We can no longer ignore the fact that we are witnessing a new cold war at an international level and that it is being led by the United States on one side and Russia and Putin on the other. The Middle East has become the new regional hot zone in the context of this cold war, one that is affected by Iranian decisions on one hand and Saudi Arabia and its alliances on the other.
But, unlike previous cold wars this one is marked by conflicts of interest and the motives of foreign camps are concerned with the interests of the countries involved. There is no room in this war for a “clash of civilisations”.
We find ourselves immersed in a reality that greatly resembles that which preceded World War I in that the clashes between these regimes were all authoritarian in nature as opposed to a clash of ideologies or values.
This is the same reality we find ourselves facing today despite the fact that the West still claims that it is the defender of freedoms and human rights. It has been made painfully clear that western interests are the main catalysts behind international relations.
On the other side of things, Russia and Iran are not only promoting ideologies that clash with Western interests, but they are also blatantly offering support for dictatorial regimes and promoting national chauvinism and sectarian strife. This is the same type of atmosphere that prevailed prior to both world wars.
There are additional complications and confusions arising from international attitudes towards the Middle East which in turn reflects the level of polarisation that exists between Russia (and China to a lesser extent) on the one hand and the United States and the Western camp on the other. For example, we find that Saudi Arabia and its allies (with the exception of Qatar) all supported the US invasion of Iraq and the policies that resulted afterwards despite the fact that Iraq’s recent policies tend to favour Iran. Furthermore, some media outlets in the Gulf still stand in support of the Iraqi government and this is most likely do to the fact it mirrors the American position as well.
It appears as though a Sunni versus Shia confrontation with Saudi Arabia leading the Sunni camp and Iran leading the Shia camp determines the regional cold war in the Middle East. However, further reflections on the events of the Middle East reveal how problematic these categorisations can be. It is true that Iran and its allies are motivated by clear sectarian rationales because it would otherwise not be able to justify its support of parties such as Hezbollah, Dawa or even the Assad regime. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime’s opposition to religious and political Shia symbols Ayatollah Karroubi, Hossein Mousavi and Mohammad Khatami are merely due to a difference in opinions whereas Iranian support for the Assad regime, which does not claim to have a link with Shia Islam, shows that sectarianism is merely being used as a political tool and that the authoritarian system is the compass that guides Iranian policies. By the same token, Iran has expressed its support for Islamists in Egypt, due to the Egyptian regime’s affiliation with Saudi Arabia, yet chooses to antagonise moderate Islamists in both Syria and Iraq.
On the other side of things we find that the situation becomes even more complicated when it comes to the leadership in the Sunni camp led by Saudi Arabia. We have seen that Saudi Arabia has antagonised the more “moderate” members of this camp, which is represented by Qatar and Turkey as they are systems that distance themselves from sectarian affiliations in the narrowest sense. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is also antagonising the extreme wing represented by Al-Qaeda and other jihadist organisations. Yet, the Sunni camp also antagonises moderate Islamic organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. In this regard, one could argue that the Sunni camp is allegedly more hostile to Sunni Islamic organisations in all of its manifestation (moderate or extreme) than Iran.
The above factors lead us to question what Iran is capable of achieving in the region in comparison to its competitors. Iran is a state that practices ideological and political mobilisation both at home and abroad. It is self-sufficient in producing arms and weapons on the home front and spends generously on organisations and militias that pledge allegiance to its policies such as Hezbollah, the Badr Organisation and Mahdi Army. By contrast, the members of the Sunni camp do not exhibit such ideological enthusiasm and a large portion of the luxurious elite do not care about religion so long as it does not affect them.
The region’s politically empowered Sunni elite is experiencing a sense of isolation in their countries and they are battling this on various fronts. Moreover, the Sunni elite’s democratic allies do not fully trust them despite the fact that they may share some liberal values; however, the West ultimately views this elite as “backwards”, undemocratic and insufficient when it comes to management. The Sunni camp can no longer rely on countries it may have considered an ally at one point and in despite all the political power present in these countries, they are often considered a burden on their allies. This is with the exception of Turkey and Qatar who provide financial support to their allies. No one in this camp is fighting for a principle; they are instead choosing to fight for a price. They are sponsoring their own interests which, at the end of the day, all amount to the same thing.
When it comes to such encounters, countries that function based on enthusiasm for an ideology or choose to practise self-sufficiency are in far stronger positions than those who seek to promote their interests at home and abroad. This is especially true at the point where resources and capabilities converge. This does not apply to Western countries because, contrary to popular belief, they are not free from needing to promote certain values.
Western populations not only fight for the sake of their interests, but also for the precious freedoms that they gained by making the heaviest sacrifices. For this reason, liberal democracies avoid entering into wars due to their peaceful nature and it is for this reason that the United States hesitated to enter both World War I and World War II. Britain also tried to avoid getting involved in World War II and it is for this reason that it allowed Hitler to engulf entire European nations and add them to his territory.
However, non-democratic countries are generally aggressive in nature and they tend to prompt other countries to fight or impose this on them. This is precisely what happened when Japan attacked America and when Hitler was not content with controlling Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland and decided to attack Britain, regardless of the fact that they were allies and that he was warned several times not to do so. Hitler was also foolish enough to attack Russia although it was among Germany’s biggest allies.
We see the same power dynamics being manifested today with Putin’s Russia and Khameni’s Iran. The United States presented Iraq as a gift to Iran and opened the door for negotiation by way of its nuclear programme. Moreover, the West remained silent over Russia’s advancements towards central Asia’s Muslim countries and its violence towards Chechnya. Russia has also attempted to regain its former colonial possessions by annexing parts of Georgia and attempting to absorb Crimea from Ukraine, consequently disrupting its stability. Not to mention the fact that Russia has also been threatening the majority of the Baltic states.
Iran is guilty of practising the same policies when it sought to swallow Iraq’s Shia regions whole. It went on to support Al-Assad in the hope of inheriting Syria and of course, one cannot forget, its interests in Lebanon and Hezbollah, which it uses as a platform from which it can threaten other countries in the region.
Eventually, the point will come when the West cannot avoid entering the war just as it did in the past two World Wars. So far it has made every effort to avoid doing so. It goes without saying that this war will not be hot, at least not with Russia because of the nuclear threat.
What will strengthen the West’s position with the Kremlin’s new Tsar is the fact that like his predecessors, and unlike Lenin and his successors, he is fascinated by the West and its people and ultimately fears its rejection of him more than he fears its wrath. Russia’s new billionaires cannot give up their trips to London, Paris and New York for they view being deprived from London as a far worse punishment than being exiled from Russia.
The question that remains is what is the fate of the Sunni camp in the next battle. It will undoubtedly come out of the next battle as the biggest loser in the dynamics that will emerge from the existing and coming conflicts because it is neither qualified to fight nor does it possess sufficient immunity. A fate similar to the ill fate of the Balkans during and after the World Wars awaits the Sunni camp.
At the current moment, these countries greatly resemble the sectarian strife that plagued Andalusia especially when considering the amount of attention they pay to affording luxurious lifestyles as well as battling unimportant conflicts. The Sunni camp is not paying sufficient attention to the greater dangers to come. The best-case scenario awaiting these countries is a state like that of the Abbasid era after Mutassim, which relied on foreign Turkish and Persian militias to protect it.
One could also argue that it may require foreign intervention like that of the Mamelukes who later took everything for themselves. As we have seen in Kuwait, one cannot expect foreigners to come to a country’s defence when an invader comes to attack if its own people are not capable of defending it. Thus, the Sunni camp should think twice before submitting to great powers, verbalise its distaste for Iran’s nuclear programme and run counter to Turkey’s interventions in Syria. It should not act as a spoilt child who throws a tantrum until it gets what it wants. It should think before it screams: Come bomb Syria! Come contain Iran! Come help us root out the Muslim Brotherhood!
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.