Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, center left, at an emergency Arab League session in Cairo in January. (AP Photo Ahmed Omar)
The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been fraught with tension for decades. In 1979, when the Shah was overthrown in Iran, that country shifted from being an ally of the US to an enemy, while the Saudis remained closely tied to the Americans. Since then, the two oil-producing regional Middle East powers have butted heads several times, notably in the aftermath of the 1987 incident in which hundreds of Iranian demonstrators in Mecca were killed by Saudi forces.
As 2015 rolled into 2016, things got worse: In September, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made threatening proclamations after a stampede in Mecca left more than 700 people dead, including many Iranians. Proxy wars between the two countries in Syria and Yemen have become increasingly bloody. Then came the Saudi execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr on January 2, which fueled a protest in Tehran in which angry Iranians burned down the Saudi embassy.
Now the two countries have cut diplomatic ties, and Iran has banned its citizens from making pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia. Nerves between the rivals have frayed to the point where observers are talking about a cold war between the two countries. This is complicated by the recent Iranian nuclear deal, which has inched Iran closer to the West; in Europe, some sympathize more with Iran than Saudi Arabia due to the latter's record of mass executions and other human rights abuses.
To find out more about this simmering conflict and what it would mean for America and the West, VICE reached out to Michael Knights, a Lafer fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He has worked on the military balance between Iran and the Gulf States for over 20 years, and just recently wrote an article for Foreign Policy on what the future holds for the region.
VICE: Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been growing for decades, and the two are now locked into what amounts to a cold war. What happens if it turns into an actual war?
Michael Knights: Well, cold wars earn their name because they don't turn into sustained hot wars. And Saudi/GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] versus Iran falls into this category. Both states are actually remarkably vulnerable to attack by each other. This has created a fairly stable balance of terror in the past, with both sides using proxies to hurt each other, usually in third-party nations where the two sides both have interests like Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and Lebanon.
But all cold wars have the potential to suddenly turn hot, probably only for a moment before the leaderships "turn off" the war. This risk exists in the case of Saudi/GCC versus Iran. Until recently both sides were adopting the cold war idea of "sanctuary"—meaning they largely stayed out of each other's domestic security. But in the last year Iran has begun using its proxies to import advanced roadside bombs to Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province, which has a majority Shia population who are very disgruntled with their second-class-citizen role in society. Iranian meddling in the Eastern Province is somewhat like the Soviets putting nukes in Cuba: You can't let it happen if you are the other side. This explains some of Saudi Arabia's tough stance on executing the Eastern Province Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr.
The US State Department cautioned that the execution of Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr could worsen relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but the Obama administration has pointedly not criticized the move since it happened. What's the play for America here diplomatically?
There is a level of US discomfort over the case of Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr and over the issue of Saudi Arabia's brutal air campaign in Yemen. Even under normal circumstances the United States would worry that Nimr's death might set off an Iranian retaliation and a slide to "hot war." Today, with the Obama administration desperate to sustain the Iran nuclear deal, the White House's fear is doubled. In Yemen the issue is more a humanitarian one: We know Saudi is fighting an unnecessarily dirty air war and we're implicated by association. We want that to stop.
Watch the VICE News documentary on the bombing of Yemen:
US State Department spokesman John Kirby has said, "We want to see tension reduced, we want to see dialogue restored and try to get a resolution to these things peacefully, diplomatically and without violence." How does the US go about helping achieve that?
The US is not a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Washington does not even have normal diplomatic relations with Tehran, the world's most prolific state sponsor of terrorism according to the very same State Department. So we're hardly the ideal interlocutor. But we can reduce the risk of violence in Eastern Province in two ways. First, signal to Iran that further evidence of the smuggling of arms to Eastern Province will result in U.S. abrogation of the nuclear deal and "snapback" of sanctions. And second, work with Saudi Arabia to build a comprehensive confidence and security-building initiative for Eastern Province Shia that is linked to ongoing US military aid in Yemen. But these are perfect-world options. In the real world the Obama team will not imperil the deal, no matter what the Iranian provocation, and the US will not risk its diplomatic and defense relations with Saudi Arabia under any circumstances.
And supposing America isn't able to find a peaceful resolution, does it back someone in the conflict?
We're somewhat tied to Saudi Arabia as a linchpin military and energy sector ally. We may not like what they are doing in Yemen and we wouldn't feel comfortable watching American-provided tanks used to roll over Shia husseiniyahs (prayer houses) in Eastern Province. All we can do is strongly signal that there must be limits to how we fight the wars that are here and those that are coming; international standards must be observed, both because military support will become more difficult, legally and politically, if gross violations are undertaken. But also because it is the least effective way to end a security threat and the best way to fan the flames of insurgency.
You've worked on the military balance between Iran and the Gulf states for over 20 years. Is this as bad as you've ever seen it?
The military tension is as bad as it has been at any point in my career. It was worse in the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq War: Then there were Iranian missiles hitting ships in Kuwait harbors, Iranian saboteurs being landed on the Saudi coast, Iranian mines being laid in front of US warships, US forces sinking Iranian gunboats, and Iranian jets being shot down by the Saudis. Today both sides have a "push-button" capability to really hurt each other's coastal cities, key industries and foreign investment—and to do it in minutes. This makes the situation today pretty volatile, though we're not quite in the 1980s territory yet.
Where does this go from here?
The next steps in this proxy war will be an Iranian intensification in Eastern Province and Yemen, whilst the Saudis and Turks will ramp up the anti-Assad, anti-Iran forces in western Syria. The wild card is whether Saudi Arabia ever tries to mess inside Iran's home turf, backing Sunni militants in Sistan-Baluchistan (on Pakistan's border) or in Khuzestan (in the Arab parts of southern Iran). This would be the equivalent to Iranian meddling in Eastern Province.
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