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A comparative look at the ‘new Cold War’ of the Middle East

Published 17 Dec 2018
Dayna Santana

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been antagonists for decades, with many regional wars and violent conflicts being prolonged by the manoeuvring and influence of these two Middle Eastern giants. Analysis of the tensions reveals the situation to be a ‘new cold war’, as the hostilities of Saudi Arabia and Iran parallel those of the United States and the Soviet Union during the previous Cold War. This article will present a short comparative study of the two ‘cold war’ situations, whilst aiming to examine to what extent ideology plays a role in the hostilities of the Middle East.

A cold war is a state of conflict between two nations that does not involve direct military action, meaning the two nations in conflict have not actually declared war on each other. As occurred during the twentieth century’s Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, spheres of influence and ambitions for dominance are central to Saudi-Iranian relations. Saudi Arabia envisions itself as the representative of Islam internationally, using its custodianship of the holy cities Mecca and Medina to bolster this claim. To counter this, Iran has traditionally appealed to Arab populations through expressing vehement opposition to the United States and wider-Western imperialism in the region, and emphasising commitment to the Palestinian cause.

Further, predominant elements of the Cold War were the use of proxy warfare and fears of expansionism. This is highly relevant in the Middle East, as proxy warfare is prevalent, with Saudi Arabia and Iran backing opposing factions in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Syria. The contending factions in these countries often line up along the Sunni-Shi’a divide, a product of regional instability, allowing for Saudi and Iranian influence to be achieved through the patronage they provide to Sunni and Shia regimes or minorities.

Interestingly, the US’s fear of expanding Soviet-Communist influence in the world, or fear of the “Reds”, mirrors that of Saudi-Arabia’s fear of Iran “exporting the Revolution” post-1979 and spreading its anti-monarchic Shi’a theocracy throughout the Middle East. Iran explicitly discredits the legitimacy of monarchical regimes, directly challenging the Saud family’s rule and questioning the reign of the Saud family, claiming that a monarchical regime with Islamic ideals is illegitimate, holding up Iran’s clerical leadership and republic state as the ideal model for Islamic rule.

Another parallel between both ‘cold war’ situations, is the fact that observers and analysts have characterised both situations as a ‘security dilemma’ whereby each state increases defence spending to guard against a perceived attack, causing the opposing state to feel threatened and thus increase defence spending. This facilitates a self-sustaining cycle whereby countries increase military budgets and actions for security yet ultimately escalate the chance and potential severity of a conflict. Each intervention, from Saudi Arabia’s entrance into the Yemeni war to Iran’s sending of more troops and military advisers into Syria, was perceived by the respective regimes as appropriately severe measures in response to high-stake security threats. Yet so far it has only resulted in heightened mutual fears and suffering in war-torn countries.

The final key similarity between the tensions of the Middle East and the US-Soviet Cold War, is the issue of nuclear weapons. It is uncertain how long Iran will stay committed to the non-development of nuclear weapons, especially in consideration of the tearing up of the 2015 Iran Deal by President Trump – an agreement that was a vital safeguard against Iran developing dangerous nuclear capacities. Adding to this concern, in a CBS interview earlier this year Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, declared, “If Iran develops a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”

In understanding that the Middle Eastern tensions comprise a ‘new cold war’, it is important to recognise that the sectarian nature of this conflict has been relatively overstated. This is a key difference between the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, whereby ideology played a crucial defining factor in the hostilities, as the contrasting principles governing the U.S. and the Soviet Union at the time completely contradicted each other and defined that war to its essence. Reporting of the tensions between the two Middle Eastern giants stresses the ‘sectarian’ nature of the conflict, however the reality is that religious differences are not the driving cause of hostilities. Historical analysis reveals that the sectarian and ideological differences have been either downplayed or emphasised in the region by both Iranians and Saudis at differing points in history to serve their respective purposes. The Sunni-Shi’a religious divide is only a device in the wider game of geopolitical manoeuvring.

Hence, analysis of the antagonism between Saudi Arabia and Iran reveals the relationship to be a ‘new cold war’, with an overstated emphasis on sectarianism.  This Middle Eastern cold war is one played purely for the game of achieving the regional hegemonic status, as both Saudi Arabia and Iran claim historical right to lead the region. This is a key difference between the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, whereby ideology played a crucial defining factor in the hostilities. It is helpful to recognise the dynamics at play in the Middle East, as this exceedingly unstable region is central to many of the issues the world faces, such as the global refugee crisis, the rise of dangerous non-state actors, and universal concerns about the advent of new nuclear powers. The key to understanding the Middle East, is to recognise who drives the conflicts and division and how they are prolonging instability.

Dayna Santana is a Master of Peace and Conflict Studies student at the University of Sydney, having graduated from a Bachelor of International and Global Studies degree in 2016. She lived for three months last year in New York interning for the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the United Nations, where she advised on and attended UN consultations on a daily basis. Having volunteered in refugee camps in Greece which led to the beginnings of her small non-for-profit, Dayna has developed an interest in immigration policies worldwide and how the rise of populism, particularly in Europe, is affecting this. Her other interests are International Human Rights Law, Middle Eastern affairs, and the European Union.

Dayna is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.