Ed Husain

The Arab Street

Husain examines politics, society, and radicalism in the greater Middle East.

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Iran Versus Saudi Arabia: Cold War in the Middle East

by Ed Husain
April 20, 2012

Saudi security forces march during a parade in preparation for the annual haj pilgrimage in Mecca (Mohammed Salem/Courtesy Reuters). Saudi security forces march during a parade in preparation for the annual haj pilgrimage in Mecca (Mohammed Salem/Courtesy Reuters).

Three countries were on top of the agenda for the many Saudis I met with in Riyadh last week. Again and again, and in passionate terms, Saudi political leaders were keen to stress the importance of arming Syrian opposition players, bombing Iran’s alleged nuclear facilities, and unflinchingly supporting the al-Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain. In their minds, these are not political options, but rather realities on the ground that they worry Washington does not understand.

Car bumper stickers in Riyadh called for arming the Free Syrian Army. Such an open display of support for military intervention in another country cannot be expressed in Saudi Arabia without government and broader public backing. The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, is on record calling for the arming of Syrian fighters. At meeting after meeting, the U.S. government position was heavily criticized by our Saudi friends. I was struck by two points: First, when asked what would happen after Assad fled or was removed, most Saudis I spoke with fell silent. Much like the Syrian opposition, their Saudi supporters have yet to put in place a concrete, viable plan to help Syrians rebuild after the fall of this deeply entrenched Baathist state. Second, no consideration has been given to what might happen if Saudi citizens were to rise in protest against the House of Saud. Does a military intervention in Syria not set a direct precedent for Saudi protesters in the Eastern Province? If those protesters were to be armed by outside powers, would Saudi Arabia’s government accept U.S. support for anti-government Saudis?

To most Saudis, though, the Syrian conflict is not just about Syria. It is also about Saudi Arabia’s sworn enemy: Iran. While it is disputable whether Iran’s nuclear program is for weapons-development purposes, most Saudi officials I spoke with, much like the American public, are convinced that Iran is headed toward developing weapons. Tellingly, Saudi concern was not about an attack on Israel, but on Saudi Arabia itself. At the highest levels of government, there was genuine fear that Iran intends to attack Saudi Arabia, and that the United States simply does not grasp the depth of the Iranian threat to the Kingdom, and beyond.

If I found myself disagreeing with Saudi friends on Syria, and still thinking about Iran, I was impressed by Saudi resolve and clarity on Bahrain. They cited Iranian support for the Shia cleric Ayatollah Isa Qassim, who had been in exile in Qom before returning to Bahrain in 2001. The fall of the al-Khalifa family in Bahrain would result in Qassim’s political party, al-Wefaq, taking control of the country’s institutions. With pro-Iranian clerics at the helm, Shia control of Bahrain would have unprecedented consequences, encouraging agitation among Saudi Arabia’s Shia population, but also resulting in a pro-Iran government in the GCC with access to Saudi Arabia’s joint oil fields with Bahrain. During my time in Bahrain, I met with the main opposition party and other political forces—on the basis of the evidence I saw, including claims by Shia opposition members of being verbally and physically attacked by supporters of Ayatollah Isa Qassim, I found myself in agreement with Saudi analysis. I will be writing in greater detail about Bahrain separately.

While Saudi concerns about Iran are not new, Iran’s direct meddling in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan give our Saudi allies every right to worry anew about Iranian imperialist influences. In the name of creating a democracy, the West helped hand over Iraq to the Iranian sphere of influence in the modern Middle East. That mistake cannot be repeated in Bahrain—and it won’t be for as long as the Saudis are standing.

I disagree with our Saudi friends on Syria and I am unsure on Iran, but I know they are right about the risks in Bahrain and the consequences of not supporting the al-Khalifa monarchy as it introduces reforms. The U.S. government is right to station its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.

As the appetite for greater involvement in the Middle East dissipates in Washington, it is worth remembering the famous saying attributed to Leon Trotsky: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” The cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is real. Bahrain is on the front line of that war.

(My next post will address Saudi domestic concerns.)

14 Comments

  • Posted by Scott Lucas

    It is a shame that the Council on Foreign Relations would host this polemic masked as reportage. Even if Husain’s unnamed Saudi sources were putting out general analysis, rather than spinning him, the real agenda here is his.

    In short, this is not a critique of Saudi Arabia, let alone a thoughtful consideration of the regime, but a platform for an ill-informed, emotional assault on those challenging the regime in Bahrain. Few, if any, of them are Iran-supported, violent thugs as Husayn would assert without evidence. Instead, the story — far beyond the quick, well-financed drop-in visit of Husayn to meet selected elite last week — is of decades of political issues and, more specifically, the questions over rights and justice since February 2011.

  • Posted by Seerwan

    While Mr. Husain’s perspective on Syria and Saudi is agreeable, it is difficult to decide on what to begin critiquing regarding his perception of Bahrain.

    It appears Mr. Husain is unaware that Saudi citizens have risen in protest; they’ve been protesting for months in the Eastern Province. In response the Saudi Government has practically laid siege to the Eastern Province. Journalists aren’t being allowed in to see what’s happening; all the outside world gets to see is videos and pictures posted by citizen journalists. Additionally they became agitated after the Bahrain Revolution was brutally put down, not before. It is the suppression of the Bahrain Revolution that is radicalizing them.

    “If Al-Khalifa fall, Al-Wefaq takes over” So Ed is of the position that Bahrainis do not have a right to choose their Government in fair, free democratic elections?
    Furthermore, he buys into the propaganda that Isa Qassim wants high political office (like Khomeini) rather than simply desiring an end to the Bahraini people’s suffering under a regime that violates universal human rights, once achieving that reverting to a role of being a cleric, similar to Ali Sistani in Iraq.
    He also ignores that Al Wefaq doesn’t subscribe to the Iranian Government perspective of Wilayet Al Faqih.

    He argues a democratic Bahrain would “encourage agitation among Saudi Shia population”. As stated above, they are already roused and it was due to the brutal manner in which they were suppressed. Furthermore, by that logic, a democratic Egypt, Tunisia or any other Arab country with a successful uprising would similarly stir them; as they should be, considering that the Saudi Regime is one of the most totalitarian on earth.

    “… claims by Shia opposition members of being verbally and physically attacked by supporters of Ayatollah Isa Qassim” The Bahraini population, the Shia especially, is terrorized, ghettoized, impoverished, tortured, etc. but Mr. Husain views the former as a greater problem? That is the basis for his advocacy for denying an entire society of basic human and political rights for which they have peacefully been striving for decades for?

    Yet what is likely the most absurd statement in this post is this one; Mr. Husain is worried about Iranian direct meddling in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq, & Afghanistan, but he isn’t worried about Saudi meddling in those countries?!
    I am stunned by the irony that a gentleman who in his youth was influenced by Wahabi and Salafi radicalism in Britain is more afraid of Iranian influence than that of Saudi Arabia; the nation that played a major role in producing the Taliban, and a seminal role in creating Al Qaeda.

    Lastly, Mr. Husain should have checked Amnesty International’s report on the April 17, 2012 which essentially stated the Al-Khalifa monarchy has not introduced any reforms.

  • Posted by Alia

    I think its incredible that you are allowed to get away with such irresponsible fear mongering.CFR what are you doing?

    The paranioa that Saudi and USA have against Iran is already at very high levels, and you are just adding to it, with no value that I can see. In relation to Bahrain, most Bahrainis campaigning for change wants no part in this war we just want basic democratic human rights and we should not be held hostage to Saudi fears which they and the Bahrain regime use to justify brutalities.

  • Posted by PersianPeninsula

    Saudi Arabia with a pre-historic political system is the only country that does not allow women to vote, women cannot also drive or travel without their husbands permission. Country is owned by Saudi Wahhabism-family. Saudis cannot afford democracy anywhere in Moslem world. They are working hard to create another Bin Ladens and Saddams. Saudi Arabia recognized the Taliban government when it was in power for a short time.
    Having the country run by a weirdo version of Islam, a family that finances religious schools around the world that educate new Taliban, the source of the 9/11 hijackers, get its hands on the very latest fighter jets so they can deal with the political threat of Iran and make sure the oppressed majority in Bahrain never gets any relief.
    It is shame to consider those blood suckers closely allied with the United States.

  • Posted by S Imam

    So the slogans of peace, human rights and democracy are mere foreign policy tools selectively applied for US security interests.

  • Posted by Adill Hissan

    Well written article. Allow me to state my disagreement on one point. Being from Iraq originally, I may see the situation from different angle. Yo stated that “the West helped hand over Iraq to the Iranian sphere of influence in the modern Middle East” I disagree on this point. The American intervention was very well thought out and brilliantly planed. I see it just exactly the opposite of what you stated. Iraq was about to be claimed by Iran due to the support of the West for Saddam regime during Iran Iraq war. Iran on the other hand embraced Iraqi Shiite religious opposition leaders who enjoys a tremendous influence on the Shiite of Iraq. As a result, the Shiite of Iraq saw Iran as a saviour. The Americans knew the potential threat of Iran game and the grim reality of Iraq fallen into the hands of Iran. Consequently the Americans adopted a containment policy through tough long term sanctions, towards Saddam regime, a scheme which gave the Americans ample time to carve out an American model of democracy which ultimately secure their interests in the region. In other words, the Americans had two scenarios, either watch painfully a second Shiite uprising (first one in 1991) which would hand Iraq over to Iran on a golden plate. Or a military intervention which enable the Americans to establish an American model of democracy, of which I am in support of.

    Thank you
    Adill Hissan
    Ottawa, Canada

  • Posted by Abdulrahman Al-Zuhayyan

    The primary tool that facilitates an understanding of a current geopolitical situation, predicts it, or even creates it is to examine the political map of a particular country(s). In the case of the current political tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the political map shows that Iran is bordered with Iraq, the Arabian Gulf, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Caspian sea.

    Naturally, if Iran seeks any type of influence, it ought to be in its own geographical sphere, specifically in its bordering states. Iran, however, has summoned and garnered all of its power and influence in anything that is Arab rather than neighboring states or Islam, as Iran is a theocratic state, with ambitions to propagate its own version of Islam, the Shiite theocratic ideology. This defies any sensible political logic.

    Presently, Iran is directly interfering and meddling in the politics of Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates by military occupying its rightful three islands in the Arabian Gulf, as well as beefing up its military presence in this Arab Gulf. These countries are immediately adjacent to Saudi Arabia and are in its natural political sphere of influence.

    On the other side of the Arab World, Iran is similarly imposing its influence on countries that are adjacent to countries bordering Saudi Arabia, namely Syria by allying with Assad’s Bathists dictatorship, Lebanon by arming the sectarian army Hezbollah, and occupied Palestine by financing Hamas. Therefore, Saudi Arabia is surrounded by Iran’s influence everywhere even in its own territory, particularly in Qhteef, and that is a real and direct threat and is contrary to a perceived threat as some analysts like to claim.

    Moreover, Saudi Arabia is not interfering in Iranian oil-rich regions where most Sunni and Shiite Arabs are living; and it is not exerting its influence in those countries that are adjacent to Iran. Consequently, there is no other explanation for those Iranian’s practices but they are programmed to completely dominate oil-rich Arab Gulf Countries (GCC), and eventually the entire Arab Middle East, including its religious ideology (Sunni Islam and then Iranian Shiite Islam); its political issues (Palestine-Israel Conflict); and its natural resources.

    These Iranian imperialistic objectives should constitute an imminent threat to the national security of United States and Israel, especially with Iran’s acquisition of military nuclear arsenal that will definitely makes Iran’s dominance over the entire Middle East a matter of de facto.

    With respect to arming the Syrian Free Army, the argument in this article stated that the United States support of this army might be considered as an interference in Syria’s internal affairs in the same manner if the US armed Shiites in the Eastern region of Saudi Arabia. This is a misconstrued argument, and as a result, is illogical.

    The Shiites in the Eastern region are small and localized minority. They live in small towns and villages in both Qhteef and Al-Ahssa and make up 3-5 % of the entire population in this region. They are obviously surrounded by a sea of a Sunni population that comprises of waves of various Sunni Bedouin tribes, and consequently arming Shiites theoretically and practically will not succeed. The best option is to enter in a dialogue with the Saudi government to resolve any actual grievances.

  • Posted by Mike Diboll

    I’m unclear as to exactly what knowledge, training or expertise lends and credence to the writings of this “Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies”….

  • Posted by Ali Vali-allah

    Mike, you’re right…the only qualifications seem to be the funding the so called “Senior Fellow…” gets from the corrupt house of Saud.

    Abdulrahman, do us all a favor and simply take a look at a map next time you open your mouth. You’ll plainly see there is no such body of water called the “Arab gulf”. Since the dawn of man, advent of culture, and recorded history, there has ONLY been the PERSIAN gulf and as long as there will be inhabitants on this earth it will remain as the PERSIAN gulf.

    Ali Vali-allah
    Free Manama
    Free Bahrain

  • Posted by Scott Lucas

    It is a shame that the Council on Foreign Relations would host this polemic masked as reportage. Even if Husain’s unnamed Saudi sources were putting out general analysis, rather than spinning him, the real agenda here is his.

    In short, this is not a critique of Saudi Arabia, let alone a thoughtful consideration of the regime, but a platform for an ill-informed, emotional assault on those challenging the regime in Bahrain. Few, if any, of them are Iran-supported, violent thugs as Husayn would assert without evidence. Instead, the story — far beyond the quick, well-financed drop-in visit of Husayn to meet selected elite last week — is of decades of political issues and, more specifically, the questions over rights and justice since February 2011.

  • Posted by AtaTurk

    @ Abdulrahman..where exactly is arabian gulf? i have never seen it on a map or a globe

  • Posted by Robin Wigglesworth

    Where to begin? It is clear that Mr Husain has swallowed the line peddled by Bahrain’s rulers, Saudi Arabia and a narrow smattering of Shia government loyalists that Iran was involved in the country’s democratic uprising. The government’s own report on the uprising found no evidence of this, nor has the UK’s FCO or the US State Department. Indeed, both governments have several times condemned the harsh government crackdown, which has resulted in many deaths and extensive torture and human rights abuses – also chronicled by the Bassiouni report.

    Mr Husain betrays a simply staggering lack of knowledge of Bahraini history, and the uprising that emerged on Feb 14, 2011. Rudimentary research, or talks with any independent expert on Bahrain, would have given him a more nuanced view of the country, and recent developments there.

    Among the many fallacies in this deeply flawed article, he indicates that Sheikh Isa Qassim is pro-Iranian, as he once studied in Qom, and alleged that Wefaq is a pro-Iranian stooge. In reality, Sheikh Isa also studied in Najaf, and follows the marjas of that city – not Qom. Wefaq as a whole follows Ali Sistani, not Khameini. Moreover, Bahrain has no “access” to Saudi oilfields. Instead, the Saudi government gives Bahrain crude oil to refine to prop up the coffers of their co-religionists.

    That Mr Husain agrees with the views of “analysts” in Saudi Arabia – a country where crass anti-Shia sectarianism is rife, and Iran serves as a convenient external enemy on which to blame domestic complaints – speaks volumes of his lack of knowledge.

    There is a crying need for sober, independent and knowledgeable voices on Bahrain. Extremists exist on both sides. Sadly, Mr Husain provides none of this, and prefers to peddle the line fed him by the government’s expensive PR machine. Just a quick chat with the local US or UK embassy could have corrected many of his misapprehensions.

    Most distressingly, this tripe tarnishes the broader CFR name. I can only hope that the next time Mr Husain decides to write – or tweet – on such a sensitive subject, he does the required work first.

  • Posted by Mamadu Wayhik

    In regards to the comment above, yes you are correct Qassim did study in Najaf, where he adheres to its jurisprudence marja’iya, but in terms of political support, Iran provides substantial amount of support for this cleric, and that on its own, cannot be overlooked or whitewashed. Therefore, marja’iyas in Isa Qassim’s realm come in two fold: jurisprudence which requires external ( outside of Bahrain) hierarchical approve for any religious decree, and politically, where Qassim receives political reciprocity with clerics in Tehran.

  • Posted by John

    Great analysis, but i believe we should arm the fsa. The benefits are many. Iran would lose its closest ally thus isolating iran further and isolating hezbollah from recieving as much direct iranian support. With the hezbollah threat blunted one of iran’s most lethal deterents against western military action would be crippled

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