A cold war is taking place in a very hot place. A key component of the sectarian competition between Shia and Sunni Islam in the Middle East is geopolitical, with Iran facing off against Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies in a struggle for regional dominance.
As with the original Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, the conflict does not involve direct military confrontation between the main rivals, at least not yet. It is being fought diplomatically, ideologically, and economically – especially in the oil markets – and through proxy wars, such as the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. There are few problems in the wider Middle East that cannot be traced back to the power rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
For the moment, the Iranians seem to be riding high. Following Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s decision to agree to an international deal limiting Iran’s nuclear capability to peaceful purposes, Western sanctions have been all but removed. Now that it is once again acceptable to do business with Iran, its ailing economy is set for a rebound. Meanwhile, Iran’s creeping de facto annexation of parts of Iraq – astonishingly, with American acceptance – continues because no one except the so-called “Islamic State” has the stomach to stand up to it.
Iran also has an overwhelming manpower advantage, with a population of an estimated 77 million, compared to Saudi Arabia’s 28 million. And while its army is far less well equipped than its rival’s, it is much larger. Moreover, Iran’s main Arab ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has been given a reprieve as the conflict in his country drags on without conclusion.