The media is still high on emotion during what they continue to misinterpret as pro-democracy protests across the Middle East (and in some sense other places as well, such as China). As a careful observer would note, Egypt did not undergo any regime change, instead the military used the protests to promote the idea that a credible change occured when in fact a military control progression is what took place. In Libya the media still refers to “protesters” being in the streets and taking over this or that town or facility when in fact the proper term is “rebels”. A military coup with the goal of forcing a succession of command is not the same thing as a democratic revolution and a fractious tribal rebellion which threatens to disintegrate a state through civil war is a different thing than a pro-democracy protest movement (that is like calling the American Confederacy of the 1860’s a “democracy protest movement”).
But I digress… I want to talk about Bahrain, Saudi and Iran for a moment. Iran is trying to interfere in Bahrain as much as possible to push its influence into the country and the region. Bahrain is a highly strategic country as it is the headquarters for the U.S. 5th Fleet as well as being a close neighbor with strong cultural ties to Saudi Arabia. It is also a country with strong cultural ties to Iran. The population of Bahrain is 70% Shia (strong ties to Iran) but is controlled by a Sunni royal family and political structure (strong ties to Saudi). It does not appear that the Iranian plan to foment widespread unrest in Bahrain is working out as planned, as the Bahraini regime is doing a good job of responding to protesters’ demands and flexing around the situation (the protests in Bahrain are, in fact, protests and are more about socio-economic issues than pushing for democracy).
Saudi is worried that if protests get out of hand in Bahrain it could embolden dissident elements within Saudi Arabia at a critical time in Saudi history where the regime is facing a critical level of power transition within a few years and their old Shia enemeies in the region are riding the upswing of the power imbalance caused by the fallout of the Iraq War. The Saudi king is old, unhealthy and inevitably on his natural way out and all three top princes are also extremely old and wouldn’t last long on the throne. The Iraq situation has seen a shift from a Baathist regime under Saddam which, at worst, was neutral to Saudi and definitely hostile to Iran replaced with a Shia regime which threatens to be puppeted about by traditional rival Iran. The Saudi military has the best equipment that money can buy (and lots of it) but some of the shittiest leadership in the region, and absolutely no match for the Iranians if an armed conflict were to evolve (one somewhat comical Wikileak moment was the release of a cable in which U.S. Secretary of Defense Gates was reported to characterize the Saudis as “always willing to fight to the last American”).
Obviously the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia are opposed to a dramatic shift of the regional balance of power in Iran’s favor, and Iran is playing on those fears by dressing up their nuclear threat and using it as their primary ace in the geopolitics hole. The future status of Iraq is obviously pivotal to the future of regional balance as well, but as the balance rests primarily between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iran is looking to take a shot at capitalizing on current regional unrest to undercut and, if possible, eleminate whatever credible threat a strong and pro-U.S. Saudi Arabia represents. If protests can’t unseat the House of al Saud and throw Saudi Arabia into an inwardly focused tailspin, it can at least distract the Saudis if it can foment some level of domsestic unrest and possibly internationally discredit the Saudi government if the protesters can provoke the regime to use violence to put down a protest movement.
This sounds like a good plan. Keep the unrest going, raise the Shia power profile in the region and undercut the Saudi and Bahraini governments — which would go a long way to clearing the way for a regional rise of Iranian prominence and complicate the American situation in the Middle East immensely.
But there is one major strategic detail a strong execution of this plan would overlook: the price of oil. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil exporter, and as such any disturbing vibrations within or even near the place induces crazy swings in the global price of oil. With the global economy in the middle of a tenuous recovery* another unexpected swing in the price of oil could be enough to derail whatever gains have been had across 2010. That’s playing with fire — a lot of fire. That is actually what has protected Iran from any American or Israeli military moves over the last few years.
The Iranians like to talk long and loud about how they aren’t going to talk about their nuclear program while lording it over negotiation efforts, but their true best option to threaten the West (and, incidentally, East) is to threaten to mine or otherwise close the Strait of Hormuz. About 80% of the regions oil traverses the tiny little strait and Iran sits on the north half of it. A swarm of mine-laying boats would be nearly impossible for even the U.S. Navy to prevent from laying at least a few mines. Even if all Iranian boats were interdicted before dropping their mine payload there would be no way to guarantee there were no mines in the water threatening oil tankers and other shipping than to engage in a lengthy and difficult demining operation. This would surely push the price of oil through the roof, collapse the global economic recovery and likely generate another global economic downturn. The U.S. currently calculates that the risk of attacking Iran (which it is important to note is a very different thing from invading Iran) outweighs the benefits of knocking them down a few pegs, as Global Economy > Irritating Shiite Country.
But this is where Iran’s current strategy of undermining Saudi with civil unrest comes in. If the Iranians were to succeed in fomenting widespread unrest in Saudi Arabia on the same level as, say, Egypt or even Bahrain, the price of oil would skyrocket. While instability in Saudi Arabia would definitely remove obstacles to Iran’s regional rise, it would also remove whatever restraint the Americans have shown in not attacking Iran. The American thinking would be along the lines of:
If Iran threatens to rise to regional dominance then they must be stopped. However, an unbearably high temporary price of oil throwing the world back into global recession is an unacceptable price to pay for preventing their rise. If the price of oil is going to skyrocket anyway due to unrest in Saudi Arabia, however, there is no merit in not attacking Iran to set their plans back a decade and no reason to refrain from engaging in deliberate efforts to dismantle their nuclear program and sponsoring our own insurgency sponsorship program within that country.
Difficult choices all around. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. In any case, this is one of the very few scenarios where I see the U.S. attacking the Iranians without first finding a way to solve the tricky issue of securing the Strait of Hormuz in an absolute way prior to an attack. Needless to say, the current Iranian plan of encouraging civil unrest in Saudi Arabia is an excellent example of how operational blowback and unintended consequences can rule futures and strategic decisions.
[*Specifically, with the U.S. undergoing a normal recovery, Europe trying hard to not expose itself to even more of its recently uncovered deeply entrenched economic instability, Russia playing at political energy levers in Europe, Italy potentially losing its energy resources in Libya, and China being an economic bubble inflating to the point it will burst in ways the current world generation no longer remembers]