Will the Cold War Between Iran and Saudi Arabia Turn to Hot War?
Observers are largely puzzled to understand the current situation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a situation that in some respects looks to be mysterious, given the surprising resignation of Saad Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister which was linked to the cold war between Tehran and Riyadh. More recently, the war of words between the two capitals escalated, when Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince called Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ‘the new Hitler of the Middle East’ and the Iranians responded with accusing him in turn of ‘following path of dictators’ and advising him to 'think about their fate.'
It is almost impossible to understand why this has happened without going back to the beginning of the 1979 revolution in Iran. To realize that what brought this situation about readers must be reminded that although the fundamentalist revolution in Iran was many things to many people, it was primarily an exercise in revolutionary export to Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution.
To begin with, Khomeini was an Iranian equivalent of the Russian Leon Trotsky. He wanted to export his revolution to other countries, rather than being satisfied with having it established in Iran. Similarly, Trotsky tried to export the communist revolution to other countries instead of grounding it in the Soviet Union. For Khomeini, this was not just the export of revolution but also a way of gaining hegemony for the Shiites in the Middle East, in the same way that the Soviets tried to not only establish communism but also to gain hegemony over Europe.
But things did not develop according to Khomeini’s expectations. From the very beginning of the revolution, there were some influential figures in the leadership of the regime including very close associates of Khomeini himself who doubted that the regime would be able to carry out the mission. Among them, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who played the anti-Trotsky rule, just like Joseph Stalin who emerged as an anti-Trotsky bloc. Stalin did not believe in exporting communism by offensive action. He said let’s not rush to export the revolution and let’s stay at home and build the communist republic first and then the others would see how great this place is and they would try to emulate. As he put it in the 16th party congress in 1930, "We do not want a single foot of foreign territory."
The idea of exporting revolution to other countries introduced a sort of dialogue between two groups of people: the idealist who were committed to exporting the revolution and pragmatists who opposed them and said it’s really “too much and too soon.” In Russia the Trotskyites lost and Trotsky himself was assassinated with the order of Stalin. In Iran, however, this dialogue or completion was never solved, and the two groups still exist in the leadership of the country.
Unlike the Soviet Union, for a country like Iran that was ruined by the revolution and by eight years of war with Iraq, it was extremely difficult to export the revolution and to gain hegemony over the Middle East. The ‘brilliant’ idea came from the Revolutionary Guards, a paramilitary group which is not only sworn to protect the regime, but also dedicated to export the revolution. The plan was simple and brilliant: “We don’t fight ourselves, we use proxies.” This was really a brilliant idea because they didn’t do much. All they had to do was to use proxies in countries with a significant Shiite population. Therefore, they established the “Center for Borderless Security Doctrinal Analysis,” a hardline think tank involved in producing strategies to unleash terror in the region. The reason that they called it “borderless” was their notion that there is no border in the Middle East that they have to respect.
The Shiite Crescent has been their target and the ideal image of expansion of the revolution and hegemony with two arms; one arm would go through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and the other arm planned to be from Iran through Bahrain and Yemen and the Revolutionary Guards took the lead to perform the mission. The hard work has paid off, although it was not accomplished in a linear progression over time, but it happened because of a number of fortuitous breaks.
The first break occurred when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to dismantle the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Known as Operation Peace for Galilee, the invasion created horrible upheavals and gave the Revolutionary Guards the opening to organize marginalized Shiite Muslims and to aggregate a variety of militant Shiite groups in Lebanon under one roof, and to form Hezbollah, literally the "Party of Allah" or "Party of God". In July 2006, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak explained how by occupying Lebanon, Israel provided a context for the Revolutionary Guards to create Hezbollah. As Barak noted, “When we entered Lebanon … there was no Hezbollah. We were accepted with perfumed rice and flowers by the Shia in the south. It was our presence there that created Hezbollah.”
The second break was the George W. Bush invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although intelligence agencies warned the Bush administration that invading Iraq will destabilize the country and the entire region, and would give Iran new opportunities to expand its influence, Bush said he had a “moral and religious obligation” to accomplish the task. Prior to the invasion, intelligence analysts warned the CIA chief George Tenet that a post-Saddam authority not only would face a deeply divided society with a significant chance that domestic groups would engage in violent conflict with each other, but will give the Revolutionary Guards the opportunity to increase its effort to recruit extremists, strengthen reliable, pro-Iran Shiite militants and to replace Saddam with a friendlier Shiite-led regime. However, the White House had finalized its decision with regards to invading Iraq.
For Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader who inherited the Trotskyite mandate of revolutionary expansion from Khomeini, the US attack on Iraq was a gift from God. To him this was truly an amazing break even bigger than what the Israelis gave them in 1982. As one analyst noted, “Until the American invasion of Iraq, the door wasn't really open for Iran to challenge the regional order, except in limited ways like supporting Hezbollah and Hamas.”
The third break was the Arab spring in which, by inspiring uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa, a whole new set of openings were created enabling Iran to expand its regional influence. The Arab Spring gave an opportunity to Tehran to support the oppositions in the countries which were allies of Saudi Arabia, in addition to allowing the regime to exert its full support to its own allies which were on the brink of collapse. In Syria, the Revolutionary Guards and its Quds Force arm defended the government and showered the Assad regime with untold amounts of military aid. Some 8,000 to 10,000 fighters from the Revolutionary Guards have participated in the Syrian civil war, in addition to providing the annual financial support of $15 to 20 billion, according to some accounts.
In Shiite majority Bahrain, numerous pro-democracy protests were staged against the Sunni monarchy of Al Khalifa in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, providing Iran with another proxy arena for competition with Saudi Arabia and an additional opportunity for regional dominance. Unsurprisingly, the Revolutionary Guards seized upon the demonstrations to take another stab at pushing the island into the Iranian sphere of interest. Unfortunately for the Guards, Saudi Arabia, which became greatly alarmed about an Iranian outpost on an island reached by a 25-km causeway, decided to intervene. In Operation Peninsula Shield, a sizable force from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crushed the Shiite rebellion and left Manama and the Shiite villages with “checkpoints, bunkers, and military encampments.”
Encouraged by their success in Iraq, the IRGC-Quds Force branched further afield to Yemen, the home of the Shiite-Zaidi minority. The IRGC stepped up its financial and military aid for the Houthi rebels, after they seized the capital Sanaa in early 2015, and began moving to take the rest of the country. Hailing from the Shiite tribesmen of North Yemen, the Houthis were traditionally moderate and accepting of Sunni Islam. After the invasion of Iraq, a splinter group of the movement became radicalized, engaging in recuse demonstrations against the United States and Israel which alarmed the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saudi Arabia, which had its own Shiite minority in the Al-Hasa and Qatif provinces, was also worried since the intelligence services determined that the Quds Force was involved in the agitation. Although Saudis and their allies initiated a bombing campaign against the Houthis, the group could spectacularly have managed to overrun the entire country.
What is happening today is the direct outcome of that Khomeini mandate to export the revolution and to fight for hegemony over the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia is the one of the countries that has been trying to stay in the way of the Iranians’ Trotskyites mandate.
Up to very recently, Saudi Arabia was on the losing side of the equation. Saudis were looking quite alarmed and hopeless in what was happening due largely to the gains which the Revolutionary Guards have made in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. However, something fundamentally changed in Riyadh, after King Abdullah died, and King Salman came to power. Salman is not a shaker and mover per se, but his son Mohammad bin Salman changed the entire situation in Saudi Arabia, not just with regards to losing the fight with Iran, but he essentially believes that Saudi Arabia is an anachronistic and outmoded country in its current shape, too dependent on oil and not being able to participate in the 21st century. The energetic Prince who spearheaded the ambitious Vision 2030 project also known as Salman Doctrine to turn Saudi Arabia into a global powerhouse, viewed Iran as a stumbling block in the quest for regional hegemony and an unrepentant destabilizer of GCC states.
To make the economy more efficient, Bin Salman ordered the removal of a number of princes accused of corruption from their positions, a step that is seen by observers as a way of streamlining the decision-making process in Saudi Arabia which would make the Prince more adept at taking on Iran. Up to now, the decision-making process in the Kingdom was very arduous based on consensus, but the new developments would give Bin Salman more power to make faster decisions and to challenge and hopefully rollback the incredible achievements which the Revolutionary Guards gained during these years.
The current US administration also empowered Saudis, although Riyadh is still unclear to what extent it can count on the Trump administration in its war with Iran. Not to mention that there is an extremely unusual set up in America and no one knows exactly where Trump is standing on certain issues. Still, it is a positive pointer for Saudis that Trump is totally different from Obama. The latter tutted the balance of power towards Iran with the nuclear agreement, but now there is a new regime in Washington and Saudis are seeing it differently and trying to move the balance back with the support of Washington.
Another point that produces the whole dynamic is the sea change in the relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. No one in the whole history of commentary on the middle east would have expected that Israel would become friend of Saudi Arabia. The Israeli military chief, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot recently acknowledged that his country and Saudi Arabia are in complete agreement about Iran's intentions. The military chief noted “I participated in the meeting of chiefs of staff in Washington and heard what the Saudi representative said. It is precisely what I think concerning Iran and the need to deal with it in the region and the need to stop its program of expansion.”
While there is no compelling evidence to indicate that Saudis have plans to carry out a military option against Iran, the young Prince is serious in increasing the cost of doing business for the Revolutionary Guards. One option for Riyadh to rollback Iran’s hegemony project is to delegitimize Hezbollah in Lebanon. As a matter of fact, the recent developments that happened in Lebanon and the Hariri’s resignation are considered to be Saudi’s move to delegitimize Hezbollah. The Saudis’ goal was to tell the world and also the Lebanese people that this is an untenable situation that you have a party that takes orders from Tehran, and we are not going to stand for it. Next in line would be encouraging Christians and Druze leaders -whom are said to be behind this maneuver as well - to denounce Hezbollah as an illegitimate group in Lebanon which responds to orders from Tehran, acts as a good proxy for the Revolutionary Guards and is currently running a lot of operations in Yemen.
The Saudis have also taken the issue to the Arab League to make a case against Iran and Hezbollah. Though it stopped short of announcing any action against either in its emergency foreign ministers’ meeting in Cairo, the Arab League accused Iran of destabilizing the region and condemned Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
Finally, the Kingdom may not roll out the possibility of complaint against Iran and Hezbollah in international forums like the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Arab League Secretary-General noted that Arab countries might consider going to the UNSC to discuss future steps against Iran and Hezbollah. While it is not clear how this whole process will work out yet, it is obvious that the Iranians got the message that they cannot coast along and assume that they can run Lebanon through Hezbollah without getting any push back. Hezbollah is essentially labeled as a terror organization and to let Iran run Lebanon through a terror group is not something that the young prince would accept.
In such a situation, the Saudis may count on Trump’s plan to impose sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards as well as the assistance of Israel. While Israel is reluctant to get involved in a war in Lebanon, the Israeli officials did not rule out the possibility of exchanging information with the Saudis in order to deal with Iran. According to Eisenkot “[Israel is] willing to share information [with Saudi Arabia] if there is a need. We have many shared interests between us.”
Bin Salman’s maneuverings have created a lot of tension in Tehran between hardliners and moderates behind the scenes, over how much Iran has to spend to repeated fight so many years after the revolution. While Moderates are in favor of a détente policy with the Kingdom and say that Iran cannot afford to take on Saudi Arabia because the cost of war with Riyadh is extremely high, their hardline opponents want to do whatever is necessary to protect the hegemony project and to increase their support for Hezbollah and Houthis, no matter the cost. Because the balance of power between these two groups fluctuate constantly, it is not clear what the outcome of this competition will be. It would probably not so much depend on the performance of Saudi Arabia, but also on what the Europeans would do with regards to Washington’s sanctions on Iran.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of IRAM.