For over half a century, the Middle East was a recurring theater of the Cold War. The region’s rich petroleum reserves, central location in relation to the Afro-Eurasian landmass, and political instability made it a prime target for US-Soviet battles for influence and led to unfortunate consequences. From Israel’s Golda Meir and Egypt’s Gamal Ab del Nasser to Iran’s Ruhollah Khomeini and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, democrats and dictators from across the region attempted to exploit the United States and the Soviet Union’s willingness to provide arms and aid to foment and exacerbate a series of wars that rocked the region. Therefore, the period from 1945 to 1991 marked a return of the Middle East’s complex ethnic conflicts and geopolitical rivalries, fueled by US and Soviet interests in the region.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and NATO’s triumph in the Gulf War in 1991, the possibility of peace in the Middle East seemed plausible. The extremely bloody Lebanese Civil War and Iran-Iraq War had finally drawn to a close, and a respite from the bloodshed provided a degree of economic stability, allowing Middle Eastern nations to capitalize on their petroleum reserves. However, two Middle Eastern powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, who had been growing increasingly wealthy and powerful, vied to fill the power vacuum left in the region by the withdrawal of Cold War-era forces. Iran and Saudi Arabia actually espouse similar forms of de facto governance, as both maintain non-secular autocracies that severely restrict the political freedom of any would be opposition. Yet Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’a Iran also manifest a religious divide that dates back over 1,300 years, one that neither nation is ready to forget and that both deem worth fighting for.
Despite the taut religious and geopolitical tensions between the countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia restricted the majority of their quarrel to rhetoric until recent years. At times, alleged assassination attempts and bombings would destabilize their relations, but it wasn’t until the Yemeni Civil War broke out in 2015 that things took a definitive turn for the worse. Yemen, like many Middle Eastern countries, is heavily divided along sectarian lines, with just over half of its population identifying as Sunni and just less than half identifying as Shi’a. When an insurgency of Shi’a Houthi rebels deposed the Sunni government in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, both Iran and Saudi Arabia became deeply invested in the conflict. The Saudis have since mobilized a coalition principally composed of Sunni nations to restore the Sunni government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Iran, which has been accused of funding the Houthi rebels for years, countered by censuring Saudi intervention in Yemen and allegedly stepping up support to Yemeni Shi’a groups.
As the Yemeni Civil War rages on, its surprising element is not the proxy belligerents, but the conspicuous absence of world powers, most notably the United States. Bitterness over the suffering brought about by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a desire to reset relations with Iran, have kept the United States in a mere advisory role in the Yemeni conflict. The United States has limited itself to offering mild support for Saudi Arabia’s Sunni coalition—support likely too minimal to have any significant effect on the war. Similarly, Russia, preoccupied with its attempts to prop up the Assad government in the Syrian Civil War, has offered little more than encouragement to the Iranian-aligned Shi’a Houthi forces within Yemen. Therefore, the current conflict in Yemen represents the first major regional war in decades that is to be settled almost entirely without significant intervention from outside the Middle East.
As the West continues to pull back from the Middle East, Yemen may be the first of many proxy wars of the nascent Iranian-Saudi ‘cold war.’ Before the Yemeni conflict exploded, Iran and Saudi Arabia had already been supporting opposing forces in Syria and Iraq. In fact, both nations have been accused of arming extremists in the two countries, which, if true, has exacerbated bloody conflicts.
While Iran and Saudi Arabia have so far been content to settle their conflict through proxy forces, such tactics may bring further chaos and carnage to the Middle East in the future. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are exceedingly confident and well-funded autocratic nations with a millennium-old religious quarrel and the arms to settle it. As the United States and the Soviet Union showed the world, a cold war can easily impose the biggest burden on third-party nations while inflicting significantly less damage on the powers driving the proxy war. For the sake of a region that has seen so much bloodshed and destruction recently, one can only hope that the Saudis and Iranians do not repeat history, for if they do, peace in the Middle East may be unattainable for decades to come.