Iran versus Saudi Arabia—how far will it go?by Gregory Treverton / January 23, 2014 / Leave a comment
Saudi special forces take part in a military parade in 2010 © MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images Are we seeing an intensifying “cold war” between Saudi Arabia and Iran? If so, what will it look like? And how do the warriors match up to each other? In all the murk of mutual accusations, there are signs that the tension is rising fast. When the Iranian embassy in Beirut was bombed in November, the al Qaeda-affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility; in December, Lebanon arrested its leader, Majid bin Muhammad al-Majid, a figure on Saudi Arabia’s “most wanted” list. Still, it is hard to imagine that Iran won’t see the hand of Saudi Arabia in the attack. Indeed, Hasan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Iran’s ally in Lebanon, promptly attributed the bombing to a group tied to Saudi Arabia. In looking at the possibility of a hotter “cold war” between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a useful starting point would be the original one, between the United States and Soviet Union. The Cold War pitted nuclear-armed global superpowers against each other. The new tension is between regional powers, neither of which rank in the top dozen most powerful nations in the world, and one of which, Saudi Arabia, historically has sheltered beneath the US security umbrella. A second contrast is that this cold war is rooted in sectarian, not ideological, conflict. Saudi Arabia sees itself as the bastion of Sunni Islam and is host to the most important Sunni religious sites in Mecca and Medina. As the region’s autocrats have been toppled, through the US invasion of Iraq and the “Arab Spring,” conflict between Sunni and Shia has come to the fore. This is most visible now in Syria, where the conflict has become a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad is made up primarily of Alawites—an offshoot of the Shia branch of Islam—who make up about an eighth of the population. It confronts a very divided but mostly Sunni opposition. So long as the autocrats ruled, however brutally, Saudi Arabia could buy off Muslim fundamentalists opposed to it, and do so in the name of Muslim fundamentalism—in its case Wahhabism. No more. Now the sectarian lines are all too stark. Iran, the Shia theocracy, has sent its own troops and weapons, and its Lebanese Shia ally, Hezbollah, to help the Assad government repress the largely Sunni uprising. The numbers of Syrians, again mostly Sunnis, killed by the Assad government in the past three years are in the tens of thousands. In retrospect, the original cold war looks odder and odder. Even at the time, foreign policy specialists joked about the Soviet Union as “Ivory Coast with nuclear weapons.” The Soviet Union was a pretty ramshackle affair, and even western intelligence services knew it. The CIA had been pointing to a chronic slowdown in the economy since the 1970s. A 1981 report was blunt: “The Soviet pattern in many respects conforms to that of less developed countries, and [has made] little progress toward a more modern pattern.” Yet it was precisely those nuclear weapons that made for caution on both sides. Both feared escalation and so both were especially cautious about starting down any path that might lead to military confrontation. This time around, that form of mutual deterrence will not be a constraint since neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia has nuclear weapons—at least not yet. Yet neither do the two share a land border, as Iran did with Iraq, a border that would make military conflict easy. Direct fighting seems improbable. However, even during the first cold war, the lack of direct armed conflict between the US and Soviet Union did not mean there was no war at all. There were plenty of shadow wars involving various allies, proxies or ideological coreligionists. In an era of terror, as groups arise and split, the shadow wars will be larger and darker. The November bombing is a case in point. On one hand, the Brigades, founded well before the Syrian civil war, had been active on the side of the opposition to Assad and were in that sense a de facto Saudi ally. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia lavished no love on al-Majid; indeed, it opposed the radical Islamist factions with which the Brigades were aligned. In this shadow cold war, as in the first one, the enemy of my enemy is not always my friend. In judging the prospects for this rivalry, let’s start where the interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia collide. During the first cold war, the US and Soviet Union were lucky in that their interests came into conflict most directly in Europe. Once the division of Europe congealed, the prospect of cold war turning hot receded. In this new rivalry, the conflict in Syria has become a proxy war between the Shia axis, especially Iran and Hezbollah, and its Sunni opponents, especially Saudi Arabia, but also Turkey, Qatar and others. This cold war echoes the earlier one in that states are driven to choose sides, although on sectarian not ideological grounds. In the process, the non-sectarians are squeezed. Saudi Arabia, feeling snubbed by the US’s new willingness to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear programme and President Barack Obama’s unwillingness to intervene more directly in the Syrian civil war, is reaching out to new patrons and seeking to buttress its allies. It has turned toward France, doubling trade in a decade, and at the year’s end promising Lebanon $3bn in military aid to buy French weaponry—a move that also seeks to counter Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon. The hardening sectarian conflict has made it harder for Turkey, a largely Sunni country, to sustain its easy-going approach to its other brands of Islam, especially given the presence of some 600,000 mostly new Sunni refugees from Syria. More generally, Turkey has sought to expand its influence, describing itself in terms reminiscent of its Ottoman past as the “pivotal country.” But there is little room for an honest broker in this Middle East divided along sectarian lines, a far cry from the Ottoman empire when the centre raised armies and exacted tribute but otherwise left the provinces considerable discretion. Turkey finds itself not only saddled with refugees and constantly engaged in incidents along its long border with Syria, it has also found that its avowed purpose, toppling Assad, is not possible with the means at hand, providing tacit logistical support to anti-Assad forces. Oil-rich Qatar is an odd case. From a strategic perspective, Qatar might be expected to keep its head down, tuck itself behind Saudi Arabia, and quietly use its riches to support friends and buy off enemies. Instead, though, it has chafed at Saudi Arabia’s desire to limit its freedom of manoeuvre, and has endeavoured to punch above its weight, from the world of art to that of armies. It sought to be a mediator in the region but found itself almost entirely marginalised in the wake of the Arab Spring. Now, after the change of emir last summer, it remains solidly behind the anti-Assad opposition. However, it played a prominent role in getting Lebanese and Turkish hostages held in Syria released last October, reportedly interceding with Hezbollah’s Nasrallah through Lebanese security officials. In the first cold war, strategists devised complicated ladders of escalation. The point was to try to assure that war, and especially nuclear war, didn’t happen inadvertently. This time, the chances of miscalculation are greater. There is no nuclear threshold to avoid, and relations between states and “allies” cover a much wider range. Certainly the war of words will continue. When an Iranian official congratulated Lebanon on al-Majid’s detention, he also reportedly pointed out that “the main element in the operation is of Saudi nationality”—an apparent reference al-Majid’s Saudi nationality. Some retaliation by Iran against Saudi Arabia is widely anticipated in the region. An attack on Saudi territory would represent a clear escalation. The more plainly an action can be attributed to one of the two sides’ own intelligence services or armed forces, the more provocative it will be. Thus, any retaliation is more likely to occur against Saudi interests in some third country, such as Lebanon—which has managed to avoid falling into civil war despite serving as a cockpit for this new cold war. Shortly after the bombing and anticipating retaliation, Saudi Arabia advised its citizens to leave Lebanon. In previous episodes of this rivalry, Iran provided support to the Huthi insurgency in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s neighbour, as well as to Shia in Bahrain. In 2011, the US accused Iran of plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador. How should we judge the power balance? The figures suggest a slight edge for Iran, but any such assessment is tricky. Iran has about three times the population of Saudi Arabia, but the latter’s per capita Gross National Product is more than twice as high (according to 2010 World Bank numbers, adjusted for purchasing power parity). One widely used index of national power was developed by the Correlates of War project in 1963. It includes total population of the country, urban population, iron and steel production, primary energy consumption, military expenditures, and military personnel. On that index, in 2007, Iran ranked 15th in the world, Saudi Arabia 20th (with Turkey 12th and Qatar 92nd). To be sure, these rankings address what is now, unfortunately, called “hard power,” as distinguished from ”soft power”—the persuasiveness of a nation’s diplomacy, the attractions of its culture or religion, or, in Qatar’s case, its cash reserves for buying good will or influence. Looking at pure military strength, an exercise by Global Firepower using 40 factors ranked Iran 16th and Saudi Arabia 27th out of 68 countries (Turkey was 11th and Qatar 65th). But the configurations of national militaries reflect their circumstances and histories. Iran fought a bloody land war with Iraq in the 1980s, so it is no surprise it has more tanks than Saudi Arabia, and many more mortars, towed artillery pieces and antitank weapons. It also has twice as many aircraft as Saudi Arabia, but given the embargo against Iran coupled with Saudi Arabia’s relative riches and good connections to the west, Saudi Arabia’s planes are higher quality. Such direct comparisons of forces are useful in modelling large set-piece conventional battles. But intangibles, such as leadership and morale, are decisive. In the original cold war, Nato reckoned its conventional forces as distinctly inferior to those of the Soviet Warsaw Pact, but didn’t know for sure. Had there been a war, the outcome would have depended on how good the Soviet pilots and how committed its riflemen actually were. These numbers may matter less in the shadow wars of the era of terror, when states are more likely to use major military forces to reassure or intimidate than to fight. Today, actual fighting is done by small units, often ones whose links with states are murky, or depend on specific help. Tiny Qatar, for instance, seemed to make itself the “indispensable nation” for the Syrian opposition by providing shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, according to the New York Times. It is also the only nation in the region with durable, long-range military transport. That takes us to the intangible vulnerabilities and strengths of the two rivals. Iran is a theocracy with some aspects of autocracy, while Saudi Arabia is the obverse, an autocracy with some aspects of theocracy. A few numbers again: in an index of “failed states” by the Fund for Peace, which seeks to capture indicators covering social, economic, political, and military facets of state fragility, Iran ranked 37th and Saudi Arabia 102nd (where larger numbers are more “failed”; out of 178 countries Finland was the least failed and Somalia the most). Another index of fragility, by the University of Maryland, gave Iran a score of 12 and Saudi Arabia 9 on a scale of 23 for most fragile to 0 for least. Another index, by the Economist Intelligence Unit, seeks to capture the likelihood of social unrest; Iran was 75th and Saudi Arabia 83rd out of 165. The numbers suggest more or less parity in terms of regime stability. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, best known for his book The Black Swan, has another, intriguing perspective. For him, the opposite of “fragile” is not “robust” but rather anti-fragile—that is, positively improved by shocks. Of course, shocks that are too big will destroy a company, regime or state, but, for Taleb, there is no stability without volatility. Iran certainly has weathered its shocks, from invasion threats to oil embargo. The key, though, is whether states are able to bounce back; the verdict is not yet in for Iran. Yet if Iran may be more resilient than it appears, through this lens Saudi Arabia may be even more fragile. It has not been tested by shocks since the low oil prices of the late 1980s and 1990s, but its utter dependence on oil exports is a vulnerability. It needs oil prices of at least $100 per barrel to finance the elaborate social programmes it deems necessary to keep the peace at home. That was roughly the price at the end of last year, but increasing US production, plus a loosening of sanctions around Iran, could drive that price down. Moreover, perhaps 15 per cent of the Saudi population is Shia, concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province. One big difference between this cold war and the first is that, given their status as second-rank powers, both Iran and Saudi Arabia will be powerfully influenced by the actions of others. Iran may well feel that the recent first stage nuclear agreement will give it a pass from Washington for lesser mischief-making; it may calculate that the US, having invested so much in the agreement, will be loath to upset it. Yet if those talks fail in the longer term, an Israeli or joint US-Israeli military strike against Iran would weaken Iran but inflame Shias, reshaping the tension in unpredictable ways. The US and the Soviet Union sometimes found themselves as dogs wagged by the tails of their allies; indeed, that became almost routine in US-Israeli relations. The new cold warriors won’t escape that fate. Calling friendly groups proxies doesn’t make it true: it’s a good bet that the view of Hezbollah from Tehran is rather different from the way western observers imagine it. And Riyadh probably doesn’t relish, but can’t stop, Qatar’s freelancing in trying to mediate regional conflicts. The interests of the cold warriors overlap with, but are seldom identical to, those of their allies, proxies, cat’s paws—call them what you will—and that raises the risk of unintended consequences. Those are rife in the history of US “covert actions”—nowhere more disastrously than in the not-very-covert effort to push the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan after its 1979 invasion. To avoid a large US presence, the aid was funnelled through Pakistani intelligence; for its own reasons, it gave the lion’s share to extremists. The Soviet Union was expelled, but America’s tacit allies, then called the mujahideen, morphed into the Taliban, setting the stage for September 11th and the era of terror. What of the future of this second cold war? It may well endure longer than the first; surely the sectarian conflict in which it is rooted will not end soon. Communism failed in less than a hundred years (even if some of the triumphalism in the west about democracy sounded silly at the time and hasn’t improved with age), and the cold war lasted less than half that long. This rivalry between two powers, however, doesn’t seem likely to end so soon, for the larger civil war within Islam has been going on for centuries. If people were prepared to lay down their lives for ideology, they seem even more likely to do so in the name of God. Thus, the conflict will have its ups and downs, and the warriors will change or be reshaped, but the underlying schism will not end soon. Yet the original cold war showed that the warriors may expire. It didn’t have to end in the early 1990s; the Soviet Union was failing but might have tottered along for decades. It took the well-intentioned but disastrous policies of Mikhail Gorbachev to bring it down. Bad policies, or bad luck, can change apparent power relations quickly. Between President Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech delivered in 1983 and the end of the Soviet Union lay less than a decade. Today, a collapse in global oil prices, for instance, would take Saudi Arabia out of the war. New cold warriors beware: history may write itself faster than you think.