The Straw that Broke the Camel's Back: How Saudi Arabia and Iran's Proxy War Could Destroy the Middle East

By Mana Afsari

The threat and actualization of proxy war has rendered the Middle East the ultimate challenge to United States foreign policy. Attempting to put out the wildfires of conflict in Yemen, Syria, Iraq or Lebanon has fruitlessly exhausted the resources of the military and intelligence agencies alike, without mitigating the flame of origin: the unsustainable relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Each state fears the expansion of the other’s ideological influence. Both parties perceive threat in the other, and impulsively resort to defense mechanisms and so-called “recklessness” to ensure their national security and to capitalize on the power vacuum left after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Reactive foreign policy dictates the relationship between the two Middle East superpowers. And as each continues to act on defensive impulse and to exacerbate tensions, even the most elementary student of history can recognize that a single catastrophic event does not induce war. Instead, the steady escalation of offensive and defensive measures, conducted out of fear and pride, engenders devastating conflict.

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With Saudi Arabia and Iran at odds, the Middle East is a ticking time bomb

With Saudi Arabia and Iran at odds, the Middle East is a ticking time bomb.

The time has come to condemn the reactive mode of international relations and embrace proactive measures. “As difficult as is for Iran and Saudi Arabia to speak to one another,” writes Ibrahim Fraihat of Foreign Affairs, “this is still the best way for both powers to avoid war.” Undoubtedly, a reliable line of communication alone can prevent full scale war, and alleviate the proxy wars destabilizing border nations. The United States, having much to gain from alliances with both nations with the Iran Deal and security and economic partnerships with Saudi Arabia on the line, must not disengage from the region, but rather facilitate the rehabilitation of Saudi- Iranian relations. It is our imperative, and absolutely in the best interest of our nation.

Any possibility of a stable, secure, and strong Middle East fundamentally relies on the collaboration of Saudi Arabia and Iran. The United States can facilitate the first and most urgent step of this process: diminishing hostility between the nations and their respective ideologies.

Experts often cite religious factionalism as the root of Saudi-Iranian hostilities. The Shi’ite-Sunni conflict proves tempting as a clean answer, given the abundant evidence. Shi’ite rebels in Yemen attempted to topple the Sunni government and Daesh (ISIS) originated from a desire to strengthen the Sunni presence in Syria. Though quite obviously the Islamic schism accounts for the primary ideological difference between Saudi Arabia and Iran, economic interdependence and stability concerns in the region suggest that the success of both states depends on collaboration. Religion, therefore, is not the catalyst of conflict, but rather a byproduct and convenient scapegoat.

A lack of communication is the true culprit. Communication, as Fraihat claims, is the best method we currently have at our disposal to lessen distrust between the regimes. The days of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry are numbered, and both states exhibit awareness of the dire need for cooperation. Distrust and unwillingness to make the first compromise inhibit both from negotiation. The United States has a prime opportunity to strengthen its individual alliances with Iran and Saudi Arabia, reintroduce native authority into the Middle East, and redirect the attention of Middle Easterners to domestic concerns, such as the transition toward functional democracy, all without another direct Western invasion.

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