Last week I wondered about the fate of Iran’s current regime, as opponents of its nuclear program ratcheted up sanctions and stepped up their rhetoric. While there is no consensus among major world powers as to what to do with Iran (especially with China and Russia keen to protect their commercial interests), there can be no doubt that the U.S. and the U.K. are tightening the noose.
Two weeks ago Republican leaders introduced an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill that would open the way for the “broadest, most indiscriminate” sanctions against Iran. There have also been numerous reports about military plans being drawn up by the U.S. and Israel to quash Iran’s nuclear ambitions once and for all. Accordingly, the main question on everyone’s mind is whether these actions are part of a slow build up to war, much like how things played out with Iraq during the 1990s.
In attempting to answer this question, several important factors must be considered. First and foremost, while most media outlets frame the current conflict in terms of Western opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, what really worries the West is Iran’s strong strategic position in the Middle East. Even if Iran were not pursuing a nuclear program, its attempts to maintain and increase its influence in the region, combined with its strong stance against Israel and U.S. hegemony, is a concern for the West and would, on its own, likely lead to an eventual confrontation.
Second, it must not be forgotten that, aside from Israel, the most belligerent regional agitator against Iran is its main rival for Mideast supremacy, Saudi Arabia. Given their abundant oil wealth, staunch support from the U.S., and their guardianship over the holiest Muslim sites, the Saudis naturally see themselves as the rightful leaders of the Middle East. Saudi influence on other Arab countries cannot be overstated, mainly because their robust oil economy provides jobs and income to the citizens of poorer countries like Jordan and Syria. Furthermore, the Saudis have close ties with Pakistan’s intelligence services, the ISI, through which they support the Taliban and other Pashtun rebels in Central Asia.
I mention Saudi Arabia because one of the biggest fears regarding military confrontation with Iran is the negative impact it would have on the region. As many commentators have pointed out, such a confrontation will most likely engulf the whole region and lead to devastating security outcomes. In order to pave the way for war and minimize the backlash, the West will need the support of Arab governments as well as a decrease in insurgent activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan. To achieve this, Western powers will surely turn to Saudi Arabia, which in turn will play a crucial if quiet role in the ensuing months.
In short, while the headlines continue to focus on Iran’s relations with the U.S., Europe and Israel, a much greater predictor of the likehlihood of war with Iran will be Saudi Arabia’s future relations with its neighbors, both near and far.