The Saudi-Iranian Cold War risks Turning Hot

Cold wars have been waged for a long time. The one between Sparta and Athens eventually became hot. The US-Soviet cold war that dominated global politics for nearly five decades never did. Israel and Syria were in a cold war from 1973 until the Syrian state effectively collapsed in 2011. India and Pakistan have been in a cold war since partition with periodic hot spells.
A cold war is a conflict in which great efforts are made to avoid direct battlefield confrontation, usually because the consequences of fighting are not desired by either side. Those of a US-Soviet hot war could have been thermonuclear in nature and, thus, bad for the entire planet. India and Pakistan also have nuclear warheads, making the desire to keep their war on ice very strong.
Countries involved in cold wars continue to compete; they just do it through proxies — states or groups — by intimidating behaviour, threatening rhetoric, espionage and economic warfare. “Moscow and Washington refrained from direct warfare with each other,” Seth Jones, director of the International Security and Defence Policy Centre at the RAND Corporation, said. “They did, however, engage in proxy wars in Latin America, Asia and Africa.”
Troops from the competing countries may get involved in proxy wars but not against one another: The United States fought in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
The current cold war with the greatest threat of getting hot involves Saudi Arabia and Iran. Like all cold wars, neither side seems to want a direct confrontation, although there may be elements in both Riyadh and Tehran that desire this. Since neither country possesses nuclear weapons, the consequences of a direct Saudi-Iranian confrontation would not be cataclysmic but would still be significant.
For Iran, it would mean a de facto war with the entire Sunni Arab world as well as with the United States, which strongly backs Riyadh and whose current administration is influenced by people itching for a showdown with Tehran. Iran could also say goodbye to the Western investment that was supposed to flow in after the nuclear deal was signed in 2015.
Riyadh would also find the consequences of a direct confrontation unpleasant. Although possessing much more advanced weaponry than Iran, the Saudis are not as battle-tested and have not looked that convincing in Yemen. The Saudis are trying to attract billions of dollars in investment to propel their ambitious economic reform programme; international capital usually avoids war zones.
Like cold warriors throughout history, the Saudis and Iranians have found other stages for their hostile competition. “Riyadh and Tehran continue to engage in proxy wars in such countries as Yemen, Syria and Lebanon,” Jones said. “In addition, both sides have provided assistance and training to foreign fighters.”
Saudi Arabia and Iran also have relied on other cold war tactics: Economic pressure, intimidating rhetoric and espionage.
Even if you believe that neither country truly wants a hot war, the Saudi-Iranian confrontation has a very real chance of becoming one. The two countries are geographically close — unlike the United States and the Soviet Union which are separated by vast distances, except for the very tip of Alaska, which is close to Siberia.
Also close by are the proxy wars Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in — Yemen, where Iran and its ally Hezbollah are supporting the Houthis, borders Saudi Arabia. Iraq borders both antagonists.
Syria and Lebanon are in the neighbourhood and have long and complicated ties with both Riyadh and Tehran.
Another factor increasing the possibility of a hot war is Iran’s reckless behaviour. While in both countries there may be voices urging confrontation, those elements in Tehran appear to be stronger and certainly louder. The missile that Yemen’s Houthi forces — Tehran’s proxies in that conflict — fired at Riyadh’s airport appears to have been supplied by Tehran. Bahrain says Iran was directly involved in an oil pipeline explosion near Manama.
Although Iran predictably denied involvement in both incidents, the hard-line Tehran daily Kayhan, featured a headline on November 6 following the Houthi missile attack saying: “Ansarullah Launches Missile against Riyadh. Next Target: Dubai!” The United Arab Emirates is a major Saudi ally and a missile aimed at Dubai from Yemen would fly over the kingdom.
It also appears that Tehran is determined to achieve its main regional objective: A ground link between Iran and Lebanon, a country that, along with Syria, it hopes to dominate. While Iran’s leaders most likely prefer avoiding a direct confrontation with Saudi forces, they seem willing to risk it if necessary to achieve this goal. Tehran’s recent provocative actions could be designed to intimidate Riyadh. Even in a cold war, you want the other side to believe that you are willing and capable of fighting.
Iran’s actions also may reflect an internal struggle inside the country between hawks associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and more cautious officials who prefer a more gradual approach to Iranian hegemony.
Cold wars are better than hot wars — except for the unfortunate people living in areas where proxy battles are being fought — and some, like the US-Soviet cold war, last for decades. The danger of nuclear holocaust kept Moscow and Washington mutually cautious, however, especially after the near-miss of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ultimately, the two devised mechanisms, such as arms control agreements and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to manage and temper their competition.
Could such mechanisms prevent the Saudi-Iranian cold war from becoming hot?
Daniel Serwer, director of the Conflict Management Programme at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said that “a regional structure is the ultimate solution but it will take years to get one in place and years more to make it effective… The current situation is urgent and won’t wait for OSCE molasses.”
Jones concurred, saying: “I don’t think some type of multilateral institution is likely to minimise Saudi-Iranian security competition.” Cooperation between the United States and Russia, Jones said, “could be helpful in preventing direct conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.”
He added, however, that this “would require greater collaboration between Washington and Moscow… Whether [US President Donald] Trump and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin are willing and able to cooperate is the $64,000 question.”
Mark Habeeb
is East-West editor of The Arab Weekly and adjunct professor of Global Politics and Security at Georgetown University in Washington.
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