Whether the Iranian government actually sought to hire Mexican gangsters to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asserted at a dramatic press conference last week, remains uncertain. Conspiracy theories are swirling, but as evidence emerges it may become possible to decipher this bizarre-sounding plot.
Whatever the truth, it unfolded against a riveting background. Escalating tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are part of a new “great game,” one of the farthest-reaching geopolitical conflicts in the world. The prize could be hegemony over the Middle East.
Today the region looks strikingly similar to the way it looked after World War II. The old hegemon, Britain, was exhausted and pulling out, leaving a power vacuum in its wake. A rising power, the United States, stepped in to fill it.
Something comparable is happening again. U.S. power in the Middle East is ebbing for a variety of reasons. The invasion of Iraq upset regional balances and ultimately caused America much strategic damage. Supporting Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza has further isolated the United States. Two pro-American Arab dictators have fallen and others seem shaky.
Washington will continue to project power in the Middle East, mainly to assure oil supplies and support Israel, but will never be as influential as it was during the second half of the 20th century. This leaves a vacuum that other powers are competing to fill. Iran and Saudi Arabia are the main combatants. Every point of conflict between them is a skirmish in their wider war.
Iran has many proxies. It supports Shiite militias across the region and considers itself a protector of Shiite communities. As upheaval sweeps the Arab world, Iran is using these assets in an effort to reap strategic gain. This has provoked a strong counteroffensive from Saudi Arabia.
Iran encouraged the Shiite majority in Bahrain to rebel; Saudi Arabia responded by sending in tanks and crushing the protests. When the Saudis concluded that Iran was meddling in Yemen, they began imposing their will on Yemen’s security forces. In Syria, Iran backs the Assad regime while Saudi Arabia supports the opposition. These are stages on which the larger conflict is playing out.
Washington is another stage. Blocking Iran is a top U.S. priority, and Washington is doing all it can to help Saudi Arabia. Most recently, the Obama administration offered to sell Bahrain $53 million worth of weapons. So this rivalry has global as well as regional consequences.
There is an odd aspect to it, however. In the changed political climate, hegemony will only be secure if people want it to be. The days when Arab countries could be delivered into the hands of a big power by fiat are ending. Balance-of-power verities will undoubtedly reassert themselves as a new dynamic takes hold, but with a difference. Today, no country can become dominant in the Middle East unless it appeals to citizens.
Here lies an essential truth of the intensifying rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Most people in the Middle East reject both of them. The political and social models they offer are less attractive than ever. Both countries are isolated from the world and governed by misogynistic gerontocracies. They are hardly inspirational models for idealistic Arabs — especially not for the young, who have no wish to live under the paralyzing social restrictions that deaden life in Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Since neither country can realistically hope to dominate the region, why is their rivalry so intense? It is less about asserting power than blocking a perceived enemy. Each side believes the other is plotting against it — not without reason — and sees counteroffense as its best option. Much of what happens in the Middle East over the coming months and years will be shaped by this semi-clandestine war.
There are other contenders for regional leadership. Egypt has a historical claim, but will be focused on internal politics for at least the next several years. Iraq is violently unstable. The more likely candidate is Turkey.
Turkey has several advantages: a history of regional influence, a government headed by pious Muslims, a creative and ambitious foreign policy, good ties to the West, and above all a successful society. Yet its campaign for influence also faces obstacles. The most obvious is its nagging conflict with Kurdish nationalism. An ambush on Wednesday in which 24 Turkish soldiers were killed, and the intense military reaction that followed, reflects how intractable this problem has become. Until it is resolved, Turkey will have trouble projecting itself as a model of peace and progress.
For many in the Middle East, though, Turkey remains far more attractive than Iran or Saudi Arabia. In Turkey they see what they want for themselves: freedom, opportunity, a balance between Islam and secularism, a booming economy — and a government not known to plot foreign assassinations.
By Stephen Kinzer, who teaches international relations at Boston University and is the author of Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future.