Earlier this week, tensions in the long drawn out “cold war of the Middle East” between Saudi Arabia and Iran reached new heights. Specifically, last Saturday, a major Saudi oil refinery was attacked to the point of actually crippling the Gulf state’s core industry. 18 drone strikes and seven cruise missiles struck two refineries in southern Saudi Arabia in an attack claimed by the Houthi rebel movement of Yemen. This caused the largest shift in global oil prices in 30 years. To be clear, the Houthis have no capacity of their own capable of such an attack, and the development comes at too opportune a moment in the ongoing saga against Iran. This attack was made possible in Tehran and is one of, if not the most, significant of hundreds of proxy strikes made by the regime in the last two decades.
The Iranian coalition is ostensibly hostile to the United States. Hezbollah in
Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and dozens of destabilizing Hashd-al-Shabi groups in Iraq are all among the cast of characters in Iran’s ploy for regional and religious dominance in the Middle East. And of course, the Houthis of Yemen, whose official flag quite literally lists “death to America” among its pronouncements, have recently become a notable player. However, it is not as if Saudi Arabia and her coalition of hyper-conservative Wahhabi theological exporters are an ideal ally for stability and peace either. Let us not forget Saudi agents butchered a dissenting journalist in broad daylight at a foreign embassy and ran a blockade against humanitarian actors in Yemen all of last year.
In September 2019, the Middle East finds itself in a state of realpolitik that should be likened to a Cold War fought between a rock and a hard place. So where can we go from here?
Of course, the last 20 years of American experience in the Middle East would seem to scream “anywhere but here—just get out”. However, this is neither a strong nor moral response from a nation that remains the most powerful on Earth. Human suffering is overwhelming in every location where this power struggle continues. 20 years in, much of this remains a consequence of old and bold American foreign policy. The U.S. has a very serious responsibility to redress old failures and deescalate new ones.
The United States and her allies must make clear that the Iranian model will not dominate the Middle East. However, too heavy-handed of a response risks hot-war, and too soft a response permits Iranian behavior. Worst of all would be the appearance that any Western actor is giving permission for either intolerant identity to expand. In short, a Middle East in which the totality of either Saudi or Iranian aspirations are fully realized is a bad one.
The ideal response would be to take on the rare role of American moderator (obviously not the strong suit of this administration). But going forward, the primary interest of the United States in the Saudi-Iranian proxy war is to put out fires (keeping economic systems afloat and avoiding humanitarian catastrophe), ensure that neither ideology dominates and clear space for the people of the region to do what they desperately want: to pursue the tolerant and persuasive Islam of the majority.
As with the U.S. in the Cold War, economics will likely have the final say. Iran’s recent bellicosity probably is a sign that international isolation is doing something, so creating as broad an international commitment as possible to that end is crucial. On the other side, the United States must use her status to squash the radical elements of the Saudi agenda. But to this point, the U.S. has given far too many carrots to the Saudi monarchy for the kingdom to still be sending proselytizers of hatred into the rest of the Middle East. The United States cannot leave this conflict; the stakes are too high and we are too complicit. Instead, we must make clear by whatever means necessary that intolerance will not be tolerated.