Cold War in the Islamic World
Saudis’ Protector, Iran’s “Great Satan”
Riyadh’s intimate links with Washington put it at odds with the Islamic Republic, which adopted “Neither East nor West” as the guiding principle of its foreign policy. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Iran treated the subsequent Russian Federation as a neighbor, which was no longer atheist, and therefore worth cultivating. By contrast, Tehran’s adversarial stance toward America, somewhat moderated after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who routinely called America “Great Satan,” remained in place.
It was an article of faith among Iran’s leaders that a non-Muslim state – no matter how powerful – should have no role in the defense of any of the littoral Muslim states in the Gulf region. This boiled down to a zero sum equation between Tehran and Washington. What was a plus for the US was a minus for Iran; and vice-versa. The Islamic Republic has stuck to this doctrine in principle throughout its existence. It has paid a price for its obduracy in terms of economic sanctions. But these measures, along with a long war with Iraq, compelled Iran to become self-reliant. As a result, there was a spurt in its civilian and military industries. Also the contribution of oil and gas to its GDP declined to a mere 15 per cent, about a third of the current figure for Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh’s intimate links with the US exposes it to the ideological challenge by the Islamic Republic of Iran. It tries to counter this by highlighting Iran as a state of Shias, a minority among the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. It is worth noting that Article 12 of the Iranian constitution, which describes Islam and the Twelver Jaafari school as the country’s official religion, accords “full respect” to Hanafi, Shafii, Maliki, and Hanbali schools of Sunni Islam as well as Zaidi (Shia), with their followers being free to act in accordance with their own jurisprudence in performing their religious rites.
As followers of the Wahhabi school within the puritanical Hanbali jurisprudence in Sunni Islam, Saudi royals are particularly hostile toward Shias at home and abroad. In contrast to their Saudi counterparts, Iranian leaders stress what unites Shias and Sunnis rather than what divides them. In their rivalry with the Saudi Kingdom, they refrain from making any reference to their sectarian affiliation. Every year Iran observes Islamic Unity week which bridges the gap between the two birthdays of Prophet Muhammad, one accepted by Sunni ulema and the other by their Shia counterparts.
Tehran’s record speaks for itself. With cash and weapons, it has aided Hamas, which is purely Sunni since there are no Shias in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank. It has maintained cordial relations with the transnational Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic movement that originated in 1928 in an almost universally Sunni Egypt. Ideologically, the Islamic Republic shares republicanism with the Brotherhood. The Saudi government, once the prime financial and ideological backer of the Brotherhood, fell out with its leadership in 1991 when the latter opposed the stationing of US troops on Saudi soil on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War.
Iran’s chance to intervene in Palestinian politics, which riles Saudi policy-makers, came because of the failure of the Saudis’ argument that only by remaining in the American camp can they influence US policy on the Middle East. That became clear during the Palestinians’ Second Intifada (2000–2005) when King Abdullah’s lobbying of the Bush White House proved fruitless.
The Saudi government chafed at the prestigious diplomatic gain Tehran made by providing money and arms to Hamas which it could not do since Hamas had been listed as a terrorist organization by the US.
Cold War Between Riyadh and Tehran
Diplomatic competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran got going in 1975, and escalated to a Cold War after the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran four years later. It was King Faisal, who, riding the wave of petro-dollars resulting from the quadrupling of oil prices in 1973–1974, started a concerted drive to have a footprint in Muslim countries outside the Arab Middle East. He succeeded in Pakistan.
In a similar campaign, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi gained influence in adjoining Afghanistan using money as the prime means to achieve it. After his overthrow, the Islamic Republic pursued the aim of gaining influence in the Muslim states of the Middle East and South Asia by using a variety of means except cash handouts. The list included rhetorical propaganda through state-controlled broadcasting media, appeals to Islamic solidarity with a view to eliminating Western influence, advancing republicanism in the Arab Gulf monarchies (Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ruled that monarchy is un-Islamic), and advancing radicalism among the Palestinians in their ongoing conflict with Israel. Being listed by the US as a country that sponsors state terrorism since 1985 made it free to support financially and militarily Hamas.
Altogether, the long-running cold war between Riyadh and Tehran has inadvertently replicated the pattern of the US-Soviet Cold War. The two superpowers cooperated to sign the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty I in May 1972 while continuing their competition to win over the recently liberated countries in Asia and Africa. In the Islamic world, this has meant Saudi Arabia and Iran competing for influence in the Middle East and beyond.
In 2017, Iran had the upper hand in the Arab Middle East despite the fact that after the detente between the two Islamic heavyweights from May 1993 to December 2001, Saudi Arabia had intensified its efforts to counter Iranian influence in the region. Tehran made gains for various reasons. Besides its deployment of an armory of tactics, it had the advantages of geopolitics and demography. It has land borders with six
countries in South Asia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East, and a fluvial border with Russia in the Caspian Sea. Although Shias are only 15 per cent of the Muslim population worldwide, in the region covering the eight littoral states of the Persian Gulf, Yemen, Levant (Syria and Lebanon), Jordan, and Palestine, Shias total about 116 million. Their overall numbers are slightly larger than Sunnis’ in an aggregate population of 226 million, including 6 million Christians. They constitute a clear majority in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain. Iran made gains by default in the aftermath of Washington’s disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, and as a result of the Saudi Arabia-led diplomatic and commercial blockade on Qatar in 2017.
All in all, in the multi-front Cold War, Iran gained the upper hand in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Qatar. In the long-running civil war in Yemen between Iran-backed Houthi rebels, occupying the capital of Sanaa, and the government of Riyadh-based President Abd Rabbu al Hadi, the situation remains murky. There is, however, a general agreement that a clear-cut military victory for one side is most unlikely. It is hard to see how, in the interim political agreement to lead to UN-supervised elections, the Houthis can be excluded, since they have proved to have far more staying power than all the other parties in the civil war as well as outside powers had anticipated.
Backed by the virulently anti-Iran US President Donald Trump, Saudi Arabia’s brash Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has tried to counter Tehran’s supremacy, with little success so far. His military intervention in Yemen has turned into an expensive quagmire. His hasty move to punish Qatar for maintaining normal relations with Iran by getting the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to cut off commercial and diplomatic links with Doha has proved counterproductive. His move has thrown Qatar into the welcoming arms of Iran and strengthened military cooperation with Turkey, a leading Sunni nation. Qatar’s plans to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Doha remain on track, with several large Turkish construction companies playing an important role in the building of stadiums.
The Saudi Crown Prince failed in his attempt to destabilize Lebanon which is ruled by a national unity government with pro-Iran Hizbollah ministers. Bin Salman has not yet grasped a cardinal rule of diplomacy. Before trying to bend a foreign government to your will, you must calculate its strengths and weaknesses dispassionately.
All along a basic flaw in Saudi diplomacy has been its almost total reliance on cash handouts. But financial incentives are effective only up to a certain point. A good example is Pakistan. While maintaining close links with Riyadh, Pakistan’s President General Zia ul Haq refused to exclude Shia soldiers from the contingents he agreed to send to the Saudi Kingdom in the 1980s. He stated point blank that he could not make a distinction between Sunni and Shia soldiers in his country’s military.
When Bin Salman tried to build up a powerful coalition to intervene in Yemen in March 2015, he and King Salman approached Pakistan. But, realising that the Saudi government’s move was driven by its pathological hatred of Shias, the lawmakers in Islamabad rejected the Saudi call. They were well aware of the influence of the minority Shias in the national institutions as well as repeated attacks on soft Shia targets by the local, militantly Sunni jihadist groups.
Nearer home, Kuwait refused to join Bin Salman’s drive against Qatar for maintaining normal ties with Tehran in June 2017, because its ruler was conscious of the fact that 30 per cent of Kuwaiti citizens were Shia. But the overall perspective that Saudi royals hold of Shias is highly skewed. They see a threatening Shia crescent arising in the midst of a Sunni region.
Dilip Hiro is the author of more than thirty books, including After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World; Inside Central Asia; and Apocalyptic Realm: Jihadists in South Asia.