March 31, 2011

The Main Event

American and European warplanes are bombing targets across Libya to prevent Muammar el-Qaddafi from killing his own people. France has formally proposed arming Libya’s rebels, and one NATO official even said he thought that troops might be deployed as peacekeepers. In Washington, the Obama administration is struggling to decide whether the effort should aim merely to oust Qaddafi or to bring about an entirely new government.

But no matter how the Libya campaign turns out, it will not transform the Middle East. That means it is likely to be little more than a sideshow to the most important, if least-discussed, conflict in the region: the escalating fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional influence and control.

The shadow war between the two nations has been raging for years, with Riyadh and Tehran pouring money nto Iraq, Lebanon, and other countries in hopes of bringing political allies to power. But the conflict has sharply intensified in recent months, as leaders in both nations work to take advantage of the political turmoil sweeping the Middle East. They are squaring off over the future of Bahrain, an oil-rich nation whose Shiite majority has long been ruled by a Saudi-allied Sunni monarchy. Saudi Arabia sent hundreds of troops into Bahrain last month to help put down an uprising—a move that drew howls of protest from Iran. With the unrest in Syria, the proxy war could soon spread to yet another battlefield.

The dispute has enormous strategic implications for the United States. Saudi Arabia, for all of its shortcomings, is an American ally that cooperates against groups like al-Qaida and has ensured the free flow of Middle Eastern oil to the West. Iran is a seemingly implacable American foe that supports such armed groups as Hezbollah and is widely believed to be pursuing a nuclear weapon. In the zero-sum game that is the modern Mideast, any political victory for Iran—bringing a Shiite government into power in Bahrain, for example—would represent a serious setback for both Riyadh and Washington. “The unpleasant reality is that our interests depend on the continued existence of a medieval monarchy in Saudi Arabia,” said Robert Kaplan, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Our grand strategy for the Middle East comes down to doing what we can to ensure Riyadh’s survival and what we can to bring about Tehran’s demise.”

Unease about Iran cast a pall over Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s visit to Israel last week. A senior Defense official told reporters traveling with Gates that Israelis are worried that the unrest in such countries as Libya and Bahrain is distracting American policymakers and leading to “strategic drift” when it comes to Iran. The Pentagon official said that the secretary hoped to reassure Israeli leaders that the Obama administration would continue to impose tough sanctions on Iran unless Tehran abandons its nuclear-weapons program. At a press conference with Gates, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak joked that both men were also hoping that the protests roiling the Middle East would soon “jump directly to Tehran.”

U.S.-Saudi relations, meanwhile, have deteriorated to their lowest point in decades because of Riyadh’s belief that the Obama administration is inadvertently strengthening Tehran at its expense. When sectarian protests first flared in Bahrain in February, the White House called for formal negotiations between the country’s Saudi-backed royal family and members of its Shiite majority. Saudi officials angrily told their American counterparts that the protesters were Iranian proxies and that Riyadh would never accept a Shiite-dominated government in Bahrain, according to U.S. officials. Saudi Arabia then dispatched armored vehicles to help the ruling Khalifa family put down the protests, ignoring Washington’s calls for restraint. “The Saudis are as angry at us now as they’ve been at any point since the shah fell in 1979,” said Gregory Gause, a Mideast expert at the University of Vermont. “Victory for the protesters [in Bahrain] would be seen as a victory for Iran. And they know that everyone in the Middle East would read it as a defeat for Saudi Arabia.”

Gause said that Saudi attitudes toward Tehran began to harden in 2007 as Riyadh-backed political parties across the region suffered a string of defeats at the hands of Iranian proxies. In the West Bank and Gaza, the ruling Fatah Party lost parliamentary elections to Hamas. In Iraq, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi tried but failed to unseat the incumbent, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. More recently, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was ousted earlier this year by Hezbollah, which chose his successor.

The newest flashpoint for the two longtime rivals is Syria, which has been Iran’s closest Arab ally in recent years. Tehran is desperate to keep the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, and Kap­lan and other experts believe that Iran will give Assad money and other aid to help him weather the storm. Riyadh, which would love to see Assad fall, will almost certainly work to exacerbate the unrest by funneling assistance to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups. And no matter what happens in Syria, there are many regional battles still to fight in this war.