Iran vs. Saudi: Two repressive blocs face off

Posted April 17th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


Photo Credit: Mohammed Huwais / Stringer

[Published in Foreign Policy.]

By Thanassis Cambanis

BEIRUT — The war in Yemen and the breakthrough nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States have sent the already frenzied Middle East analysis machine into meltdown mode. These developments come fast on the heels of almost too many changes to keep track of: the Iraqi government’s capture of the city of Tikrit, rebel gains in northern and southern Syria, and mass-casualty terrorist attacks in Tunis and Sanaa.

This drumbeat of headlines, however, should not distract us from the larger meaning of events in the Middle East. We are witnessing a struggle for regional dominance between two loose and shifting coalitions — one roughly grouped around Saudi Arabia and one around Iran. Despite the sectarian hue of the coalitions, Sunni-Shiite enmity is not the best explanation for today’s regional war. This is a naked struggle for power: Neither of these coalitions has fixed membership or a monolithic ideology, and neither has any commitment whatsoever to the bedrock issues that would promote good governance in the region.

This is, in some ways, an updated version of the vast and bloody struggle for hegemony that shook the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s. In that era, a coalition of reactionary monarchs, led by Saudi Arabia, did battle with a coalition of Arab nationalist military dictators, led by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Just like in that past era, every single major player today is opposed to genuine reform and popular sovereignty.

Today’s ascendant regimes are all reactionary survivors — and sworn enemies — of the Arab Spring. The Iranians mercilessly crushed the Green Revolution in 2009, and have invested heavily in authoritarian partners in Iraq and Syria, paramilitary group such as Hezbollah, and non-democratic movements in Bahrain and Yemen. Iran’s leaders are theocrats, but they are savvy and pragmatic geopolitical worker bees: They have backed Sunni Islamists and Christians, while even some of their close Shiite partners — like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite, and the Zaidi Houthis in Yemen — belong to heterodox sects and don’t share their views on religious rule.

On the other side of the struggle are the Arab monarchs from the Gulf, run by the same families that brought us the Yemeni war of the 1960s. They have extended their writ through generous payoffs and occasional violence, like the Saudi-led invasion of Bahrain in 2011, which saved the minority Sunni royal family from being overrun by the island kingdom’s disenfranchised Shiite majority.

This Saudi-led alliance is Sunni-flavored, but it would be incorrect to see it as monolithically sectarian.

This Saudi-led alliance is Sunni-flavored, but it would be incorrect to see it as monolithically sectarian. Not long ago, in fact, Saudi Arabia underwrote the same Zaydis it is now bombing in Yemen. The current coalition relies for populist credibility on Egypt, whose governing class is dominated by secular, anti-Islamist military officers. It enjoys dalliances in various conflict theaters like Syria and the Palestinian territories with Muslim Brothers and jihadis. It has drawn extensively on help from the United States — and on occasion from its supposedly sworn enemy, Israel.

Perhaps the best glimpse of the Saudi-led alliance’s goals came when Kuwaiti emir Sabah al-Sabah addressed the Arab League at the end of March, in the meeting that inaugurated the war in Yemen.

“A four-year phase of chaos and instability, which some called the Arab Spring, shook our region’s security and eroded our stability,” the emir thundered. The uprisings, he said, encouraged “delusional thinking” about reshaping the region — perhaps a reference to Iran’s ambitions of regional influence, perhaps a reference to the ambitions of Arab reformers to limit the influence of the repressive states propped up by the Gulf monarchies. To the emir, the only outcome of uprisings was “a sharp setback in growth and noticeable delay in our progress and development.”

This is the crux of the regional fight underway: the old order, or a new one that would transform the balance of power — while changing little else about the way the Middle East is governed. The Saudi bloc wants to turn back the clock to the status quo ante that existed before the uprisings. The Iranian bloc wants to permanently alter the region’s balance of power. Both factions are run by opaque, secretive, repressive, and violent leaders. Neither side is interested in popular accountability, better governance, or the rights of citizens.

For all the doubts about Saudi Arabia’s capacity to craft and execute complex policy, the kingdom has cobbled together a formidable coalition. It quickly signed up most of its clients and partners for the air campaign, including Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Sudan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. The United States supported the war, despite its reservations. Of the kingdom’s close allies, only Pakistan has so far resisted pressure to join the fight.

In just the last year, we’ve seen at least two major volte-face. Riyadh helped engineer a regime change in Egypt, ushering President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power. After experimenting with quasi-democracy and a Muslim Brotherhood presidency that defied the powerful Gulf monarchies, Cairo is now governed by a military dictator who walks firmly in lockstep with Riyadh — even promising to dispatch ground troops to a war in Yemen of which he would have probably preferred to steer clear. Qatar, the unbelievably rich emirate that has long cultivated an independent foreign policy, also found itself strong-armed by Saudi Arabia and finally caved. Its emir abdicated in favor of his son, a 34-year-old political novice, and today Doha is reading from Saudi Arabia’s song sheet.

Both examples show that this is not a monolithic bloc bound by uniform ideas of authoritarian rule or Sunni supremacy. Instead, it is a messy realpolitik coalition hammered together by shared interests — and at times by bribes and blackmail. Its members don’t agree on everything: Saudi Arabia hates Russia, in part because Moscow backs Iran and Syria. Egypt loves Saudi Arabia because Riyadh keeps its economy afloat — but it also loves Russia, because it can play off military aid from Vladimir Putin against that from the United States. In public, Sisi praises the Gulf leaders — but in leaked private recordings, he dismisses them as oil bumpkins who can be bilked of their money by more dynamic Arab nations. Qatar no longer openly defies Saudi Arabia, but it still supports Muslim Brothers and jihadis in Syria to the extent it can, and in opposition to Saudi preferences.

Since Saudi Arabia’s gloves came off in Yemen,

Sunnis across the region have expressed a kind of fatalistic relief: At last someone is doing something to confront Iranian influence.

Sunnis across the region have expressed a kind of fatalistic relief: At last someone is doing something to confront Iranian influence. But Tehran has extended its influence carefully, hedging its bets by supporting multiple groups in every conflict zone and always maintaining a degree of remove — if their investments fail, it will have not lost a war in which it was a declared combatant. This blueprint has served Iran well during 30-plus years of intervention in Lebanon and Iraq, and four years of orchestrating major combat in Syria. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has entered the Yemen war directly, and therefore has no cover. It will own the civilian casualties, and inevitably — when the war has no clear and easy outcome — it will own a failure.

History is not on Riyadh’s side in this campaign. Regional wars tend not to go well for invaders; just think of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait or the last Yemen war in the 1960s. The U.S. invasion of Iraq should also offer a cautionary lesson: Many people at the time, including some Iraqis, felt that some major action was better than the status quo, that toppling Saddam Hussein would at the least get a hairy situation unstuck. They were soon disabused of that notion, as Iraq spiraled into chaos.

America should take particular care in this conflict. It has built deep alliances with Saudi Arabia, and it has been far too hesitant to reinvent its dysfunctional relationship with Egypt in the post-Mubarak era. It should act as a brake on Saudi Arabia’s outsized expectations in Yemen, and it should exact a price for any support it gives the war there. Any campaign in Yemen should strengthen, rather than undermine, counterterrorism efforts there, and the United States should share its military know-how in exchange for Saudi cooperation on the Iran deal.

Sure, it’s bizarre to see the U.S. military working with Iran to battle the Islamic State in Iraq, while working against Tehran in Yemen. It’s also refreshing. This isn’t a homily; it’s foreign policy. It’s encouraging to see the United States operating around the edges of a complex, multiparty conflict and finding ways to advance American interests. Its next challenge will be finding new ways to simultaneously pressure rivals like Iran and recalcitrant allies like Saudi Arabia.

But to a large extent, the United States is a sideshow: The main event is the regional struggle for influence between the Iran and Saudi blocs. One need only look at the two major events this spring — the Iran nuclear deal and the capture of Tikrit with the help of Tehran’s military advisors — to get a sense of who’s winning. America’s preferred side has bumbled impulsively from crisis to crisis, buying or strong-arming support and launching military adventures that are likely to produce inconclusive results. Iran’s side, meanwhile, has crafted tight state-to-state relations with Syria and its onetime enemy Iraq, and has deepened its influence in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen. Despite the theocratic dogma of Iran’s Shiite ayatollahs, the regime in Tehran has managed to position itself as the regional champion of pluralism and minorities, against a Saudi grouping whose philosophy has drifted dangerously close to the nihilism of al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Unless Saudi Arabia and its allies can learn a new, more durable style of power projection, their costly feints will only buy short-term gains. The kingdom might manage to bomb the Houthis back to their corner of Yemen, and its Syrian clients may seize some more towns and cities from Assad, but the long-term trend points in Iran’s favor.


The Crises We’re Ignoring

Posted November 13th, 2012 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Originally published in The Boston Globe.]

During the presidential campaign, two issues often seemed like the only foreign policy topics in the entire world: the Middle East and China. Those are unquestionably important: The wider Middle East contains most of the world’s oil and, currently, much of its conflict; and China is the world’s manufacturing base and America’s primary lender. But there are a host of other issues that are going to demand Washington’s sustained attention over the next four years, and don’t occupy anywhere near the same amount of Americans’ attention.

You could call them the icebergs, largely hidden challenges that lie in wait for the second Obama administration. Like all of us, when it comes to priorities, the people in Washington assume that the thing that comes to mind first must be the most important. The recent crises or tensions with Afghanistan, Benghazi, and China make these feel like the whole story. But in fact they are really just a few chapters, and the ones we’re ignoring completely may actually have the most surprises in store.

If the administration wants to stay ahead of the game, here’s what it will need to spend more of its time and energy dealing with in the coming four years.


The eurozone. This is the least sexy, most important foreign policy issue facing America. The nations linked by the euro have started to split apart, with economies staying fairly strong in the north while others, including major economies like Italy and Spain, weakened to the point that they could go bankrupt. To save the euro, the continent’s stronger players might have to spend and borrow to untold levels to bail out its weaker ones. Or it could let them fail, and suffer a chain of collapses that will throw the entire continent, and possibly the world, into another, even longer recession. The debt crisis in Europe could make the American financial crisis of 2008 seem a minor contretemps by co


Europe’s recovery needs to be managed, and that requires global cooperation and money.

Washington and China, along with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, will have to be closely involved, and that won’t happen without American leadership. Though the European crisis has already been a front-burner problem for two years, in the United States it barely cracks the public agenda except as a rhetorical bludgeon: “That guy wants to turn America into Greece!” But Europe’s importance to the global economy, and to America, is staggering: It’s the world’s largest economic bloc, worth $17 trillion, and it’s the US’s largest trading partner. If Europe goes down, we all go down.



Climate change. No politician likes to talk about climate change. It’s depressing news. It’s become highly partisan in this country, and it has no obvious solution even for those who understand the threat. It requires discussion of all kinds of hugely complex, dull-sounding science. When we do talk about it as a political issue, it’s largely as a domestic one: saving energy, dealing with the increasing fury and frequency of storms like Hurricane Sandy, investing in new infrastructure.

In fact, climate change is a massive foreign policy issue as well. On the preventive side, any emissions reduction requires cooperation across borders—between small numbers of powerful nations, like America and China, along with massive worldwide accords like the failed Kyoto Protocol. The responses will often need to be global as well. Rising oceans and temperatures have no regard for national boundaries, and most of the world’s population lives near soon-to-be-vulnerable coastlines. Entire cities might have to move, or be rebuilt, often across

borders. Sandy could cost the American Northeast close to $100 billion when all is said and done (current damage estimates already top $50


billion). Imagine the price of climate-proofing the cities where most of the world lives—Mumbai, Shangahi, Lagos, Alexandria, and so on. Climate change, if unaddressed, could well become an American security issue, propelling unrest and failed states that will spur threats against the US.


Pakistan. Like our tendency to obsess over shark attacks rather than, say, the more significant risk of getting hit by a car, we often find our foreign policy elite preoccupied with rare, dramatic potential threats rather than actual banal ones. You’ll keep hearing about Iran, which might one day have a bomb and which emits noxious rhetoric while supporting well-documented militant groups like Hezbollah. What we really need to hear more and do more about, however, is a regional power that already has nukes (90 to 120 warheads), that is reportedly planning for battlefield bombs that are easier to misplace or steal, and that sponsors rogue terrorist groups that have been regularly killing people in Afghanistan and India for years.

That country is Pakistan. Power there is split among an unstable cast of characters: a dictatorial military, super-empowered Islamic fundamentalists, and a corrupt civilian elite. A significant portion of its huge population has been radicalized, and can easily flit across borders with Iran, Afghanistan, and India. Pakistan isn’t a potential problem; it’s a huge actual problem, a driver of war in Afghanistan, a sponsor of killers of Americans, and perennially, the only actor in the world that actively poses the threat of nuclear war. (The hot war between India and Pakistan in Kargil in 1999 was the first active conflict between two nuclear powers. It’s not talked about much, but remains a genuine nightmare scenario.) Pakistan is also a huge recipient of American aid. We need to find leverage and work to contain, restrain, and stabilize Pakistan.


Transnational crime and drugs. When it comes to violence in the world, foreign-policy thinkers tend to think first about wars, militaries, and diplomacy. But to save money and lives, it would be smarter to think about drugs. In much of the world, the resources spent and lives lost to criminal syndicates in the drug war rival the costs of traditional conflict. Narco-states in the Andes and, increasingly, Central America, make life miserable for their own inhabitants. Criminal off-the-book profits symbiotically feed international crime and terrorism. And in every region of the world, drugs provide the economic engine and financing for militias and terrorist groups; they fuel innumerable security problems, such as human trafficking, illicit weapons sales, piracy, and smuggling. Ultimately, wherever the drug business flourishes, it tends to corrode state authority, leaving vast ungoverned swaths of territory and promoting political violence and weak policing.

The United States pays a lot of attention to this problem in Afghanistan and Mexico, but it’s a drain on resources in corners of the globe that get less attention, from Southeast Asia to Africa. Washington needs to approach the international illegal drug trade like the globalized, multifaceted problem that it is, requiring international law enforcement cooperation but also smart economic solutions to change the market, including legalization.


Mexico. It feels almost painfully obvious, but it’s been a long time since a US president has prioritized our next-door neighbor. Our economies are inextricably linked. America’s supposed problem with illegal immigration is actually the organic

development of a fluid shared labor market across the US-Mexico border. Meanwhile, the distant war in Afghanistan eats up an enormous amount of resources while another conflict races on next door: Mexico’s increasingly violent drug war. Since 2006, it has claimed 50,000 lives, and the violence regularly spills over the border. Washington has collaborated piecemeal with Mexico’s government, but this is a regional conflict, involving criminal syndicates indifferent to jurisdiction. The United States needs to persuade Mexico to pursue a less violent, more sustainable strategy to counter the drug gangs, and then partner with the government there wholeheartedly.


The dangerous Internet. Cyber security might sound like a boondoogle for defense contractors looking for more money to spend on a ginned-up threat. Yet in the last year we’ve seen the real-world consequences of cyber attacks on Iran’s nuclear program, apparently orchestrated by the

United States and Israel, and an effective cyber response apparently by Iran that hobbled Saudi Arabia’s oil industry. Harvard’s Joseph Nye points out that cyber espionage and crime already pose serious transnational threats, and recent developments show how war and terrorism will spill into our online networks, potentially threatening everything from our power supply to our personal data.


The US budget. Elementary economics usually begins with the discussion of guns vs. butter: You can’t pay for everything given limited resources, so do you eat or defend yourself? For generations, America has had the luxury of not really having to choose: The economy has mostly boomed since

World War II, meaning we never had to cut anything fundamentally important. But America now faces a contracting global economy and a world in which it increasingly has to share resources with other rising powers. This is unfamiliar, and unhappy, territory: America’s next defense and foreign affairs budgets will probably be the first since the Second World War to require serious downsizing at a time when there are actual credible threats to the United States.


The Americans who reelected President Obama didn’t care that much about his foreign policy, according to polls. And, perhaps fittingly, Obama dealt with the rest of world during his first term with competence and caution rather than with flair and executive drive. His impressive focus on Al Qaeda hasn’t been mirrored so far in the rest of his national security policy, made by a team better known for its meetings than for setting clear priorities.

In the wake of a decisive reelection, Obama will have the political latitude to shape a more creative and forward-thinking foreign policy in his second term. If he does, he’ll have to work around both deeply divided legislators and a constrained budget: We simply can’t pay for everything, from land wars to cyber threats to sea walls to protected American industries. The priorities the next administration chooses—and its ability to pass any budget—will dramatically shape the kind of foreign influence America yields over the next four years.