By Dan Mueller
The crumbling of government authority in Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq under the alarming onslaught of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) is indicative of a number of geopolitical factors and shifts. Here I will focus on what I believe to be the most significant of these factors; and that is the intensification of the regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Over much of the last decade Iran is known to have made significant geopolitical gains in the Middle East. It has solidified its position in Iraq through its influence over successive Shiite-dominated governments there and heavily invested in the country’s south, which is demographically dominated by Shiites. During the same period Iran has also strengthened Hezbollah in Lebanon through economic aid and weapons delivery, including some advanced weaponry systems. And in Syria’s bloody and devastating civil war, Iran has helped Bashar al-Assad’s regime to hold the upper hand and win back some of the territories lost to rebels.
Furthermore, Iran is in the process of reaching a permanent nuclear deal with the world’s major powers, including the United States, that could lift much of the economic sanctions imposed on Iran. For much of the Arab world, Saudi Arabia in particular, the above Iranian advances are very worrisome as, in their view, Iran could dominate the region geopolitically and set the trends in politics and energy.
The situation in Iraq in particular, not so much in Syria, has given Saudi Arabia a golden opportunity to deal a blow to Iranian interests in Iraq and undermine Tehran’s interests in Tehran’s very backyard in Iraq. The question is how this opportunity was created for the Saudis? The short answer is the utter incompetence and deeply sectarian policies of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose biggest achievement in office so far has been marginalizing Iraq’s Sunnis and creation of a very corrupt administration.
There is significant support coming from the Saudis to military officers and generals from Saddam’s Baath army who have been involved in day-to-day management of the ISIS operations in Iraq.
From the Saudi point of view, the ISIS can put a dent to Iran’s geopolitical gains in the region, but what the Saudis should be aware of is that the threat of Islamic extremism could haunt them within their own borders, given the restive Saudi population and increasing frustration with the royal family over the country’s enormous economic difficulties.