The Middle East’s Cold War: Iran and Saudi Arabia

By: Maura Pallitta

On Saturday, November 4, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, shocked both his country and the international community by announcing his resignation. A Sunni Muslim who came to power in 2016 because of a compromise, he stepped down in Saudi Arabia, citing Iran’s interference in his country and the region as a whole as justification. Prime Minister Hariri is the most recent casualty in the silent proxy war raging in the Middle East between Iran and Saudi Arabia. To understand why this is, you need to know a little bit about Lebanon.  

There are deep sectarian divisions in Lebanon, between a relatively equal numbers of Sunni and Shia, and between Muslims overall and the Maronite and other Christians. There has historically been much violence between the groups, although today their fighting is mostly confined to the Syrian Civil War, where they have backed different factions. Lebanon’s Shiite Muslims, represented by Hezbollah, have backed Bashar Al-Assad’s government, and its Sunni population has contributed fighters to the insurgents. Although it has caused many other problems, the Syrian Civil War has actually contributed to sectarian peace in Lebanon, because it has drawn the fighting abroad. There is currently a fragile peace in the country, although it has already been strained by the flood of refugees across its borders.

Lebanon has so far successfully been able to prevent the violence that has engulfed its neighbors from taking root at home, mostly because of the herculean efforts of its compromise government. However, outside powers are doing their best to tip the balance of power. Iran is a historic backer of Hezbollah and has encouraged it to become involved in conflicts around the region. Alternatively, the Saudi government has done their best to counter the power of Hezbollah and hoped for a Lebanese government where they are not represented.

All of this means that Lebanon is just one front of many in the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia that has dominated the region in recent years. The two most powerful states in the Middle East have been engaged in a heated rivalry. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia is famous for backing Sunni militants around the world, and its branch of Islam, known as Wahhabism, has been cited as a major source of violence and extremism. Likewise, Iran is an emerging nuclear power and the most influential Shiite nation in the world. These powers have sponsored opposing sides not just in Lebanon and in Syria, but in Yemen too. The Saudi government has directly engaged in fighting the majority Shiite Houthi rebels, who have received support from both Iran and Hezbollah.

This is a war for the title of regional hegemon and for control of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and Iran have much to fear from each other, and each believes its survival is dependent on dominating the other power. In a region that has consistently been destabilized since the end of World War II, lawlessness reigns in many places. Iran and Saudi Arabia are two of the most stable nations in the region, with governments that have absolute control over their territory. Therefore they are both hyper-aware of that control and how easily it can be lost. Opposing each other, they are taking measures to counteract their main threat to power, ensuring they retain authority at home and around the Middle East.

It should be noted that this regional rivalry has another dimension that has huge ramifications on global politics. The United States is a longtime backer of the Saudi regime, and Iran’s most notable ally is Russia. In fact, some of the greatest evidence for a new Russo-American Cold War can be traced back to the great powers’ recent actions in the Middle East. The United States and Russia are engaging in military action (both directly and indirectly) on opposite sides of wars in both Yemen and Syria, harkening back to wars fought in Vietnam and Korea during the Cold War.

Forces much larger than himself ousted Prime Minister Hariri from his post, demonstrating the power of global politics and conflict to continue to shape our world. It will be interesting to see who ultimately wins the Iranian-Saudi conflict, an outcome that could ultimately have ramifications in the conflict between Russia and the United States.

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