Global Affairs

Game of Thrones in the Middle East

The interplay between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia will shape the region for years to come.

LONDON • It is hard to think of a less compatible group of countries than Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The first is the standard-bearer of Shi'ite Muslims, the second sees itself as the defender of all Sunnis, while Russia's identity is bound with Orthodox Christianity. One is a staunch monarchy, while the other two are republics. And while the Saudis are fighting a rearguard action to defend the status quo in their region, both Russia and Iran are doing everything possible to overthrow it.

Still, the Middle East will be defined and shaped by the interplay between these three countries for many years to come. Theirs will be a story of confrontation, punctuated by gestures of cooperation, one of marriages of convenience which frequently ended in betrayal. The interplay between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia is the Middle East's equivalent of the Game of Thrones, with just as many bewildering twists, false leads and bloody endings.

The animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran is legendary. At its heart is not only a clash between Sunni and Shi'ites - two sects of Islam - going back more than a millennium, but also a more practical confrontation for dominance of the Middle East, a clash which is seen as an existential struggle by both nations.

But Russia's relationship with Saudi Arabia and Iran is also overshadowed by decades of mistrust and confrontation. Saudi Arabia acted as the supply and financing route for the Western-backed rebels fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan during the 1980s; the Saudis were one of the few nations in the world to have refused any diplomatic links with Moscow until the atheist communist government of that country - regarded by the Saudis as an abomination - collapsed.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

And although post-revolution Iran often tried to enlist Russia's support and occasionally got it, the Islamic republic was also frequently rebuffed by Russian governments which remained uneasy about getting too close to the mullahs of Teheran, seen by Moscow as potential trouble-makers liable to affect Russia's own Muslims.

So, what is forcing the three countries to talk to each other now? None other than the United States. For the Americans were the ultimate arbiters of the Middle East, and their decision to take a back seat in the region has opened up a strategic void which everyone is rushing to fill.

IRAN'S ASCENDANCE

The primary and most immediate beneficiary of this American withdrawal from the region has, without doubt, been Iran. The Iranians may have been forced to give up on their quest to acquire nuclear weapons, at least for the near future. But they have won on almost every other count. They have got the Obama administration's acquiescence to continue developing missile delivery systems; the missiles which Iran will be deploying in the next few years will in themselves tilt the balance of power decisively in Teheran's favour.

And in his desperation to shield the nuclear negotiations from any other dispute between America and Iran, US Secretary of State John Kerry has allowed the Iranians to do more or less as they pleased elsewhere in the Middle East. That, coupled with the fact that the Iranians have always been the region's most populous and resourceful nation, meant that Iran's influence and power have grown exponentially, and more is to follow when the Iranian economy starts to benefit from the end of the international sanctions imposed on the country.

Russia has also benefited handsomely from the decline of US involvement in the Middle East. Moscow correctly interpreted President Barack Obama's lack of interest in the war in Syria as a strategic opportunity; the deployment of Russian troops and firepower in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad not only reversed decades of Russian absence from the Middle East, but also provided Russia with an opportunity to forge a new alliance with Iran, which equally supports the Assad regime in Syria.

THE COST TO THE SAUDIS

The biggest loser from these developments has been Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is now surrounded by hostile governments and militias, mostly funded by Iran: In the south, there is Yemen, where the rebel Houthis are financed and equipped by Iran; in the west, there is Bahrain, where an Iranian-funded rebellion continues to simmer; and in the north, there is Iraq, where the central government is basically Iranian-controlled. The opportunities for future Iranian mischief-making appear endless.

But the Saudis have one big weapon of their own: Oil. The country is, by far, the Middle East's biggest oil producer, with a unique ability to ramp up production to depress global oil prices. And that's what the Saudis have done for almost a year; the collapse in oil prices is not directly related to Saudi action, but the failure to lift these prices from their current doldrums is almost certainly due to Saudi Arabia's determination to continue pumping out as much oil as possible.

That strategy has been costly for the Saudis: Lower oil revenues forced the Saudi monarchy to dip into its currency reserves to the tune of approximately US$150 billion (S$203 billion) a year, meaning that the country may run out of cash by 2018. But the hardship imposed on Iran, which hoped to revamp its oil industry after the end of sanctions but now finds it won't get any investors, and Russia, whose economy is already in recession, is far more severe. So, the Saudis are ready to continue suffering as long as they inflict even bigger blows on their opponents.

A TRIO OF 'FRENEMIES'

In practice, all the three countries locked into this bizarre Middle East triangle are neither complete allies nor sworn enemies; they are best described as "frenemies", nations which cooperate but also frequently oppose each other.

The Russians may cooperate with Iran in Syria, but they most certainly don't see eye to eye with the Iranians elsewhere in the Middle East.

Since he ordered his troops into Syria last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been careful to keep his options open. Russia has retained warm relations with Israel: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just returned from what he called a "very successful" visit to Moscow, where he was greeted by Mr Putin who professed himself "very happy" to host the Israeli leader. Most of Mr Putin's discussion with Mr Netanyahu was over measures to contain the growing power of Hizbollah, an Iranian-funded militia which is now deployed by the Iranians throughout Syria.

And, in a more spectacular about-turn, the Russians have also reversed decades of hostility to the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec), the cartel led by Saudi Arabia, by engaging in direct efforts to coordinate energy prices with the Saudis. The Iranians did not like either of these developments, yet had no option but to go along with them.

The last attempt to agree a freeze on oil production was made a week ago in Doha, the capital of Qatar, which brokered discussions. It failed, but all the participants know that it is only a matter of time before a similar effort is attempted.

And the outlines of a potential deal are evident: a Russian agreement to accept the eventual removal of the Assad government in Syria plus an Iranian agreement to give up on supporting some of the pro-Iranian militias in the Middle East, in return for a Saudi agreement to reduce oil production and allow Iran a greater share of the global oil production quota in Opec.

A good case can be made that the emergence of this trilateral dependency between Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran offers a stability of sorts for the Middle East. Perhaps, but it also amounts to a grave danger. For the moment, there is no evidence that Iranians are prepared to settle; the calculation in Iran is that the Saudis may be forced to blink first, and that Iran therefore should not make any concessions. The Russians are also doubling their military presence in Syria: Having announced their "withdrawal" from that blighted country, the Russians are now moving artillery units to areas of northern Syria where government forces have massed, probably in preparation for a return to full-scale fighting. And the Saudis are throwing even more military assets into fighting Iranian proxies in Yemen. So, the chances of miscalculation and of further warfare are very high indeed.

Still, as long as the US shows no interest in the use of its own forces in the region, the future disposition of the Middle East will be decided by a proxy battle between this triangle of frenemies.

It's not the Middle East anyone wanted. But this is what happens when the US, the world's so-called indispensable power, makes itself dispensable.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2016, with the headline 'Game of Thrones in the Middle East'. Print Edition | Subscribe