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Iran Looks Dominant in Middle East’s Proxy War

By Robert Swift | The Media Line

December 6, 2016

CAPTION: A picture shows export oil pipelines at an oil facility in the Khark Island, on the shore of the Gulf, on February 23, 2016. Iran's Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh dismissed an output freeze deal between the world's top two producers Saudi Arabia and Russia as 'a joke', the ISNA news agency reported. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
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Iranian media responded positively to a surprise announcement last week that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) would cut production of oil, a move that was interpreted as a diplomatic defeat for their country’s rival, Saudi Arabia. The two states continue to wage a proxy war against one another that has bled into, and enflamed, many of the region’s conflicts.

Were Iranian newspapers merely playing to the home side bias or are they right to have sensed that the initiative in the Middle East’s cold war is swinging behind Tehran, the capital of Iran? With proxy conflicts in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, there are no shortages of battlefields for the two states to wrestle over, but the contest is also played out diplomatically in countries like Lebanon and Egypt. The Media Line spoke to a number of experts to ask them in which direction they felt the winds of fortune are blowing: towards Sunni Saudi Arabia or Shiite Iran.

OPEC’s thirteen members agreed to a combined production cut of 1.2 million barrels of oil a day in an attempt to reduce the over saturation of the market and increase oil prices. As part of the deal, Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of petroleum, agreed to cut its output by half a million barrels per day (bpd). Iran on the other hand was told it could increase production by up to 90,000 bpd as it complained of lost market share during years of economic sanctions, out of which it has only recently emerged.

“It seems like the Saudis caved by cutting their production and we don’t exactly know why,” Eran Segal, an associate researcher at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at Haifa University in Israel, told The Media Line. “Does this imply that they are in a bad state economically? It’s hard to tell because they are not very transparent.” Although, Segal noted, if the price of oil were to rise and remain high, benefiting the Saudi government, then they would be the victors of the recent deal, Segal noted.

But spats over the cost of oil is not the start and end of the regional powers’ rivalry. In a number of the region’s most violent conflicts the hand of both can be seen influencing players on the ground. Like the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States (US) before them, Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking shots at each other through a number of warring factions in several conflict zones. In each of these theaters the regional powers are backing groups linked by sectarian ties to their own cause, though the extent and nature of their support is often contested.

This begs the question, who appears to be winning the proxy war?

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia launched a campaign of air strikes eighteen months ago, targeting the Houthi faction in the country’s internal power struggle. A Shiite paramilitary group, the Houthi are allegedly backed by the Iranian government. Yet despite showing off a newly purchased fleet of military aircrafts, Saudi Arabia’s intervention has caught more headlines for concerns over civilian casualties than for the defeat of the Shiite group.

By contrast, in Syria where the Iranian government has invested heavily, recent defeats for Sunni rebels in Aleppo appear to show that Tehran’s desired outcome is making progress. Although the bolstering of the Syrian regime has more currently to do with Russian intervention, it nonetheless supports the objectives of Iran. While Russia lent its weight to Bashar Al-Assad, Syrian’s President, through air power, Iran has provided military personnel as advisers – and possibly fighters – and has encouraged a number of Shiite militias to enter the fight, providing much needed ground troops.

In neighboring Iraq, Iran has the ear of the government and has close ties to a number of paramilitary groups which are fighting against the Islamic State (ISIS) and upon which the government is reliant.

The news from the battlefields, when combined with the diplomatic and economic wrangling over sanctions and oil prices, might give the impression that Iran is currently in the driving seat. But this can depend on who you ask.

“Nobody has yet thrown a knockout punch: its ongoing with one scoring here and the other scoring there,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a retired professor of politics & chairman of the Arab Council for Social Science in the United Arab Emirates, told The Media Line. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s intervention prevented the worst-case scenario, the creation of “an Iranian satellite state in their own backyard,” the professor said. While in Syria he pointed out the loss in blood and gold that Tehran had borne for its support of the Syrian government.

Trita Parsi, the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, took a different view arguing that Saudi Arabia was already in decline and had been for the last decade due to its reliance on Washington. “US power has been dwindling since the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq… (and) Saudi Arabia is dependent on that power for its own protection and standing,” Parsi wrote by email. If you were to examine Saudi Arabia’s action in Yemen and its failure to block Iranian objectives in Syria then, as Parsi put it, “Saudi’s undeniable decline becomes all the more evident.”

Tangled in with the state-on-state rivalry is the Middle East’s raging sectarian divide. The dispute between Sunnis and Shiites, although almost as old as Islam itself, recently reached new heights of politicization and violence. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have been accused of pushing a sectarian agenda as a way to spread their influence and block their rival’s efforts.

Here too, Saudi Arabia is in danger of losing ground. A narrative which ties together Sunni states, which by far outnumber Shiite countries, benefits Riyad – especially as Saudi Arabia has a smaller population and traditionally possessed a weaker military than Iran. For this reason, any failure of Sunni states to segregate themselves from Shiite countries – such as recent overtures between Egypt and Iran – is unwelcome news for Saudi Arabi, Eran Segal of Haifa University said. “Sunni states and pseudo-Sunni states going away from Saudi norms of thinking is a more serious problem for [Riyadh] than what is happening in Yemen or Iraq,” the researcher argued.

These factors might appear to show that Iran is edging forward over its rival but on one area all of the commentators agreed: The Middle East’s cold war would continue for some time to come. Therefore, short term advantage does not necessarily translate into long term domination. With the inauguration of Donald Trump on the near horizon the balance of power could shift considerably.

“I’m sure Iran is not very happy, they’ve lost Obama… a great strategic asset,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla commented, noting that the next administration would be very different. Trump is gathering around himself a team that could be described as “very much an anti-Iran team,” the retired professor said.

On this point, Trita Parsi agreed. “Many of the Cold Warriors Trump is bringing to the White House wish to reestablish America’s hegemony in the Middle East,” he argued, noting this gives Saudi Arabia an edge. “If you subscribe to that objective, you will see Iran as an enemy since it challenges America’s leadership, and you’ll see Saudi as a friend since it wants and begs for Pax Americana.”

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