Sunni extremist groups such as Islamic State and Al-Qaeda were allowed to ferment and grow. With the regional blockade eliminated, Iran began to expand its influence across the Arab world and support Shia militias battling the Saudi funded Sunni groups in contest for the fate of Iraq.
- Syria – In the wake of the Arab spring, which contributed to the launching of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Iran and its non state militant ally Hezbollah have sent ground troops and weapons in vast quantities to aid Syrian President Assad in the battle between his government and Saudi proxy groups seeking to eliminate a strong Iranian pillar. This feud of interests has led in part to the rise of Islamic State, the past 8 years of conflict that has left hundreds of thousands dead, and a continuing armed rebellion between two great powers working often in plain sight rather than behind the scenes.
- Yemen – When the Yemen war in 2015 began, Saudi Arabia became terrified at the thought of an Iranian proxy force leading a state beneath its southern border. Saudi Arabia was quick to deploy military and air units to reaffirm the government of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and counter the Houthis who fought against minority prosecution and seek to establish a state laced in the fundamentals of the Zaydi branch of Shia islam. The battle for Yemens regional alignment has spurred a genocide, the greatest humanitarian disaster of our time, and a massive outbreak in disease that leaves 8 million Yemeni on the brink of starvation and malnutrition.
- Lebanon – Lebanon throughout its short history has suffered from decades of civil war and numerous interventionist proxies. In the midst of the Lebanese civil war in 1982, Iran was able unify various Shia militant groups into the current day political and military entity known as Hezbollah to counter Israeli aggression and occupation. Hezbollahs leaders stemmed directly from the teachings of Ayatollah Khomenei and its ground forces were trained by Iran’s revolutionary Guard. Remaining to this day perhaps Irans strongest pillar, Saudi Arabia sought to disrupt the relations in 2017 when it forced the resignation of Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri for failing to confront Hezbollah directly. Hariri returned to his post shortly after, declaring he would not be influenced by regional wars and disputes. Hariri’s return and neutral position towards Iranian backed Hezbollah certainly has been a blow in the Saudi plans to disrupt a rival powers satellite.
The Nuclear Arms Race:
In this Cold War there also exists the threat of mutually assured destruction via a nuclear ams race that is only just beginning to heat up the already blazing region. In 2015, when Europe, China, Russia, the United States, and Iran constructed and put into effect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement, far more widely known as the ‘Iran Nuclear Deal’, breathes that had been held in fear of Iran constructing a nuclear bomb were allowed to be released. The JCPOA ensured that Iran was not able to construct nor have access to the materials required to enrich uranium at weapons grade levels. And it worked. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who is responsible for continuously inspecting Irans nuclear sites, confirms to this day that Iran is in full compliance with the nuclear agreements terms. Nevertheless President Trump decided to terminate the United States participation in the agreement last year and reinstalled brutal sanctions targeted at Irans oil exportation based economy. Sanctions that have been widely condemned by human rights organizations and the international community as “inhumane”. Due to the Trump administrations reintroduction of these sanctions and the most recent notice that they would be ending oil sanctions waivers, the co-signers of the JCPOA may be unable to keep Iran’s economy afloat, which may likely push Iran back into conducting research into nuclear weapons and higher levels of uranium enrichment in the aims of countering Israel’s covert nuclear program as well as the Saudi’s recent interest in producing and enriching uranium. In both an incredibly dangerous and hypocritical move, the Trump administrations recent approval of the sale of nuclear weapons secrets and uranium refinery construction plans to Saudi Arabia is as beneficial to regional stability as emptying a container of diesel onto an open flame. As electricity demand in the Kingdom continues to rise, by some estimates 8% per year, the country is looking into a source to surpass the national oil and gas usage of which 1/10 of stockpiles are depleted in a single summer. This is where nuclear power comes in and with it the United States wallet. Riyadh plans to construct 16 large nuclear power plants within the next 25 years to emerge a potential $100 billion market. Here is where the problem begins. Saudi Arabia has made it entirely clear they intend to possess the ability to enrich uranium unmonitored, a statement that has nuclear experts and foreign analysts hailing extreme caution and discontent. Only last year it was the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman who gave the world an ultimatum, stating: “If Iran develops a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” Luckily this reckless move by Trump has gained the attention of Congress who has introduced legislation that would work to derail the possibility of Riyadh from ever acquiring a nuclear bomb. In the meantime, both countries haven’t ever considered halting or limiting their massive ballistic missile tests, nor attempted to come to the table to work on an agreement that would limit such dangerous tests, unlike the United States and Soviet Union with the signing of the Intermediate -Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987. As both Iran and Saudi Arabia begin to dabble in uranium enrichment, the Middle East is unfortunately going to continue being subjected to a path that will only lead to additional regional disaster and life eliminating consequences.
While the Cold War for regional hegemony continues to be waged between two seemingly perpetual rivals, there are many obstacles that can be avoided and solutions that can be attempted before we accept the conflict of two states to determine the existence of the rest of us. The first would be the United States immediate reintroduction to the JCPOA and the continued inspections into Iran’s nuclear facilities performed by the IAEA. A similar verifiable system would need to be put into place regarding the Saudis uranium enrichment programs if they wish to enter into nuclear technology. Second, the international community would have to take on a much larger role in its part towards working to avoid and condemn proxy conflicts within the Middle East, South-East Asia, and Northern Africa that continue to threaten human rights. Next, the United Nations should be much more vocal against Saudi Arabia’s massive count of human rights violations such as crucifixions and beheadings, as well as addressing, countering, and punishing the Wahhabi Kingdoms openly visible ties and funding programs to Salafi terrorist groups such as IsIs, Al-Shabab, and Al-Qaeda. The UN should even go as far as to eliminate Saudi Arabia’s position within the Human Rights Council if their behavior towards terrorism isn’t reigned in and ended. Finally, the long, exhausting quest of bringing a settlement agreement to the near century long Israeli-Palestinian dilemma needs to be put on the highest agenda for the international community to address. A project that cannot be accurately addressed nor mended without the participation of all regional powers, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. This Cold War has been raging for 40 years. Geopolitically the path the two martyr states are on will only lead to mutually assured destruction and perhaps the elimination of our world. A proper and well thought out solution to these age old feuds needs to be constructed immediately, before big red buttons release the most devastating weapons man has assembled and which hail from the atmosphere of God.