Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Saudi vs Iran: edge of the abyss?

The Middle East is a mess today, the worst it's been in my living memory. Worse, there is an emerging threat of conflict between the region's opposing Arab and Persian would-be hegemons. On one side of the Gulf is the bellicose, insensitive, autocratic gerontocracy Saudi Arabia; on the other is the proud, ascendant, zealous theocracy Iran. Neither is an attractive regime.

Saudi's insensitivity in executing Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr is the latest - but not just any - episode of the Muslim world's Sunni-Shia archaic and self-harming schism. The divide leaves liberal, secular-minded infidels baffled by its apparent irrelevance to modern life and by its murderous consequences.

Kindling has been added to the Saudi spark by bullish Iranian counter-provocation, tacitly allowing  protesters to attack the Saudi embassy in Tehran, just as was allowed to happen to US and British embassies amid previous spats. In return, the Saudis have now cut diplomatic ties with Tehran. These moves show both sides' entrenched pride, stubbornness, while also shutting down useful channels that might offer a peaceful, diplomatic solution.

Regional allies are already stacking up behind the two opposing sides, such as Bahrain, Sudan and UAE, followed by Kuwait, quickly aligning with Riyadh. Sunni/Shia sectarian-ravaged Iraq faces renewed violence, with Iranian troops and Iran-backed Shia militia already engaged fighting IS on Iraqi soil. Iran has its own allies in Iraq, Assad's Russian-backed Syrian government, militant Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as potential allies of convenience in Putin's Moscow and assorted other pariah countries with axes to grind (often as much about anti-Americanism as anything else).

The new threat is added to the war against IS, Syria's multifaceted civil war, proxy war in Yemen, the division of Iraq and Libya, unresolved conflict in Palestine, and attacks, unrest and friction around the region. Yemen could be further affected, because it offers a proxy battleground for the two to slug it out, while the more important campaign against IS (or Daesh as its now being dubbed) in Iraq and Syria is also at greater risk, if this old quarrel overtakes that vital struggle. Attempts to build a united coalition against IS would be set back, just as Daesh is on the defensive, besieged from the air and checked on the ground, its territory, its morale and its coffers diminishing.

The most powerful country in the Middle East is the US. Major powers include France, the UK and Russia. The liberal-Christian-to-secular-minded countries of the West look on with frustration at the Saudi-Iranian sabre-rattling, having no loyalty to either side of the schism, which now further distracts from the IS threat.

Geopolitics has previously seen the West line up with Saudi, mainly because of shared military and economic ties (yes, including oil and weapons sales), and for basing rights to conduct previous wars against Iraq. These have, respectively, attracted condemnation at home: because of Saudi's awful human rights record and pouring Wahhabist extremism into the mix to prop up the geriatric house of Saud; and for helping to provoke al-Qaeda's war against the US, facilitated by Saudi's own Wahhabism.  Meanwhile, relations with the Islamic Republic, frozen for decades, have thawed and show some promise, after lengthy diplomatic efforts and deal-making over Iran's disputed nuclear programme. So showing partisan support for either side in this potential conflict does not play well for the West.

If it comes down to a potential war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, its outbreak will likely depend on the West's opposition to diffuse conflict. Neutrality and standoffishness (which critics have seen in Barack Obama's foreign policy) might not be enough to influence detente across the Arabian/Persian Gulf, due to a dangerous combination: of the typical stubbornness, arrogance and hubris so common to Middle Eastern rulers;  and the baffling (to a westerner) strength of feeling generated  by Islam's Sunni-Shia religious schism. The West should deploy its full spectrum of options, from soft diplomacy, through economic sanctions, to hard military/naval assets for deterrence, to remind the region that the world already has enough problems, and stepping away from additional conflict is in the shared interest.

1 comment:

  1. So far, so bad... Iran accuses Saudis of bombing embassy in Yemen http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-35251917