New Middle East “Cold War” Can’t Be Explained by Sunni-Shia Divide

“’Sunni versus Shia’ makes for a simple headline, but does not do justice to the complexities of the new Middle East cold war,” writes F. Gregory Gause III, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in a new report.

Gause’s report frames the regional politics of the Middle East as a “cold war” in which Iran and Saudi Arabia are “playing a balance of power game.”

While “the current confrontation has an important sectarian element,” to understand it simply through this lens would “distort analytical focus, oversimplify regional dynamics, and cause Iran and Saudi Arabia’s motives to be misunderstood.” The two regional powers are certainly “using sectarianism in that game,” Gause argues, “yet their motivations are not centuries-long religious disputes but a simple contest for regional influence.” He also stresses that “the regional cold war can only be understood by appreciating the links between domestic conflicts, transnational affinities, and regional state ambitions.”

What Contributed to the New “Cold War” Between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

A key factor in this new cold war is the weakness of state governance throughout the Middle East. The Saudi-Iranian “contest for influence plays out in the domestic political systems of the region’s weak states,” or states in which “the central government exercises little effective control over its society.” Gause emphasizes that “it is the weakening of Arab states, more than sectarianism or the rise of Islamist ideologies, that has created the battlefields of the new Middle East cold war,” by pushing regional actors to “support non-state actors effectively in their domestic political battles within the weak states of the Arab world.”

It is the weakening of Arab States, more than sectarianism or the rise of Islamist ideologies, that has created the battlefields of the new Middle East cold war.

Gause also draws similarities between the current Middle East cold war and a period in the 1950s and 1960s referred to as the “Arab cold war.” He explains that in both periods the “power of the major protagonists in the Arab cold war was measured in their ability to affect domestic political struggles in neighboring states where weak regimes had trouble controlling their own societies and local players sought regional allies against their own domestic opponents.” In both periods:

  • Non-state actors have served as critical players.
  • Tactical alliances have not always been fixed.
  • Great powers were important participants but not always drivers of events.
  • The so-called “struggle for Syria” has served as a battleground for regional influence.

What is the Role of American Policy in the Midst of This Middle East Cold War?

“This is not America’s war,” Gause writes. In terms of U.S. policy options, he notes that while “the United States can do little to address the weakness of governing institutions in many Arab states,” the U.S. should “prefer order over chaos” and support states that provide effective governance “even when that governance does not achieve preferred levels of democracy and human rights.” He offer four policy recommendations, explaining that the U.S. should focus on “concentrating American policy on the states that actually govern, acting multilaterally, and remembering that U.S. interests are not as directly engaged as those of the local parties:”

  1. Explore every avenue to a new relationship with the Rouhani government in Iran.
  2. Ensure that the Islamic State’s momentum is reversed before pressuring Nouri al-Maliki to be more inclusive.
  3. Continue to engage with the emerging military government in Egypt.
  4. Support traditional allies like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states.

These suggestions draw from lessons learned in the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq which toppled Saddam Hussein and left a power vacuum and state weakness in its wake. Gause explains that “the breaking of the Iraqi state enormously increased the salience of sectarianism in regional politics.” In his previous work, Gause pointed out the impact that the weakening of state power and subsequent power vacuum had on sectarian politics:

The American invasion of 2003 took the lid off Iraqi politics, allowing Iran (most successfully), Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other regional parties to play into Iraqi politics. They did not have to force themselves onto the scene. Local Iraqi parties, fighting for dominance in the new Iraq, invited foreign support. The same is now happening in Syria. Once players in the regional game, both Iraq and Syria are now playing fields. The new Middle East cold war is being played out in the domestic politics of these newly weak Arab states.

The shattering of stability in Iraq brought sectarianism to the forefront of this regional conflict, prompting Saudi Arabia and Iran to rely on sectarianism “to rally their followers and discredit their enemies, in ways that are poisoning the politics of the entire region.”

In another article, Gause suggested that while “there is no denying that sectarianism is a real factor in the politics in the region … the contemporary political context is more important for understanding how sectarianism plays into modern conflicts than is the history of the first Islamic century.”

Download and read the new paper, “
Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War
,” and visit the
Brookings Doha Center
for more research and commentary on related issues.