by Howard Munson
The Middle East is no stranger to war, but the present conflicts of the region are having significant destabilizing effects upon the region and the rest of the world. Two principal developments are behind these trends: the enduring Saudi-Iranian contest for predominance in the region and the rise of ISIS. In the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Iran went from being the pillar of U.S. policy in the Middle East to a pariah state under increasing economic sanctions. In contrast, Saudi Arabia became an even more indispensible U.S. ally, even more than for being the world’s leading oil producer. Neighbors facing each other across the Persian (Arabian) Gulf, both continue to vie for political leadership in the Middle East and cloak their contest in sectarian religious terms, the Saudis as leaders of Sunni Islam, Iran as the greatest hope and power of the minority Shia. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq started to alter this happy Saudi status quo.
By destabilizing Iraq into a sectarian civil war and bringing democracy to a Shia majority country, the U.S. occupation created a Shia-led Iraq that found more in common with Shia Iran than any other state. This altered the balance-of-power in the region, which had previously favored Saudi Arabia and its allied Sunni states. Combined with Iran’s allies Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Asad family in Syria, a Shia Iraq favored Iran’s ME agenda over time. Even the Arab Spring empowered Iran, by threatening to topple dictators and monarchies alike, while also providing downtrodden Shia populations across the region with a justification for rising up. Only in Syria did the Arab Spring create a positive opening for Saudi action to redress the situation. If the Asad government lost power in Syria to the country’s Sunni majority population, then one major Iranian ally would be gone and Hezbollah in Lebanon would be isolated. To this end, supplies, financing, and arms flowed from Sunni Gulf states, to any Sunni groups willing to fight. This included Sunni organizations such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which U.S. forces drove out of Iraq’s sectarian civil war, into the ungoverned chaos of the Syrian civil war. From this group ISIS would develop.
Oil has also played a central role. With the price of oil endlessly increasing U.S. shale oil production became economically viable and threatened to reduce the need for American forces to actively shape the ME. This was good for Iran, but bad for Saudi Arabia. As ISIS’s Sunni extremist successes started to unexpectedly lead to a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement in Iraq, Saudi Arabia reversed its historic policy of cutting oil production to regulate price. Instead, as the price of oil began to drop, the Saudi government has continued at full production. This policy has arguably worked too well. It has hammered U.S. shale oil projects, it has hamstrung Russia’s economy (a major supporter of Syria’s Asad regime), and it has further sanctioned the Iranian economy. All good outcomes from the Saudi perspective, except it has driven oil way below what anyone imagined possible. Combined with a cool-down in China’s economy, the present uncertainty has spooked investors the world over, possibly presaging another global downturn.
On the diplomatic front, the United States is undoing much of the Saudi accomplishment by implementing the nuclear reduction deal with Iran, which as of last week lifted many of sanctions against Iran and unfroze hundreds of billions of dollars in assets. As of January 2016, there is no sign of improvement on the horizon in the ME. Iran and the Saudis are contesting every possible battlefield, civil wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, oil, every government in the ME, and the halls of power from D.C. to Moscow. The region’s conflicts are sucking in more countries (Libya, Egypt, and Turkey), the world’s economy is reacting negatively to the uncertainty, and traditional relationships that used to provide a modicum of stability are in the process of shifting. For the time being there will be more fighting, more dying, more refugees, and more instability in world’s Middle East.