Iran looks dominant, for now, in Middle East’s proxy war
This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.
At a time when Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to wage a proxy war against each other that has bled into, and enflamed, many of the Middle East’s conflicts, Iranian media responded positively to a surprise announcement last week that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) would cut production of oil, a move that was interpreted as a diplomatic defeat for Saudi Arabia.
Were Iranian newspapers merely playing to the home side bias or are they right to have sensed that the initiative in the Middle East’s cold war is swinging behind Tehran, the capital of Iran? OPEC’s 13 members agreed to a combined production cut of 1.2 million barrels of oil per day in an attempt to reduce the oversaturation of the market and increase oil prices. As part of the deal, Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of petroleum, agreed to cut its output by half a million barrels per day. Iran on the other hand was told it could increase production by up to 90,000 barrels per day as it complained of lost market share during years of economic sanctions, out of which it has only recently emerged.
But spats over the cost of oil are not the start and end of the regional powers’ rivalry. In a number of the region’s most violent conflicts, the hand of both can be seen influencing players on the ground. Like the USSR and the United States before them, Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia are taking shots at each other through a number of warring factions in several conflict zones. In each of these theaters, the regional powers are backing groups linked by sectarian ties to their own cause, though the extent and nature of their support is often contested.
This raises the question: Who appears to be winning the proxy war?
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia launched a campaign of airstrikes 18 months ago, targeting the Houthi faction in the country’s internal power struggle. A Shiite paramilitary group, the Houthi are allegedly backed by the Iranian government. Despite showing off a newly purchased fleet of military aircraft, Saudi Arabia’s intervention has caught more headlines for concerns over civilian casualties than for the defeat of the Shiite group.
By contrast, in Syria, where the Iranian government has invested heavily, recent defeats for Sunni rebels in Aleppo appear to show that Tehran’s desired outcome is making progress. Although the bolstering of the Syrian regime currently has more to do with Russian intervention, it nonetheless supports the objectives of Iran. While Russia supported Bashar Assad, Syria’s president, through airpower, Iran has provided military personnel as advisers — and possibly fighters — and has encouraged a number of Shiite militias to enter the fight, providing much-needed ground troops.
In neighboring Iraq, Iran has the ear of the government and has close ties to a number of paramilitary groups, which are fighting against ISIS and upon which the government is reliant.
The news from the battlefields, when combined with the diplomatic and economic wrangling over sanctions and oil prices, might give the impression that Iran is in the driver’s seat. But this can depend on whom you ask.
“Nobody has yet thrown a knockout punch. It’s ongoing with one scoring here and the other scoring there,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a retired professor of politics and chairman of the Arab Council for Social Science in the United Arab Emirates, said. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s intervention prevented the worst-case scenario, the creation of “an Iranian satellite state in their own backyard,” the professor said. While in Syria, he pointed out the loss in blood and treasure that Tehran had borne for its support of the Syrian government.
Trita Parsi, the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, took a different view, arguing that Saudi Arabia was in decline already and had been for the last decade due to its reliance on Washington.
“U.S. power has been dwindling since the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq … [and] Saudi Arabia is dependent on that power for its own protection and standing,” Parsi wrote by email. If you were to examine Saudi Arabia’s action in Yemen and its failure to block Iranian objectives in Syria then, as Parsi put it, “Saudi’s resistive decline becomes target evident.”
The Middle East’s cold war would continue for some time to come, and with the inauguration of Donald Trump on the horizon, the balance of power could shift considerably.
“I’m sure Iran is not very happy. They’ve lost [U.S. President Barack] Obama … a great strategic asset,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla commented, noting that the next administration would be very different. Trump is gathering a team that could be described as “very much an anti-Iran team,” the retired professor said.
On this point, Parsi agreed. “Many of the cold warriors Trump is bringing to the White House wish to re-establish America’s hegemony in the Middle East,” he argued, noting this gives Saudi Arabia an edge. “If you subscribe to that objective, you will see Iran as an enemy since it challenges America’s leadership, and you’ll see Saudi as a friend since it wants and begs for Pax Americana.”