The Middle East regional « Cold War », what next? An interview with S. Hesam Houryaband.

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*Cover picture: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul Aziz.

Interview by Philippe Labrecque.

S. Hesam Houryaband, PhD.

S. Hesam Houryaband, PhD.

S. Hesam Houryaband has an extensive background in international, political, and diplomatic affairs with experience working for the Iranian Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, Mission of Iran to the UN, and Embassy of Iran to France. S. Hesam holds a Ph.D. in International Relations and Diplomacy.

Philippe Labrecque: What are the origins of the current regional “Cold War” between Iran and the Gulf Monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia?

S. Hesam Houryaband : The current rivalries between Iran and the other Persian Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia, is nothing new and it has a long historical precedence. However, the current state of affairs could more easily be traced to contemporary events shaped after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.

At the time, Iran underwent an identity reorientation in the international arena from that of the Persian imperial connotations to the Shiite Muslim powerhouse. In fact, after 1979, one of the main pillars of Iran’s regional and international foreign policy strategies became utilization of its Shiite identity to act as the protectorate and supporter of the minority Shia communities in the region. This was to balance Saudi Arabia’s role as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world. This brought on a head on clash between Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbors, which amongst other reasons, resulted in the bloody 1980-1988 war between Iran and Iraq. During the war, all of Iran’s Arab neighbors except Syria, sided with Iraq and provided it with monetary and logistical support in its war against Iran.

In fact, this gave way to the start of the proxy wars in the region since Iran did not have the resources to engage in all out war against Saudi Arabia and the other Arab nations. Indeed, if Iran took one thing away from the war, is that it became the master of proxy wars not just in the Middle East, but far beyond. Lebanon was the starting battleground between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel and the Western superpowers. More recently, we can see how that regional rivalry and proxy war turned into what is the current state of affairs in Syria and Yemen. In Syria, Iran has been supporting the Assad government hold on to power through financial and military aid. The conflict in Syria pitted Iran and its proxy army, the Hezbollah, against that of Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s.

In Yemen, Iran had sought to create a buffer against Saudi Arabia since the early 1980s, long before the country’s unification. In fact, Iran started prodding a little-known minority group of Shiite offshoot followers, who have now become the current Houthi leaders of Yemen, giving them logistical and financial aid. Iran’s strategy at the time was to create a threat for Saudi Arabia in its backyard to keep it engaged in the south and bring a balance to the Iran-Iraq war.

Philippe Labrecque: What role does ISIS play in the regional Cold War, if any? It’s also been stated that ISIS is or has been financed by some of the Gulf Monarchies. Are those statements accurate and if so, to what end?

S. Hesam Houryaband: ISIS has become another pawn in the regional rivalry and proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has attracted several other major players. At the onset of the Syrian conflict, the Saudis saw an opportunity to prod a force which could reckon with Hezbollah and Assad’s army, and indirectly, Iran. Saudi Arabia needed a force it could unleash in the region to keep the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah alliance in check, as well as create mayhem for the newly Shia dominated Iraq in the north. With the appearance of ISIS, Saudi Arabia found this opportunity and hesitated at no costs in strengthening them.

But Saudi Arabia wasn’t the only country supporting ISIS. The other Gulf Cooperation Council members, specifically Qatar, UAE, and Bahrain pledged support for Saudi Arabia’s plan in reinforcing any and all Sunni extremist groups in Syria to bring down the Assad government, and weaken Iran.

Philippe Labrecque: What is the ultimate objective of Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively? What can we expect in the next 12 months in the region in regards to the war in Syria and ISIS? Is there a way back to peace or should we expect more of the same?

S. Hesam Houryaband: The ultimate objective of both countries is power projection and solidification of their powerbase in the region. Neither country is going to go to war directly with the other one to achieve this strategy, so the only other option is proxy and political engagements. We can safely assume that so long as each player can find a group or force it can support in the region, no country is safe from this game.

On the one hand, Iran sees its interests threatened by Saudi Arabia’s attempt to bring down the Assad government and going as far as secretly negotiating with Israel to coordinate on strategies against Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is threatened by the negotiations between Iran and the United States to end the nuclear standoff and Iran’s international alienation, which would strengthen Iran’s regional dominance. Therefore, for the foreseeable future, we will be witnessing an escalation of the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

With the crowning of a new monarch in Saudi Arabia whose power is not totally solidified at home, the Houthi victory in Yemen, and the ongoing bloody civil war in Syria, the prospects of peace are grim at best, if not impossible. In Yemen, once the Houthis manage to consolidate their power, they will certainly be pre-engaged with the Saudis, whom they have fought with numerous times in the past. They will also have to deal with Al-Qaeda in Yemen, which will certainly look to Saudi Arabia for support against the Houthis.

In Syria, Assad’s forces are weakening, and I believe we will see the eventual downfall of the Assad dynasty. The question is what will happen in the power vacuum that will be created, and the options are not too promising. I think we will see a rise of a radical Sunni government in Syria, which means the spilling of a regional conflict stretching from Lebanon and Israel, to and Iraq and Iran. As for ISIS, they have yet to fulfill their objective of directly engaging Iran. This is something that will come about in the coming months. There have been several test runs by the group on Iranian border towns and posts. However, I think there will be a more bloody direct confrontation between the two in the future.