The Arab Cold War
As complex events unfold within a complex region, it may prove instructive to view the Middle East of the moment through a wide angle lens. Libya remains a critical site, as the NATO response to Gaddafi increasingly runs the risk of rapid scope creep. Indeed, Tunisia and Egypt loom a great distance from "resolution," and the question of "what next" burns hot on all onlookers lips. In this state of liminal transiton, accompanied by myriad speculations and occasional paranoias, focusing our sights on Saudi Arabia and Iran may reveal some future trends that will aid in the making-sense process.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran represent opposite poles in a regional struggle. One major question enlivened by the Arab spring asks how much influence either nation exerts in the moment to moment development of events in the countries involved, and indeed the future of the Middle East at large. Though the analogy is far from perfect, what we are witnessing is an effective "cold war" between two states that extend influence through confessional affiliation, arms, money, and regional proxies.
King Abdullah is rather well regarded among the Saudi People. Generally, the King is viewed as a reformer, and though many aspects of his agenda fail to satisfy many constituents - particularly his reluctance to extend civil rights to women - there remains in Saudi Arabia a sense that Abdullah is bringing the country along in the right direction. This includes the ever crucial question of the economy; Saudis generally enjoy a rather high standard of living and efforts on the part of Abdullah to diversify the economy have been met with welcome arms. However, the decision to assist the regime in Bahrain with cracking down on popular protests put him square in the sights of an emerging generation that rightly demands the end of the old order from Gibraltar to the Hindu Kush. Abdullah expressed great disappointment with the US decision to let Mubarak (as if they had a choice) fall. Increasingly obvious is Abdullah's two pronged agenda; on the one hand, insulate the Kingdom from internal strife by working - however tentatively - towards reform, while also pursuing a pro-active engagement in places like Bahrain and Yemen on the basis of ensuring security. On the other hand, intervention in Bahrain and the continued stability in the Kingdom are vital to keep in check the influence of Shi'a proxies, and ultimately the only true regional rival, Iran.
Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrullah, is known as being a savvy and widely loved leader in the Arab world. That is why his recent support for Assad looms as a rather large miscalculation. Despite the brutal repression conducted by Assad's regime - including the horrific torture and murder of a 13 year old boy - Nasrullah urged the Syrians to give Assad a chance to make meaningful reforms. The call fell flat, and exposed the Hezbollah chief's nervousness and lack of foresight. It also reveals that Nasrullah and Hezbollah clearly envision a "resistance front" that runs from Tehran, through Damascus and Beirut. The stability of the Syrian regime constitutes a vital strategic component for the continued emergence of Iran as regional hegemon and beacon of the Shi'a revival. In the end, however, whatever emerges in post-Assad Syria will likely be so weak that Hezbollah's influence may even increase.
The proxies are clearly lining up, however, and at this point the future of the Iranian regime remains uncertain. Conflict between Ahmadinejad and Khamanei may not in itself signal a revolutionary moment, but the situation begs the question of how long the young people of Iran will suffer under the mullahs. What is most likely is that Khamenei will emerge triumphant from his skirmish with his suddenly rebellious president and will steer the country to the right in order to protect the Islamic Revolution while continuing to provide regional leadership to the regions Shi'a multitudes. However, as in Saudi Arabia, their exists among the youth - the exceeding majority demographic in both countries - a burning desire to bring their respective nations fully into the light of Democratic modernity. Iran's regime rushes headlong to a crucial moment, one in which its rise to greater prominence in the wake of the Iraq invasion approaches a confluence of forces that threaten its momentum. As long as both Iran and Saudi Arabia are left to deal with their external interests, the bi-polar structure of the regional power distribution allows for a relatively well organized trajectory of events.
When these two nations face their own "spring" revolutionary moments, all bets are off.