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8 January 2020updated 08 Apr 2020 10:07pm

Iran and Saudi Arabia are locked in a Cold War-style stand-off – but the situation is even more volatile

The Middle Eastern cold war is multidimensional, is more likely to escalate and is less predictable.

By Jeremy Cliffe

In his 2016 book, The Iran Wars, Jay Solomon reported that “US intelligence officials describe [Qasem] Soleimani as a Persian version of Karla, the Soviet spymaster depicted in John le Carré’s Cold War novels”. “Like Karla,” the American journalist added, “Soleimani’s endgame has always been to blunt the West’s advances and to cement ties with Washington’s adversaries, using any means possible.”

The observation sums up the significance of the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, who helped reshape the Middle East in the years before his killing by an American drone strike on 3 January. But it also evokes the parallels between the Cold War world and today’s Middle East, where Iran and Saudi Arabia face each other in a manner reminiscent of the US-Soviet stand-off. Like the two superpowers in the postwar years, Riyadh and Tehran are split by a major ideological divide (Sunni versus Shia branches of Islam) and are relatively evenly matched economically and militarily. The parallels are not perfect. But they offer a reference point for the increasingly fragile geopolitics of the region.

The Middle Eastern cold war resembles the original one in three important ways. First, it is fuelled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics. Just as the Soviet Union was motivated by both Marxist dogma and Russian imperialism, similarly Iran’s network-building across the Middle East is about the quest to uphold Shia Islam, but also old Persian expansionism. Soleimani epitomised this blend of idealism and cynicism. The warlord was, as Solomon put it: “brutal or cunning, depending on what is required” and would do anything “to further the revolution”.

Second, Iran and Saudi Arabia are both acting out of fear of encirclement, just as the US and the Soviet Union did. Tehran’s traumatising isolation during the Iran-Iraq War, in which most powers, including Saudi Arabia and America, backed Saddam Hussein, prompted it to invest in a chain of friendly militia forces and governments in its neighbourhood. The result, achieved in no small part thanks to Soleimani, is a “Shia crescent” curving from Yemen on the Gulf, through Iran and an increasingly Iran-influenced Iraq to the Iran-backed regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. That has stirred Saudi fears that it will be isolated, raising tensions between the two powers.

Third, the two regional powers fight through espionage, retaliatory provocations and proxies, just as America and the Soviets did in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. Ongoing wars in Yemen, Iraq and Syria have all led to Iran and Saudi Arabia taking rival sides (again, with Soleimani often central to the Iranian involvement). And in September 2019 drones bombed Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest crude-oil processing plant; Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility. 

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Yet there are also crucial differences between the Iranian-Saudi stand-off and the Cold War. From the 1950s to the 1980s the  US extended a crushing financial and military advantage over the Soviets thanks to its more functional model of society. Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia enjoys such an advantage. Freedom House rates both “not free” and the Economist Intelligence Unit classified both as “authoritarian regimes”. Waiting for one side to outweigh the other so dramatically that the conflict dissolves is not an option.

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An even more important difference is that neither side has nuclear weapons – though Tehran was developing them until its attempts were paused by the now moribund 2015 nuclear deal, and Riyadh has flirted with the idea. Nukes stabilised the original Cold War by massively increasing the costs of a runaway escalation. The threshold for a conventional war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is much lower; neither can flatten the other at the push of the button.

Where the Cold War world was broadly bipolar, today’s Middle East is a kaleidoscope of cross-cutting allegiances, affinities and antagonisms. There are more powerful outside participants such as Moscow and Washington and, to a lesser extent, Brussels, Islamabad, Delhi and Beijing. There are sui generis Middle Eastern powers such as Ankara and Jerusalem. Moreover, many of the parts are moving. Russia is increasingly involved, turning Syria into a satrapy. Turkey, which has occupied the parts of northern Syria recently abandoned by America, is breaking from the rest of Nato and moving closer to Russia.

Unlike the original Cold War, the Middle Eastern cold war is multidimensional, is more likely to escalate and, thanks especially to the interference of outside powers, is less predictable. It is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation.

Such is the backdrop to Soleimani’s killing, which could have any number of outcomes. One is that, counter-intuitively, it calms tensions. The Saudis, chastened by the Abqaiq attack and tired of the war in Yemen, were already seeking détente with Iran; Soleimani was allegedly on a trip to discuss de-escalation with the Saudis when he was killed. Now they are trying to urge restraint. Could Trump’s provocation bring the Middle East’s bitter rivals around a table? Another possible outcome, however, is escalation. Iran could extend its grip over Iraq and lash out at Saudi Arabia, as an American proxy, in revenge for Soleimani’s killing. That could in turn drag in other players.

For years Iran and Saudi Arabia have glowered at each other across the Persian Gulf, like America and the Soviets across the Iron Curtain. By killing Iran’s Karla, an unpredictable American president has recklessly thrown the pieces into the air. The Middle Eastern cold war could yet turn hot.

This article appears in the 08 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran