West Asia has split into two large opposing camps. The division is outwardly Shia versus Sunni, but covertly it is about the geopolitical interests of three large Muslim countries — Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
But these great games are being played on a rapidly changing and unpredictable West Asian landscape. The most important shift has been the Arab Spring and the entry of new centres of power like Egypt. Another is a belief that the United States is starting to keep a distance from the region and that countries like India and China may seek greater involvement.
West Asia's new power struggle begins with the resurrection of Iranian power after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Minus Iraq, the largest Sunni Arab state in the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia, found itself losing ground to Tehran.
The leitmotif of Saudi foreign policy had been maintaining a balance of power tilted against Tehran. Suddenly this all began unraveling. A new Shia-ruled Iraq looked to Iran as a friend.
"Iran was the winner of the last Gulf war," says a senior Iraqi official. A number of Gulf states, like Qatar, began moving closer to Iran. And the US, the external power the Saudis depended on to serve as a check on Iranian influence, was less inclined to play that role under Barack Obama. Finally, Iran was hunting for a nuclear capability that would make it Persia’s Gulf.
The Saudis fought back. Their most successful card was to bring the West and Israel into an anti-Iranian coalition centred on Tehran's nuke programme. Israel used Iranian dissident group Mujahedin-e-Khalq to assassinate Tehran's nuclear scientists. The US and Israel deployed a computer virus, Olympic Games, popularly called Stuxnet, to wreck its centrifuges. A Wikileaks document has the Saudi ambassador to the US urging an attack on Iran to cut "off the head of the snake." Saudi oilfields pumped overtime to undermine Iran’s crude profits. Dirty deeds were encouraged for millions: the Saudis put a bounty on the head of the Lebanese Shia militant group, Hezbollah.
But all this was poor compensation for what Iran had gained. "There had been a sense of inevitability in Iran's rise in the region," writes head of risk analysis firm Stratfor, George Friedman. "Particularly in the Arabian peninsula."
The backdrop was the decrepitude of the Arab world, a region dotted with dictators and stagnant economies. A reinvigorated Iran positioned itself as not merely the Gulf power, but leader of the Islamic world. There was at least one other contender: Turkey. Both Tehran and Istanbul wooed the Arab Street. They both bashed Israel even though neither really had a bone to pick with the Jewish state. They both argued they were the future of Islam.
That was the state of play two years ago.
All these stratagems began falling part when popular revolts toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt. The Arab Street’s new-found voice turned West Asia inside-out.
Turkey and Iran repositioned themselves as popular protest champions. Tehran’s claim was the least credible: it was crushing the youth-led Green Movement on its own streets. A surprised Washington concluded it was better off being “on the right side of history” for once. The Gulf monarchies panicked until their oil wealth snuffed out the flames of rebellion. The exception: Bahrein whose Sunni rulers could never buy the loyalty of their Shia subjects.
The most explosive situation was Syria, where an oppressed Sunni majority rose against their Alawi rulers. The Alawis, a Shia offshoot who believe in male-only reincarnation, now face a full-blown civil war which has attracted the involvement of everyone who wants to move West Asia’s cheese. Turkey and Israel, once comfortable with Damascus, have concluded the regime is a lost cause and turned against it.
For Iran, the Syria war has been a migraine. The largely Sunni Arab Street has rallied four square behind the Syrian rebels who are seen as freedom fighters. If Damascus falls, the alliance that the Iranians call “the Axis of Resistance,” will be broken.
The Sunni groups Tehran cultivated have turned against Iran over Syria. This includes Hamas, the rulers of Gaza. More recently was the humiliation of the newly elected Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, using the nonaligned summit in Tehran to denounce Syria.
Syria is burning at the same time the West and the Gulf Arab states have been able to get a sanctions regime with enough teeth to damage the Iranian economy. Tehran is increasingly bellicose less because of Syria than the sanctions, argues Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival.
"It wants to deter more sanctions or war."
Iran has retaliated this past year. The most evident form has been a spate of terrorist attacks across the world, largely using Hezbollah or Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard, against Israeli or Saudi targets. The bomb attack on an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi was part of this response. There have been rumours the head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was injured in a blast in Riyadh. There have been cases of Shia unrest in places like eastern Saudi Arabia and southeastern Turkey traced back to Iran.
Tehran is also bending over backwards to hold onto the shrinking customer base it has for its crude, including India and China. Says Emile Hokayem, Middle East analyst for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, "Iran has not yet taken the decision to scale back its ambition to return and reassert itself in its immediate vicinity." And if it does, he warns, it may only make the proxy war worse as Tehran gives up "the pretence it is fighting for pan-Arab causes."
The problem for everyone is that the Arab Spring has so changed the landscape that no one is completely clear who will win or lose in West Asia.
"Iran is under pressure, but so is everybody else in the region," says Nasr.
Iranian influence may be at an ebb tide, but Saudi Arabia is not rising — especially as the US is slashing its dependency on Persian Gulf oil. Turkey still sees itself as a contender: polls show strong Arab support for the "Turkish model" of Islamic modernity.
The next round may be about the return of historical centres of Arab leadership. Baghdad is close to Tehran, but has so far declined to involve itself in the Syrian war. But Cairo is another story. Morsi's broadside in Tehran was mostly a reminder that Egypt is the traditional leader of the Arab world.
"Morsi is ruining the tight anti-Iranian narrative the Saudis have backed in the region," says Nasr.
"Egypt has the capacity to ruin the party."