Middle East peace elusive as U.S.-Saudi alliance targets Iran
People inspect the rubble of houses destroyed by Saudi-led airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen, Aug. 25. | Hani Mohammed / AP

Peace in the Middle East has, for many decades, been a rare commodity. The flow of oil, gas, and minerals, which has seen the development of some of the richest states on the planet, has not brought with it a rush of democratic control.

On the contrary, from the controlling input of the oil transnationals under British colonial rule, to the dynastic dictatorships sold to the Western public as “royal” families, the mineral wealth of the region has been ruthlessly exploited to benefit a select few.

Over recent decades, the power balance has ebbed and flowed with different allegiances being fashioned to suit the needs of the West and to ensure that oil supplies kept flowing and rival economies were kept at bay.

The dictatorship of the Shah of Iran suited the needs of British and U.S. interests in Iranian oil fields in the decades that followed WWII. The establishment of the Islamic Republic put an end to that arrangement, and thus the West was quick to back Saddam Hussein in Iraq in the 1980s when it was clear that Western interests could still be protected.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, in spite of being a single-family dictatorship, is nevertheless fawned over by presidents and royalty keen to keep the oil flowing and arms sales booming.

Now, the two reactionary regimes—Iran and Saudi Arabia—are in a power struggle to control the Middle East, while the U.S. and other imperialist states try to game the conflict from above for their own benefit.

Iran: The “anti-imperialist” theocracy

The revolution in Iran in 1979—followed by the unexpected seizure of power by a ruthless theocracy and the establishment of the reactionary Islamic Republic—was the key point at which relationships began to change significantly.

Not only did the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran mark a significant break in guaranteed allegiances with the West, it also exacerbated differences within the Muslim world between the Shi’ite and Sunni strands of Islam.

The Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) was a significant attempt by the West—which backed Saddam Hussein’s attack upon Iran—to restore the pre-revolutionary balance in the region.

Inevitably, as with most efforts by the West in the region, the plan backfired and Iran emerged stronger in the eyes of many looking for a focal point for opposition to Western interference in the Middle East.

That such a reactionary regime could be seen as remotely anti-imperialist is both an irony and a contradiction. The reality of Iran’s human rights abuses against its own peace activists, political opposition, trade unionists, and women should have put paid to any illusions that the regime represented anything progressive long ago.

However, for some Muslims, the alternative Saudi-led interpretation of Sunni Islam is regarded as infinitely worse than anything Shi’ite Iran has offered.

Saudi Arabia: The West’s very own one-family dictatorship

Anti-Western feeling in the region has been heightened by the failure to curb Israeli brutality in Palestine, the post-September 11, 2001 invasion of Iraq, and interventions in Afghanistan and Libya.

Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation from Riyadh on Saudi television, rather than in his home country. | Screenshot from Al Arabiya TV

More recent Western efforts to stoke civil war in Syria, as well as supporting the Saudi blockade and bombardment of Yemen, have added to the feeling that the adage “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” may have some mileage.

Significantly, much of the military equipment used by the Saudis in Yemen comes from Britain, while the effective Saudi blockade of Yemen’s borders has not been challenged by either the U.S. or the EU.

The recent bizarre resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri can only be understood in the context of the wider power play unfolding in the region. Hariri was called to Riyadh, where upon landing his mobile phone and those of his bodyguards were confiscated.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s own “night of the long knives” began only hours after Hariri’s arrival in Riyadh. It has seen the house arrest of 11 princes, including the immensely wealthy Al-Waleed bin Talal, four ministers, and scores of other former government lackeys. Up to 1,700 bank accounts have also been frozen.

His plan appears to include an attempt to destabilize Lebanon by removing Hariri and effectively throwing down the gauntlet to cabinet partners Hezbollah, who are backed by Iran.

This is supported by the fact that Hariri read out—on Saudi-owned TV—a scripted announcement of his resignation as Prime Minister of Lebanon, while calling for the disarming of Hezbollah and accusing Iran of interference across the region.

Over the same weekend, Houthi rebels, suffering relentless Saudi bombardment in Yemen, launched a missile attack upon the Riyadh airport. Although the Saudis managed to intercept the missile before it hit the ground, they have nevertheless proclaimed the attack as “an act of war” by Iran. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir has threatened to take “appropriate” action when the time is right.

Jubeir claims that the missile was made in Iran and smuggled in parts into Yemen where, he claimed, “operatives from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah” helped put it back together again and then launch it.

Invasion by proxy?

The wider context of recent events must also include the 2015 nuclear deal brokered with Iran—which U.S. President Donald Trump is keen to tear up—and U.S. insistence on keeping all options open when dealing with Iran.

While those options may not necessarily mean a direct attack by the U.S. on Iran, it seems increasingly probable that a U.S. proxy—such as Israel or Saudi Arabia—could be the conduit for such an action or an orchestration of a regional crisis involving Iran.

To suggest that the escalation of such a conflict would be a threat to world peace is no exaggeration. As the recent years of conflict in Syria have shown, alliances in the region rarely take account of the needs of the people but are geared towards the control of the rich oil and mineral resources of the Middle East.

While the rhetoric of “fighting for democratic freedoms” will still be deployed when deemed useful, the reality remains that little, if any, democracy has come from Western interventions in the region in the past decades. There is every prospect that the West, however, particularly the U.S., may regard intervention against Iran as in some way necessary.

The defeat of Islamic State forces, across Iraq and Syria, has involved Iranian-trained fighters on the ground. Iran now controls a significant land corridor, running from Tehran to Tartous in Syria, providing an important access route to the Mediterranean. Iran’s designs on extending its influence across the region take account of the continued supremacy of its theocratic rule.

The Saudis and Israel claim that the extension of Iranian influence in the region represents an existential threat. As unlikely as they may seem as allies, both the Saudis and Israel are backed by the U.S., itself struggling to retain its hegemonic foothold in the region.

Recent events do not augur well for the people of the Middle East, who are inevitably caught in the crossfire. The Saudi blockade of Yemen alone, which relies on imports for 90 percent of its food supply, is creating a humanitarian crisis of major proportions.

The people of Iran continue to suffer under a theocracy that controls all spheres of life from the economic and political to the social and cultural. The dictatorship in Saudi Arabia remains a barrier to any form of individual or democratic freedom.

With both the Iranian regime and the Saudis digging in their heels, the need for democrats in the West to put pressure upon their governments not to intervene and not to exacerbate tensions is urgent.

Addressing the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is one area in which pressure can be applied. Backing the groundswell of opposition to arms sales to Saudi Arabia is another.

Western warmongering has done much to inflame the Middle East, and the desire to protect corporate interests has been behind much of the rhetoric. Taking the same path will not provide a solution, and the people of the Middle East will not thank us for continuing down that route.


Jane Green
Jane Green

Jane Green is the national campaign officer of the UK-based CODIR, Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People's Rights.