Many had assumed that the situation in the Middle East would stabilise after the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, the region appears to have become even more volatile and a serious conflagration is increasingly on the cards.
A major reason for the deteriorating security situation is that the defeat of ISIS coincided with greater consolidation of the Assad regime’s control over parts of Syria. All players in the region see this as a victory for Iran, Assad’s principal supporter, and a defeat for its regional rival, Saudi Arabia, which had been a major supporter of the anti-Assad forces.
That has made Saudi Arabia’s principal decision-maker, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS for short), hopping mad. Saudi Arabia’s inability to defeat the Houthis, whom it considers surrogates of Iran in Yemen, has added to Riyadh’s frustration. The Houthis, as the Economist has pointed out, may be too weak to rule over all of Yemen, but they are too powerful for Saudi Arabia to defeat.
Saudi Arabia’s inability to bring its tiny neighbor Qatar to heel despite the imposition of a quarantine supported by Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE has further exposed Saudi limitations. The refusal of Oman and Kuwait to join Riyadh in imposing sanctions on Iran has exposed the fragility of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Saudis’ influence over its smaller neighbors. In fact, the move has backfired by pushing Qatar further into Iranian arms and straining Saudi relations with Turkey, which supports Qatar in its confrontation with Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia’s external frustrations have become intertwined with MbS’s ambitions to rule the country as its sole autocrat. Saudi misadventures in Yemen and Qatar have been attributed to the young prince’s incompetence and impetuousness. While the Saudis were involved in Syria before MbS’s rise to power, the setback in the Fertile Crescent has come under his watch and is increasingly attributed to his failure to anticipate events.
In desperation, the young prince has upped the ante by making increasingly hyperbolic remarks about Iran, including calling its supreme leader the Middle East’s Hitler. He has also made it clear that there’s no room for any dialogue with Iran, presenting this argument in sectarian terms and attributing it to the messianic ideology of Shia Iran.
The escalation of Saudi rhetoric that panders to sectarian beliefs of the Sunni majority in the Arab world isn’t a good omen for future Saudi–Iranian relations. Not only does it stir up primordial hatreds between Sunni and Shia, but it also provides Shia Iran with the opportunity to portray MbS as the usurper Caliph Yazid, who massacred Hussein ibn Ali, the prophet’s grandson, and his meager band of followers in 680 CE in the battle of Karbala.
MbS’s visceral hatred for Iran has also brought Saudi Arabia close to Israel, which complicates matters further. While Israel’s opposition to even a minimum Iranian nuclear program is well known, what unites Riyadh and Tel Aviv against Tehran is the fact that Iran ‘has a clear strategic goal: Opening up a land corridor connecting Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon’. Thanks to its influence over the Iraqi and Syrian governments, its financial and military support to the Iraqi Shia militias, and, above all, its close relationship with the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran is well on its way to achieving that objective.
Both Saudi Arabia and Israel fervently oppose this Iranian manoeuvre. The Saudis perceive it as their final defeat in the competition with Iran for influence in the heart of the Arab world. Their anger with Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, which led to his brief detention in Saudi Arabia, stems mainly from his inability to curb the influence of Hezbollah, and therefore of Iran, within the Lebanese polity. That episode has once again thrust Lebanon into the centre of the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia—a competition that the Saudis seem to be losing.
Israel is mortally afraid of an Iranian military presence close to its borders and escalation of Iranian support to Hezbollah, especially since it perceives another war with Hezbollah as inevitable. Israel has repeatedly attacked Hezbollah targets in Syria and in the past few days has escalated its confrontation with Iran by bombing a Syrian facility near Damascus that is reported to have doubled as an Iranian base.
While the Iranians haven’t reacted to the latest Israeli provocation, such incitements if they continue may provoke an Iranian response, especially since the Rouhani government, under attack by Iranian hardliners, can’t afford to be seen as weak-kneed vis-à-vis Israel. However, Israeli aggressiveness appears to be on the rise, especially with President Donald Trump contemplating moving the American embassy to Jerusalem and generally signaling support for the Israeli hardliners on the settlement issue.
All of these factors and forces make the Middle East a very combustible region. It’s unfortunate that the Trump administration has removed itself from the role of an honest mediator. It has done so by its unequivocal support for Saudi aspirations, its refusal to open lines of communication with Tehran, and its failure to discourage its Israeli allies from undertaking risky missions that may drag Washington into another futile conflict in the Middle East.