Last year in August, I wrote a blog post for the Pakistani Newspaper, Express Tribune hinting at the Strategic Shift that the US is busy implementing in the Middle East. A brief excerpt from the said blog is as follows:
“The US is currently trying to nurture a bipolar Middle East, reshaping it in a way as to create a balance of power between Iran and Saudi Arabia.”
The above mentioned assertion was based primarily on the easing of American ties with Iran which provided some breathing space to Iran economically while also allowing it to operate within Iraq and Syria to counter the growing influence of ISIS in the said regions.
A year later, the recent passiveness shown by the US – the major geopolitical mover till now – in the case with Saudi’s unilateral intervention in Yemen seems to have confirmed the delicate balancing act America is now perusing in the region.
Speaking in a strictly Hegelian way, every thesis is bound to produce an antithesis in the long run, therefore, let us not comment on the overall success of this strategy too early. However, the central point of interest is how this strategy is being perceived by the two key (excluding Israel) geopolitical players and rivals in the region.
Traditionally, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been at odds due to the Shia-Sunni (and Arab-Persian) split though the prime geopolitical rival to Iranian influence was Iraq as it acted as a buffer and a common enemy to both Iran and Saudi Arabia. With the relegation of Iraq from a Petro Kingdom to a failed state plagued by ongoing ethnic tensions, the United States either by design or incidentally helped Iran in countering the Iraqi threat posed by Saddam Hussain. It also however bought Iran directly face to face with The House of Saud in this geopolitical arena. Crippled by economic sanctions and lack of allies, Iran had no choice but to reach out and seek friends within the Arab world more actively and secure important economic and military deals. This regional expansion at a rapid pace was seen as a direct threat by the House of Saud who wanted to spear head the region after the fall of Baghdad.
Iran’s role in Iraq, Syria and traditionally in Lebanon is quite pronounced and obvious. Currently, the Kurdish Peshmarga in Iraq fights alongside IRG (Iranian Revolutionary Guard) advisors and regular Iranian troops. Same can be said about its operations in Syria and Lebanon where Hezbollah operates patronized by Iran. The Sauds themselves are involved with Iran in a tournament of shadows on almost all fronts either through proxies or through political aid until now.
Yemen saw a totally new dimension to this tournament of shadows with the direct intervention by Saudi Arabia using raw muscle to counter the Houthi threat. The Houthis present a grave danger to Saudi Arabia’s geostrategy of dominance of the Sunni World by exporting its brand of Islam based on the Wahabi school of thought. The Saudis it seemed were both alarmed and angered by the presence of an Iranian Proxy (though direct Iranian involvement can be debated) on its Southern borders overlooking the all-important Bab Al Mandeb Strait as it would have given Iran theoretically a total command of not only the Strait of Hormuz but also of Bab Al Mandeb – the two important maritime corridors.
The takeover of the capital Sana’a by the Houthi Shia rebels essentially according to the Saudis gave control of four key Arab capitals including Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus in the hands of Iran. This was seen as an obvious sign of encirclement of Saudi Arabia by the House of Saud.
All these factors and the absolutely pivotal geostrategic importance of Yemen made the Sauds to directly intervene unilaterally with the unanimous support of various Middle Eastern capitals including Ankara, Cairo while Islamabad bowed down to the request of troops as well.
With so much going on in this hotly contested piece of real estate, the most obvious and unlikely absentee is the United States which is bombing Iranian targets in Tikrit while limiting itself in providing only intelligence and political support to the Saudis in Yemen. One might look at this as a swing of the pendulum in favor of the Iranians but looking at it in historical context, this is a delicate balance of power that the US is trying to maintain which is contrary to the cold war polarization it pursued in the past.
As I mentioned earlier, the overall effectiveness of United’ States Strategic Shift should not be debated too soon, but the overall repercussion of giving a laissez faire rule in the region specially in the case with the Gulf Monarchies are only making them more audacious with the joint Egypt-UAE airstrikes against Islamist militants in Libya -which went little reported in the press – as a case study.
During the cold war, the two superpowers namely US and the Soviet Union never faced direct confrontation and operated ‘coldly’ via proxies. The core reason behind that passive aggression was the nuclear element which made both the players to act rationally as deterrence was at play. In case of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the prime concern is the absence of such deterrence which might in the future escalate tensions.
For now, the direct involvement of the Saudis in Yemen presents a dilemma for Iran. Will it help the Houthis and respond its rival in kind, or will it strategically sit this one out?