Middle East In Turmoil : A Historical Review And Status of The Current Day Saudi-Iran Confrontation

Issues Details: 
Vol 11 Issue 5 Nov - Dec 2017
Page No.: 
Sub Title: 
The historical as also civilizational factors that underlie the present state of turmoil in the Middle East
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM** (Retd)
Monday, December 4, 2017

Sometime in 2003, the US State Department analyzed and deduced that the US and the West were involved in a Long War with the Islamic civilization, a war which could well continue for over a hundred years. The broad consensus was that the Islamic civilization was going through the inevitable phase of reformation, which hits faiths after sustained periods, to bring them at par with modernism.

One of the subsets of the conclusions was that reformation in Islam would be preceded by a period in which greater efforts at promotion of obscurantist ideology and beliefs would take place; in fact, such promotion of radical thinking would adopt violence and terror to achieve its aims. Analyses which followed the Long War theory did touch on the fact that one of the other facets preceding reformation would be violent sectarian confrontation between Shia and Sunni Islam.

What we are witnessing in the Middle East today is exactly as predicted. Iran as the Shia core and Saudi Arabia as the Sunni bastion are slowly moving away from the proxy confrontations they have been involved in over three decades, to something more substantial. The portents of the direct conflict are likely to witness a transformation in the geopolitics of the Middle East, lead to fresh alignments or cementing of some existing ones and prepare the grounds for what may be a period of serious turbulence characterized by shades of violence and possibly open war.

The recent events such as the military defeat of the ISIS, failure of Saudi Arabia’s Yemen adventure, the Saudi led confrontation against Qatar, sudden developments involving the young Saudi Crown Prince’s ambitious attempts at establishing a new order in his country and confronting Iran’s fanning power across the Levant, are making the already complex cauldron of the Middle East into a geopolitical and geostrategic puzzle.

To enable a reasonable assessment on the direction that the situation is moving in, a historical review of the Iran-Saudi discord would be helpful. To this end, we need to briefly recall some way points without being embroiled in detail.  These need to be flagged as:-

•             1973 - The energy crisis in the wake of the Yom Kippur War and empowerment of Saudi Arabia.

•              1979 - The Iranian revolution, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the terrorist takeover of the Grand Mosque at Mecca.

•             1980-90 - The War in Afghanistan and the Iran Iraq War.

•             1991 - Gulf War 1.

•             1991-2001 - Search for Post-Cold War order, ending with 9/11.

•             2001-06 - War in Afghanistan, Gulf War 2, Iran’s nuclear ambition, Israel Hezbollah Confrontation.

•             2010-12 - The Arab Spring.

•             2013-15 - US Drawdown in Afghanistan, the Rise of ISIS, Declaration of the Islamic Caliphate and the Iran Nuclear Deal, Russia enters the Syrian Civil War on Assad’s Side.

•             2016-2017 -  Coming of President Trump, military defeat of ISIS and the Palace Coup by Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS).

The specific events identified above and the trends that they gave rise to have all had a contributory bearing towards the situation in the Middle East. Brief recount of each will join the dots effectively and help chart a possible future course after having understood just where we are at this juncture.

1973 – The Energy Crisis in the Wake of the Yom Kippur War and Empowerment of Saudi Arabia

The selection of 1973 as the start point is more for convenience of understanding and analysis. There is much more to the history of the Middle East, not the least being the colonial period, the creation of artificial boundaries which left segments of majority and minority communities within nations and the snowballing confrontation between the Arabs and Israel. Iran, always the Shia stronghold with civilizational differences with the Arabs, remained a part of the US alliance through most of the Cold War period, until 1979.

1973 brought in its wake the power of energy in geopolitics and the creation of the petro dollar linked economy of Saudi Arabia besides the rise of the Gulf Sheikhdoms. Sectarianism was yet a microcosm in the politics of the Middle East and geopolitics was mired in Cold War alliances and the Arab Israeli confrontation. The rise of Saudi Arabia was also the rise of its brand of Islam; Wahabist but not yet violently oriented, with Israel still seen as the pariah in the focus of the Arab world. Pan Islam was the glue which held the Arabs together. 1973 was the beginning of what was to come in the form of religion and ideology taking the center stage in geopolitics a few years later.

1979 - The Iranian Revolution, Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and the Terrorist Takeover of the Grand Mosque at Mecca

These three events which have been written about in detail elsewhere fundamentally changed the course of history in the second half of the 20th Century. The Iranian Revolution was spread through 1978-1979 ending in Iran becoming an Islamic Republic with adoption of a new theocratic-republican constitution. This was perceived as a Shia revolution with direct threat to Saudi Arabia which had its share of Shia minority. A mass of Shias also existed in southern Iraq and a potential alignment of these with Iran and the Saudi Shia minority was enough to be considered a major threat to the power of the Sunni dominated Islamic world of the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia existed with a balance of internal power between the powerful monarchy (House of Saud) and the Sunni Wahabi clergy which was also the virtual symbolic custodian of Islamic values due to the existence of the holy shrines within the country. The Iranian Revolution shook both the clergy and the House of Saud as much did the next event in Nov-Dec 1979.

Juhayman al-Otaybi of Al-Jamaa Al-Salafiya Al-Muhtasiba (The Salafi Group that commands Right and forbids Wrong) had already commenced a movement against the Wahabi clergy in 1978. In 1979 he declared his brother in law, Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani, as the ‘Mahdi’, the expected one. They perceived the rule of the Shariah and the ideology of the clergy and the House of Saud being insufficiently Wahabi. On 20 Nov 1979 they took over the Grand Mosque in an armed uprising. The neutralization of the Juhayman group was done through a military action by Saudi Special Forces with advice from French Special Forces.  Saudi King Khaled, however, did not react to the upheaval by cracking down on religious puritans in general, but by giving the clergy and religious conservatives more power over the next decade. He is thought to have believed that “the solution to the religious upheaval was simple: more religion.”

The end of 1979 also saw the Soviet Army enter Afghanistan and was the beginning of the ten year proxy war that brought transnational mujahidin together to fight the Soviets, under the sponsorship of US and Saudi Arabia.  The decision by the Saudi royalty to enhance religion as an entity and cultivate its brand in Afghanistan and Pakistan came with the added argument that it helped neutralize the potential of the rise of Shia Islam under the Iranian Revolution.

At the cost of making this part of the history longer than others it’s important to remember that the US failure to rescue the hostages held by Iran after the seizure of the Embassy in Tehran and the symbolic victory of Iran prevented President Jimmy Carter from re-election. It had a deep psychological effect on the US leadership, the US military and the people, something the US has yet to recover from.

1980-90 - The War in Afghanistan and the Iran Iraq War

Thus, 1979 gave rise to the ten year long confrontation in Afghanistan which on one hand was a campaign to counter the expansion of communism while at the same time surround Iran with Sunni Wahabi emplacement in the crucial zone of what later came to be called the Af-Pak region.

In 1980 Iraq and Iran went to war ostensibly on boundary issues but realistically on sectarian ones. Iraq had a Shia majority which it feared would align with Iran due to ideology. Following Iran’s revolution and establishment of a government dictated by a commitment to Islamic fundamentalism, with designs on propagating its revolution across the Middle East, the power balance, in the eyes of the West, had to be redressed. Thus, support was lent to Iraq with Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Baath party in the saddle. The war ended in 1988 with devastating effects on both countries.

1991 -  Gulf War 1

The First Gulf War, fought in the immediate wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall which had symbolically ended the Cold War, played a lesser geopolitical role in the sectarian confrontation. It was an intra-Sunni affair between Saudi Arabia and Iraq with the overarching presence of the US whose interests lay in energy and ensuring that Iraq’s Saddam would not usurp the energy belt of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The war actually protected the Shia Muslims in southern Iraq’s Hawizeh Marshes.

1991-01 - Search for Post-Cold War Order, Ending with 9/11

This period was characterized by the US-Saudi domination of Middle East geopolitics on one hand and the rise of violent and extremist Islam. The Wahabi influence ran deep in the conflicts in Kashmir, Chechnya and Bosnia even as the wealth of the Sunni Gulf sheikhdoms proliferated. Saudi Arabia splurged a part of its wealth on promotion of its brand of Wahabi Islam across the Islamic world even as Iran’s isolation and weak economy failed to enhance its ideological influence. The one issue not mentioned till this point was the strident anti-Israel stance adopted by Iran right after the Revolution. This strengthened even as Arab opposition towards Israel diluted with a realpolitik approach under US influence.

The rise of militant Islam in the post-Cold War period came to a head first with the formation of the Al Qaida (AQ) and multiplied manifold after 9/11. The latter event cemented the rising divide between Islam and the rest of the world. Even more tolerant ideologies of Islam were swept into the vortex of the confrontation which threatened to become civilizational. In the years that followed it became increasingly clear that although Iran brandished its own form of Islamic radicalism the same was much less confrontationist and its ambitions did not go beyond strengthening the Shia belief and giving shape to the regional Shia crescent; the latter was essentially an enhanced pan regional effort to bind Shia majority and minority communities into a greater geopolitical entity to balance the march of the Saudi Wahabi influence.

2001-06 - War in Afghanistan, Gulf War 2, Iran’s Nuclear Ambition, Israel Hezbollah Confrontation

This five year period was high octane for politics of the Middle East. The attention shifted temporarily to Af-Pak but returned in strong measure after Gulf War 2. The US deposed Saddam Hussain but subsequent governments in Iraq under US control took on a Shia color; the Iraqi Shia majority, long subjugated under Baathist rule handled its return to power with poor guidance of the US. It led to the beginnings of the sectarian strife in Iraq, partially played out through proxy influence of Iran and Saudi Arabia. The balance in Iraq shifted decidedly in Iran’s favor even as the US attempted to stabilize Iraq through an elongated post conflict period. However, with US attention off the scanner and focused on Iran’s nuclear program the beginnings of an extremist organization based on the rump Baathist bureaucracy and military took shape, ending ultimately as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014.

Although Iran’s civilian nuclear program was long in the making, from the Sixties it is the period 2003-6 in which the IAEA decided to report some of its activities to the UN Security Council, under suspicion of it being weapon oriented. This brought it into confrontation with the western countries and the Arabs. The nation most worried was Israel.  Iran’s virtual pariah status received further fillip with Israeli threats towards launch of a pre-emptive strike against the nuclear facilities of Iran. The threats from Saudi Wahabi ideology paled in comparison to the possibility of Iran clandestinely developing nuclear weapons.

In 2006 Hezbollah of Lebanon supported by Iran instigated a confrontation with Israel. This was Iran’s proxy war against Israel which resulted in a stalemate but Hezbollah has since then gone on to receive huge military support from Iran. A recent visit to Israel revealed allegations that Hezbollah could be holding as many as 130,000 rockets and missiles  in its arsenal today much beyond Israel’s iron dome defence capability. With the war and subsequent Israel-Iran standoff relations only worsened thus forcing the coming together of Saudi Arabia and Israel and dilution of Israel’s enmity with the Arab world.

2010-12 - The Arab Spring

US attempts to change the ideological order in the Middle East and promote liberal democracy had a disastrous effect on the regional polity. The existence of stability due to dictatorships and monarchies did not dawn on US strategic thinkers.  It gave rise to instability and internal dissensions which were difficult to handle. There were varying effects in different countries. While Libya broke up under western intervention, Egypt underwent instability and Syria broke out into a disastrous civil war which continues to the day. While the Arab Spring largely failed it manifested in some dictatorships and monarchies internally strengthening their hold. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which followed radical Islamic ideology, came to power briefly but its model being different to the Saudi concept of division of the mosque and state, besides the rabid hurry it adopted towards reforming and adopting more radical belief resulted in its overthrow by the Egyptian Army. The counter revolution received the support of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states thus preventing the feasibility of an Iran-Egypt link which at one time seemed a possibility. Saudi Arabia strongly supported the resistance adopted against the Arab Spring by the Gulf sheikhdoms and states such as Jordan.

In Iran the Arab Spring was watched from the sidelines with great interest. It first motivated the reformists but equally charged up the radicals. An unidentified intellectual from an Iranian university had this to say – “Iran is made up of an accurate and deep equation between two components: the historical state of Persia and Islam, as a comprehensive lifestyle. These two components may not be separated, and one of them cannot prevail over the other. According to the same logic, Iran turning into a pure Islamic state without its Persian identity is also a threat to its stability and balance”. One interpretation does point towards greater ideological dilution in Iran after the Arab Spring and much less in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia perceived greater vulnerability due to the Arab Spring movement and the subsequent   rise of ISIS (described later). Its actions to defend its turf were on the basis of a hybrid threat perception involving liberal values, Iran’s increasing ideological creep into the Arab world and the challenge of ISIS allegations about it being insufficiently radical.

2013-15 - US Drawdown in Afghanistan, the Rise of ISIS, Declaration of the Islamic Caliphate and the Iran Nuclear Deal, Russia enters the Syrian Civil War on Assad’s Side

The drawdown of the US forces from Af-Pak region during this period afforded return of focus to the Middle East. The Syrian Civil War had begun in 2012 and its complexity was increasing by the day due to involvement of an ever increasing number of players and issues. In the midst of this the rise of the ISIS in Jun 2014 further complicated the strategic environment. That led to sectarian tensions in Iraq coming to a head. Saudi Arabia was left to handle a hugely challenging situation. Its ideology had been hijacked and ISIS was using it in a more radicalized form for its own confrontation with the rest of Islam. The world too realized that Saudi radicalism was a drop in the ocean in comparison to the obscurantism and depraved ideology that ISIS had extracted from it. 

Some change in strategic alignments appeared at this time. The US which had commenced a period of lower interest in the Middle East was diluting the strong Saudi-US equation due to the lowering of its energy interests (shale gas had emerged as a commercial reality). It had to return to remain a significant player and re-establish its strategic presence. Another player in the emerging drama of the Middle East then was Turkey whose prime interest lay in securing its vulnerable southern flank; the worry for it was the successful Kurdish involvement against ISIS which the world was acknowledging. Equally it was concerned about the future dispensation, with Iran the dominant power in the Levant.

ISIS was deeply involved in its international networks but equally kept the war going against multiple nations – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the US. In late 2015 Russia joined the war and its presence made a huge difference. Its presence also led to realignments and strengthening of selected players; Iran’s role expanded exponentially.

Iran had worked on influencing and controlling its proxy elements in Yemen. Geographically, Yemen had the potential to divert attention of Saudi Arabia from the Iraq theatre. That is the strategy Iran probably followed while supporting the Shia Houthis in Yemen and allegedly arming them. It succeeded in drawing Saudi Arabia and a large number of Sunni countries into an unwinnable war in Yemen which does not seem anywhere near ending.

Former President Obama’s diplomatic strategy was focused on gradually de-isolating Iran through reliable and structured controls on its alleged nuclear weapons program. It led to a consensus deal in Jul 2015, involving the P5+1. However, while Iran and the P5+1 have been adjusting to the new strategic environment after the deal the coming of President Trump has cast a pall of uncertainty on the deal itself, well before its full actualization.

2016-2017-Coming of President Trump, military defeat of ISIS and the Palace Coup by Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS)

2017 saw the arrival of President Trump and an overturning of caution pursued by former President Obama. Trump’s first overseas visit was to Saudi Arabia and Israel signaling the importance attached to the Middle East where his concern about Iran has been more than anything else. Through 2016-17 the military defeat of ISIS was imminent once Falujah fell and the battles for Mosul and Raqqa were joined. The final displacement of ISIS through military defeat in 2017 has left it only ideologically linked through networks and transnational terror capability. Its next appearance as a physical entity yet remains in doubt.

Among the final acts of this long run up of events to the current situation has been the attempted resurgence of Saudi power through the targeting of Qatar, long seen as an emerging alternative power center. Qatar’s propensity to remain close to Iran due to mutual energy interests in the Persian Gulf drew the ire of Saudi Arabia and its allies – Egypt, UAE and Bahrain, backed by the US whose policy in this regard remains hazy and vague.

The last of the events is the palace coup executed by the dynamic but impetuous young Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman (MbS). Post defeat of the ISIS and the virtual domination of the Syrian civil war by the Iran-Russia-Syria (Assad) combine, the spread of the Shia Crescent from west Iran to Lebanon (Hezbollah dominated) is in the process of cementing. MbS is concerned about that. He is also attempting to restructure the Saudi nation to prepare it for a period when oil will no longer buy it riches. It is important for him to make Saudi theological ideology more acceptable within the Islamic world and put the world at a higher comfort level in relation to Wahabist belief.   The new Saudi Arabia he has in mind, however, cannot emerge so early. It is the speed of change that he is attempting which may rock the nation in an unpredictable way.

For Middle East watchers and those who follow the path of developments in the Islamic world it is a most fascinating period. Some conflicts such as the Arab Israeli one are now virtually on hold and new ones are emerging. The constant factor remains the Saudi Iran confrontation manifesting as a sectarian competition for either development of an eventual consensus or a final showdown.