As we speak, a cold war rages. Fought via proxy conflicts, arms-racing, economic wrestling, intelligence-gathering, and political machinations, it impacts the lives of hundreds of millions across the globe. Citizens, civilian politics and society, and other, militarily weaker nations are held hostage to it, even today, as two ambitious nations stare each other down, separated only by sea.
This isn’t the Cold War of the 20th century that we all know so well, battled out between hemispheric powers. In fact, it is a cold war in which the global superpowers of today watch largely from the sidelines, with vested interest in the outcome. The United States, China, Russia, India, and the European Union all have skin in the game, to be sure, but this cold war is fought between two bitter, age-old rivals, with only the Persian Gulf keeping them apart. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran are today in a state of proxy war, with the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and parts of Africa all wrapped into a conflict that has been ongoing for nearly half a century—and is still growing in intensity today.
In order to understand what has been going on between Iran and Saudi Arabia, we first must define exactly what a cold war is. The most notable example of this type of conflict was, of course, fought between the United States and the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1991, but a cold war doesn’t need to involve nuclear weapons or be fought between the biggest nations in the world. Instead, a cold war is a state of international rivalry on multiple levels—ideological, economic, political, and military. A cold war never rises to the level of military conflict between the powerful nations involved; this would make it a hot war, where powerful nation A and powerful nation B go head-to-head in a state of open battle. Instead, a cold war relies on proxy metrics to determine wins and losses: technological competition, like the Space Race; proxy warfare, like the United States’ war in Vietnam or the Soviet war in Afghanistan; and political battles across each powerful nation’s sphere of influence, the smaller countries and regional players with which each cold-war nation maintains positive relations.1
The seed for the Saudi-Iranian cold war was planted in 1979, when the Shah of the Imperial State of Iran fled the nation, effectively ceding control to the Islamic Republic of Iran, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini. This made Iran into an institutionally Shi’a state, which by nature freaked out the deeply Sunni state of Saudi Arabia.2 There’s a lot of deeper history here on the difference between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, and we cannot do it justice in a whole series of documentaries, let alone a twenty-minute YouTube video. For now, just take it on faith that while their history is largely one of coexistence, certain Sunni and Shi’a sects of Islam often draw upon a millennia-old anger and resentment toward one another. Peace between the two ideologies has been difficult at times, and occasionally, downright impossible.
With Iran becoming a major power in the Islamic diaspora, Saudi Arabia’s comfortable position as the cornerstone of the Muslim world quickly came under threat. Over the next several years, Saudi Arabia would crack down on its Shi’a population, and Iran would do the same against the Sunni.3 4 The primary fear for each nation was that the other would start to foment social unrest, then political opposition, then revolution—sound like any cold wars you know?5 Saudi Arabia backed Iraq in a long, brutal war against Iran, rife with chemical weapons use and resulting in the deaths of over a million people.6
As relations began to fall apart between the two powerhouses, each of them began to cement ties with countries in the region that shared, or at least were relatively close to, their own views on Islam. Even as the geopolitical landscape morphed and changed, throughout the fourth quarter of the 20th century Iran and Saudi Arabia kept their own patchworks of alliances up-to-date, all while courting powerful backers in the form of established and rising global superpowers. Tragedy struck several times for Sunni and Shi’a in both nations, with the worst incident coming in 1987, where 400 people were killed in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in a protest and rally led by Iranian pilgrims.7 In 2003, the death of Saddam Hussein represented a major turning of tides in Iraq, as the overthrow of Saddam’s Sunni government created opportunity for Iranian Shi’a influence to take hold. And from there, both nations jockeyed for position in Lebanon, with the rivalry between the Saudi-backed military and the Hezbollah faction propped up by Iran tense enough to put the entire Lebanese political system through multiple nervous breakdowns.8
The Modern Cold War.
The modern era of the Saudi-Iranian cold war begins in 2011, as part of a broader wind of change that started in neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran. As the Arab Spring kicked off a groundswell of regime change across the Middle East, both regimes sought to shore up their domestic stability and take advantage of the chaos abroad, both supporting their allies and looking for weaknesses in their unfriendly neighbors. Iran held itself together and made no concessions in the face of a massive protest movement,9 while a general ban on protest and dissent in Saudi Arabia, combined with economic incentives to encourage peace, kept things mostly quiet.10 But in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia, chaos and regime change were imminent, creating opportunities for both of the region’s heavy hitters.
Prior to the Arab Spring, Iran had taken advantage of the power vacuum created by Saddam Hussein’s overthrow to strengthen ties not just in Baghdad, but in Damascus and Beirut. But as a resistance movement swelled in Syria, Saudi Arabia took advantage of what quickly became a state of civil war. Saudi thinking at the time was that Syria’s connections to Iran were weaker than those of Lebanon or Iraq, but by placing a Syrian opposition movement into power, they might create a domino effect in the region and drive Iranian influence out. Of course, Iran put two and two together fairly quickly, and got to work counteracting Saudi influence in Syria, as well as that of the United States, Israel, and the European Union.11
For Saudi Arabia, supporting regime change in Syria was a tricky proposition. A toppled dictatorship in Syria or Lebanon was all well and good, but if the entire region came unstuck, there was a chance Saudi Arabia would too. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia poured money and military resources into the growing civil war, while Iran threw its full weight behind the Syrian regime, pulling Hezbollah into the mix as well. As the Syrian Civil War devolved into the quagmire to end all quagmires, and the anti-Assad resistance splintered into innumerable pieces, Iran was able to cement its influence after over a decade of struggle. The Assad regime is still in power today, and owes its survival largely to Iran, whereas the Saudi strategy was largely ineffective, compared to the level of resources that were committed.12
Meanwhile, the rise of the Islamic State terrorist insurgency created both a problem and an opportunity for the Saudi regime. The Islamic State is a Salafi-Jihadist movement, which uses a perversion of extreme Sunni Islam to justify its actions, and in response to the group, Saudi Arabia spearheaded the development of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, or IMAFT. The coalition brought together forty-one Sunni member nations, including Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, and the Gulf states, while leaving Iran, Iraq, and Syria very intentionally excluded. Headquartered in Riyadh, the coalition gained broad international support, including from the United States, China, and Germany.13 The coalition drove a wedge between many member nations and Iran, while bringing them militarily and politically closer to Saudi Arabia on the world stage.14
On the shores of the Mediterranean, Israel has had its own potent influence on the Saudi-Iranian conflict, not just because of its strategic value as an ostensibly nuclear partner or enemy, but because of its close ties with Europe and the United States. Around 2015, the relationship between Palestine and the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, began to grow more tense, creating room for limited diplomatic exchanges with Israel. This began with the opening of diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, a close Saudi ally.15 While Saudi Arabia itself still does not have official diplomatic relations with Israel, the two nations share intelligence with the specific intentions of subverting Iran.16
Iran collected major victories during this same time, most notably the nation’s nuclear deal, struck with the United States’ Obama administration in 2015. Saudi Arabia had actually not been particularly worried at the prospect of Iran getting the bomb, with their intelligence indicating that Iran would probably not deploy any nuclear weapons it did acquire. The Saudis were also quite confident that the United States had a vested interest in extending its own nuclear deterrent to Saudi Arabia. Far more dangerous was the prospect that Iran and the United States, and by extension the world, might get back on good terms. Saudi Arabia had long reaped the reward of Iran’s classification as a pariah state, which had kept it from establishing any real hegemony of its own in the Middle East. But with sanctions lifted, Iran had more financial and diplomatic leeway to build its own connections in the region, and by all accounts, Iran begun to do so—at least, until the nuclear deal with the USA fell apart.17
Throughout the teen years of the twenty-first century, Iran and Saudi Arabia continued to trade proxy victories and defeats, including in a lot of other disputes that we simply can’t include in any video of reasonable length. One worth at least a brief mention is the 2015 Mina Stampede, where an estimated 2,400 Muslim pilgrims were crushed to death by crowds at the Hajj, Islam’s holiest site, in Saudi Arabia.18 Well over four hundred of those hailed from Iran, the largest proportion by far, and I’m sure you can guess how the Iranian government felt about that. The incident was just one in a long series of incidents that further deteriorated Saudi-Iranian relations, but even still, it was a particularly tragic one.
The Balance of Power.
Today, the Middle East can be broken up across ideological and sectarian fault lines, with most nations and major non-state actors falling neatly into the bucket of either Saudi or Iranian hegemony. Primarily Sunni nations, such as Egypt, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, are aligned with Saudi Arabia. Many are allied together under the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is essentially a faction built to oppose Iran.19 Meanwhile, Iran is supported by the Ba’athist regime in Syria, the regional Houthi movement, Hezbollah, and many powerful Shi’a militias in Iraq.20
Globally, both Saudi Arabia and Iran have powerful backers. Chinese influence in Iran has increased dramatically over the past several years, in keeping with the current Ayatollah Khamenei’s “Look to the East” policy on international trade and partnerships. Russia, too, has entered into strategic alliance with Iran, and all three countries have made their military ties clear through the execution of joint training operations.21 And India and Iran have trended more and more toward collaboration in recent years, especially since 2021’s takeover of Afghanistan by the extreme-Sunni Taliban.22
Meanwhile, the United States shares close economic and military-industrial ties with Saudi Arabia, as well as a bitter animosity toward Iran.23 However, urges within the United States to create political distance from Saudi Arabia’s current Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, has actually nudged Saudi Arabia toward developing its own defense and trade ties with China.24 The broader implications of China’s complicated role in this conflict are murky at best, and deserve substantial attention of their own, but suffice to say that it has become much less a mediator, and more a profiteer, of the continued animosity between both sides. Israel also tends to side with Saudi Arabia, both due to a history of intelligence-sharing, and due to a mutual interest in countering Iran. While the Israel-Palestine conflict has complicated Israel’s work with the Saudis, the nations still do enjoy a functional partnership.25
Just as important as the nations that have picked sides in this conflict, of course, are the nations that haven’t. Turkey, under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been perfectly content to sit on the sidelines and take advantage of weaknesses Iran and Saudi Arabia have created within each other, as the nation builds its own geopolitical interest as a hopeful regional powerhouse.26 The nation of Oman takes a different tack; while it maintains both close proximity and close political ties with Saudi Arabia, Omani leaders position their country as a stabilizing influence toward both Saudi Arabia and Iran, not worrying too much about the threat to Omani interests that either nation may pose.27 And finally, while Pakistan has nuanced and historically complex relations with both Iran and Saudi, it has maintained a strained sort of neutrality, occasionally pushed one way or the other but typically staying somewhat moderate on the issue.28
War by Proxy.
Before we conclude, let us turn to the proxy conflicts between Iran and Saudi Arabia that are still ongoing. The Middle East is no less of a dumpster fire today than it has been at any other time since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the region’s two major powers continue to not-so-sneakily muck around in most of the darker and more dangerous ongoing conflicts. Old, tired battlefronts, like Syria and Palestine, are no longer in primary focus, but new battlegrounds have emerged to take their place.
Of all the current theaters where proxy conflict is ongoing, the civil war in Yemen is by far the most horrific. Like Syria, Yemen spiraled into chaos after the Arab Spring in 2011, but with two key differences: Yemen’s conflict and humanitarian crisis are both ongoing, and they have taken place without global attention or sympathy. According to the UN, an absolutely staggering 377,000 people have died so far over the course of the war, with over 220,000 of those coming from means not directly related to battle.29 Three million people have been displaced,30 and it is estimated that nearly a hundred thousand children have died of starvation.31 We send all respect and sympathy to the countless other victims of war and violence across the world, but the death, suffering, and sheer misery created by the civil war in Yemen are demonstrably the worst on the globe in 2022.
It is also a proxy war, fought between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The Houthi rebels are a primarily Shi’a force, led by members of the Houthi tribe. Their movement began with pro-democracy, anti-corruption protest, but evolved into a major and well-equipped insurgency. Opposing them is the Cabinet of Yemen, the internationally-recognized ruling authority in the country, which is supported by Saudi Arabia politically and militarily.32
Trading advantages and momentum back and forth, the Houthis and the Yemeni government have both enjoyed the spoils of a hegemonic backing. The Houthis receive high-value weapons shipments from Iran, plus the support of the Iranian navy in protecting their supply lines. Meanwhile the Yemeni government benefits from a Saudi naval blockade of Houthi-controlled areas, Saudi airstrikes that utilize US military hardware, and additional monetary backing. All the while, both sides steamroll over a massive and largely defenseless civilian population, one that has suffered widespread famine, cholera outbreak, and innumerable human rights violations by Houthis and government fighters alike.33
In other spheres, competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia continues just as fiercely. Both nations have a vested interest in the politics of Lebanon, and the success or failure of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Iran has been accused of fomenting unrest in Pakistan, which has become less and less hesitant to work with Saudi Arabia by the day. A crisis around the Gulf state of Qatar lasted three and a half years, in a play by Saudi Arabia that ultimately backfired and ended up strengthening Qatar’s relations with Iran.34 China has begun to assist Saudi Arabia with the early stages of a ballistic missile program,35 in return for Saudi endorsement of Uighur deportation and concentration camps on Chinese soil.36 Across the Gulf, Iranian drone technology continues to evolve and even find its way into Houthi and Hezbollah arsenals.37 And tensions between Iran and the United States, a close Saudi ally, have nearly spiraled out of control multiple times recently, as Iran-backed militias continue to launch attacks at vulnerable Saudi-adjacent across the Middle East.
Gone are the days of globe-spanning, nuclear-proliferating, superpowered cold wars—at least, for the time being. But spanning the Persian Gulf, Iran and Saudi Arabia share a cold war just as bloody, just as ruthless, and just as uncaring about the innocents that lie underfoot. Perhaps, the cold war will even prove longer than the one between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 2022, the nations both appear interested in reopening some form of long-term diplomatic communication, with some analysts hopeful that there might soon be an end to the bloodshed and rivalry.38 But with both sides still focused on building hegemony, and neither seeming particularly likely to crumble away anytime soon, it’s just as likely that these talks will break down, like many have before.
In a conflict like this, there are no winners. There are only those who have lost less, and those who have lost more. Iran and Saudi Arabia have each taken their share of victories, and their share of defeats, but it is the people in the middle that suffer most. Forced to align with one of the two regional powers, these people invariably become targets of the other, in a situation where their chosen patron is far more interested in protecting itself than anybody else. The people in the middle get the dubious honor of fighting wars that often aren’t theirs, seeing their homes destroyed, seeing their children starve and wilt away…all so that those two bigger, stronger, more powerful nations get their chance to play at empire.
3 JAY PETERZELL (1990-09-24).
4 Ward, Steven R. (2009).
13 “Islamic military coalition holds first meeting in Riyadh”. Gulf News.
18 “Hajj Stampede in September Killed Over 2,400, New Count Finds”. Associated Press.
19 “Bahrain: Widespread Suppression, Scant Reforms”
25 Marcus, Jonathan (24 November 2017)
26 Vertin, Zach (20 May 2019).
27 “Oman Balances Between Iran and Saudi Arabia”. Middle East Institute.
29 “UN warns of catastrophic Yemen death toll”
30 “More than 3 million displaced in Yemen – joint UN agency report”.
31 “Save the Children says 85,000 kids may have died of hunger in Yemen”. USA Today.
34 Ramani, Samuel. “The Qatar Blockade Is Over, but the Gulf Crisis Lives On”.