Image credit: shutterstock.com
In his wide-ranging interview with the Atlantic magazine last week US President Barack Obama argued that a “cold peace” needs to be established between Iran and Saudi Arabia who both need to figure out some way to “share the neighborhood.”
Obama alluded to the proxy wars which both countries are fighting in Syria and Yemen which has further destabilized the region and exacerbated and prolonged those conflicts. However his comments make clear that Riyadh and Tehran remain major powers in the region. Both have the power to either plunge it further into a morass of sectarian violence and turmoil or to forge agreements and compromises which could stabilize it and end some of the conflicts which are presently ripping it apart.
The president’s acknowledgement that these two countries constitute significant powers in the region reminds one of the late 1960s and early 1970s when the United States, knee-deep as it was in the jungles of Vietnam, chose to delegate greater responsibilities to its regional powers as part of the Nixon Doctrine when it came to the security and defense of their respective regions. This led to the birth of the Twin Pillars Policy, which essentially saw the US allot greater responsibility to Saudi Arabia and Iran as the two powers whose job it was to secure the strategically-important Persian Gulf region. While this soon saw the US focus primarily on building up the Shah’s Iran into the dominant military power in the Gulf region (a power which intervened overtly and covertly in internal conflicts in Oman and Iraqi Kurdistan) the policy nevertheless underscored the importance of these two countries.
In the post-Iraq War-era the Obama administration has pursued a policy which is not wholly unlike the Nixon Doctrine. While it has assisted its Iraqi and Kurdish allies in the ongoing war against Islamic State (ISIS) it focused more on training and arming them to take on ISIS while giving them continued close air support to avoid becoming bogged down in a ground war themselves.
Obama’s stressing that Iran and Saudi Arabia simply need to get on in order to bring some semblance of stability in the region in light of the Twin Pillar precedent is quite noteworthy. And while a lot has conspicuously changed in the region the Twin Pillars policy still nevertheless constitutes a highly informative precedent for the present.
After 1979 the US increased support to the Gulf countries and solidified a close alliance with them while opposing the hostile new regime in Tehran. The Saudis and the rest of the Gulf States however have become greatly concerned by the nuclear deal reached between Tehran and the P5+1 powers. This has seen them become much more rigorous, especially since the ascent to the throne of King Salman in early 2015, in fighting Iran’s allies and proxies across the region. As evidenced by their manic efforts to crush the Shiite Houthi group in neighboring Yemen militarily, their continued support of a plethora of armed opponents to Iran’s ally in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad, and their recent decision to officially brand Hezbollah a terrorist organization and pressure Lebanon’s government to do more to oppose it (through its lifting of an aid package of French arms worth $3 billion which it cancelled earlier this month). And the actual severing of diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Tehran following the Saudi execution of the Shiite Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and the subsequent ransacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran in early January.
The regional proxy war between the two powers expands throughout the region in other words. But either side has decisively been able to defeat the other in any of these battles. And with negotiations ahead in Syria it’s clear some compromise will have to be made. As might have to be made elsewhere in the region. Riyadh and Tehran have proven to be important powers in the course of events of this decade and will likely continue to be so in the future. Just as Twin Pillars sought to keep security and stability in the region so will some sort of compromise reached between Riyadh and Tehran today, the ramifications of which, if history is any indicator, may well be seen from Beirut and Damascus all the way down to Sana’a.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.