January 6, 2016
DALLAS (SMU) – Saudi Arabia and Iran have grabbed the first headlines of the New Year with an escalation in their decades-old “cold war” that has countries picking sides across the Middle East and fueled proxy wars in Syria and Yemen.
As scary as that sounds, SMU political scientist Josh Rovner suggests the conflict does not necessarily involve vital U.S. interests.
“Should we care or not is the big question,” says Rovner, the John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics & National Security Policy. “In the past, the answer was obvious: The U.S. had an interest in Persian Gulf oil and in preventing any single country from dominating the region. But the balance of power and changes to the international oil market have made that less important. No one in the region has the military wherewithal to become a hegemon. In the meantime the U.S. has other pressing interests, especially the rise of China, which might cause it to shift its attention away from the Middle East.”
Despite the conventional wisdom that Saudi Arabia is an American ally and Iran is an American enemy, the administration hasn’t been quick to pick sides during the recent escalation, and with good reason, says Rovner.
“It’s clear that wealthy donors from Saudi Arabia have been funding militants in Syria,” Rovner says. “They have also invested in exporting a radical ideology that drives Al-Qaeda and other extremists, which in turn has fueled sectarian conflict and terrorism.”
That doesn’t mean the United States should abandon Saudi Arabia as an ally, Rovner says, it just means the best outcome for the United States might be to remain neutral and encourage Iran and Saudi Arabia to resolve their differences independently.
A best-case scenario, says Rovner, isn’t that Saudi Arabia and Iran become friends, but that new battlegrounds aren’t created and the current conflicts in Yemen and Syria don’t spread. This would allow the United States to reduce its presence in the Middle East and focus on regions more important to its long-term interests, such as China.
The worst case scenario, says Rovner, is not war between Iran and Saudi Arabia: Neither nation has the military capability to invade the other so such a war would likely boil down to missile barrages, air strikes, and state-sponsored terrorist attacks.
The worst-case scenario Rovner can foresee is a conflict that creates so much instability that Saudi Arabia’s government collapses under any of several pressuring factors:
- Civil strife between the nation’s predominate Sunni population and minority Shia population
- Instability caused by Sunni-dominated Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
- A succession crisis as the expansive royal family feuds to see who will replace King Salman, who turned 80 in December
“Hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran is inevitable,” Rovner said. “A nasty cold war does not always lead to a violent hot one, as we learned with our own history with the Soviet Union. A somewhat stable cold war, with each side trying to hurt each other through proxy groups, is likely as long as we have a stable regime in Riyadh and Tehran, because neither can project military power. But if the Saudi Arabian government breaks down, then you’d have a very dangerous power vacuum in a place sitting on a lake of oil.”
“If the Saudi Arabian regime starts to crack, that’s when the situation gets more complicated and much more serious for the U.S,” Rovner added.
SMU is a nationally ranked private university in Dallas founded 100 years ago. Today, SMU enrolls approximately 11,000 students who benefit from the academic opportunities and international reach of seven degree-granting schools.