Tehran is Winning the War for Control of the Middle East
By Jonathan Spyer
Middle East Forum
November 21, 2017
Saudi Arabia appears to be on a
warpath across the Middle East. The Saudi-orchestrated resignation of Lebanese
Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and Saudi officials' bellicose rhetoric after the
launch of a ballistic
missile targeting Riyadh from Yemen, appear to herald a new period of
assertiveness against Iranian interests across the Middle East.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin
Salman's sudden moves on a variety of fronts may superficially have the feel of
Michael Corleone's swift and simultaneous strikes at his family's enemies in the
closing frames of The Godfather. Unlike in the film, however, the credits
are not about to roll. Rather, these are the opening moves in an ongoing contest
— and it is far from clear that the 32-year-old crown prince has found a
formula to reverse Iran's advantage.
Let's take a look at the track
record so far. The confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran is taking place
across a swath of the Middle East in which, over the last decade, states have
partially ceased to function — Iraq and Lebanon — or collapsed completely,
as in the case of Syria and Yemen. A war over the ruins has taken place in each
country, with Riyadh and Tehran arrayed on opposing sides in all of them.
Throughout the region, the advantage is very
clearly with the Iranians.
So far, in every case, the
advantage is very clearly with the Iranians.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah vanquished
the Saudi-sponsored "March 14" alliance of political groups that aimed
to constrain it. The events of May 2008, when Hezbollah seized west Beirut and
areas around the capital, showed the helplessness of the Saudis' clients when
presented with the raw force available to Iran's proxies. Hezbollah's subsequent
entry into the Syrian civil war confirmed that it could not be held in check by
the Lebanese political system.
The establishment of a cabinet
dominated by Hezbollah in December 2016, and the appointment of Hezbollah's
ally, Michel Aoun, as president two months earlier, solidified Iran's grasp over
the country. Riyadh's subsequent withdrawal of funding to the Lebanese armed
forces, and now its push for Hariri's resignation, effectively represent the
House of Saud's acknowledgement of this reality.
In Syria, Iran's provision of
finances, manpower, and know-how to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has
played a decisive role in preventing the regime's destruction. The Iranian
mobilization of proxies helped cultivate new local militias, which gave the
regime access to the manpower necessary to defeat its rivals. Meanwhile, Sunni
Arab efforts to assist the rebels, in which Saudi Arabia played a large role,
ended largely in chaos and the rise of Salafi groups.
Kataeb Hezbollah commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (right) with
Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani (center) and Imam Ali
Brigade leader Shebl al Zaydi (left).
In Iraq, the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has developed an officially-sanctioned,
independent military force in the form of the 120,000-strong Popular
Mobilization Units (PMU). Not all the militias represented in the PMU are
pro-Iranian, of course. But the three core Shiite groups of Kataeb Hezbollah,
the Badr Organization, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq answer directly to the IRGC.
Iran also enjoys political
preeminence in Baghdad. The ruling Islamic Dawa Party is traditionally
pro-Iranian, while the Badr Organization controls the powerful interior
ministry, which has allowed it to blur the boundaries between the official armed
forces and its militias — thus allowing rebranded militiamen to benefit from
U.S. training and equipment.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has been
left playing catch up: Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited Riyadh in late
October to launch the new Saudi-Iraqi
Coordination Council, the first time an Iraqi premier had made the
trip in a quarter-century. But it is not clear that the Saudis have much more up
their sleeve than financial inducements to potential political allies.
Saudi King Salman receives Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi
in Jeddah, June 19, 2017.
In Yemen, where the Saudis have
tried their hand at direct military intervention, the results have been mixed.
The Houthis and their allies, supported by Iran, have failed to conquer the
entirety of the county and have been kept back from the vital Bab el-Mandeb
Strait as a result of the 2015 Saudi intervention. But Saudi Arabia is bogged
down in a costly war with no end in sight, while the extent of Iranian support
to the Houthis is far more modest.
This, then, is the scorecard of
the Saudi-Iranian conflict. So far, the Iranians have effectively won in
Lebanon, are winning in Syria and Iraq, and are bleeding the Saudis in Yemen.
In each context, Iran has been
able to establish proxies that give it political and military influence in the
country. Tehran also has successfully identified and exploited seams in their
enemy's camp. For example, Tehran acted swiftly to nullify the results of the
Kurdish independence referendum in September and then to punish the Kurds for
proceeding with it. The Iranians were able to use their long-standing connection
to the Talabani family, and the Talabanis' rivalry with the Barzanis, to
orchestrate the retreat of Talabani-aligned Peshmerga forces from Kirkuk in
October — thus paving the way for the city and nearby oil reserves to be
captured by its allies.
The Saudis have little more than financial inducements to win
potential political allies.
There is precious little evidence
to suggest that the Saudis have learned from their earlier failures and are now
able to roll back Iranian influence in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is no
better at building up effective proxies across the Arab world, and has done
nothing to enhance its military power, since Mohammed bin Salman took the reins.
So far, the crown prince's actions consist of removing the veneer of
multiconfessionalism from the Lebanese government, and threatening their enemies
Those may be important symbolic
steps, but they do nothing to provide Riyadh with the hard power it has always
lacked. Rolling back the Iranians, directly or in alliance with local forces,
would almost certainly depend not on the Saudis or the UAE, but on the
involvement of the United States — and in the Lebanese case, perhaps Israel.
It's impossible to say the extent
to which Washington and Jerusalem are on board with such an effort. However, the
statements last week by Defense Secretary James Mattis suggesting
that the United States intends to stay
in eastern Syria, and by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel will
continue to enforce
its security interests in Syria, suggest that these players may have a role to
Rolling back the Iranians will ultimately depend on
the involvement of the United States.
Past Saudi behavior might
encourage skepticism. Nevertheless, the Iranians here have a clearly visible
Achilles' heel. In all the countries where the Saudi-Iran rivalry has played
out, Tehran has proved to have severe difficulties in developing lasting
alliances outside of Shiite and other minority communities. Sunnis, and Sunni
Arabs in particular, do not trust the Iranians and do not want to work with
them. Elements of the Iraqi Shiite political class also have no interest of
falling under the thumb of Tehran. A cunning player looking to sponsor proxies
and undermine Iranian influence would find much to work with — it's just not
clear that the Saudis are that player.
Mohammed bin Salman, at least, appears to have signaled his
intent to oppose Iran and its proxies across the Arab world. The game,
therefore, is on. The prospects of success for the Saudis will depend on the
willingness of their allies to engage alongside them, and a steep learning curve
in the methods of political and proxy warfare.