Pity they can’t both lose, part II


In case you’re not a Middle Eastern politics nerd, I borrowed the title of this post from Henry Kissinger’s famous (at least in the Middle Eastern politics nerd circles) comment about the Iraq-Iran war of 1980 to 1988. Saddam Hussein (remember him?) launched an invasion of his eastern neighbour to take advantage of the post-Shah instability, which turned out to be a misjudgment as the newly installed mullahocracy fought him to a bloody standstill (with Ayatollah Khomeini handing our children plastic “keys to the paradise” before sending them off to clear minefields with their bodies). In the end, neither side won, but neither lost either, with Saddam living the day to invade Kuwait two years later and the Shia priesthood in power to this day – and still causing trouble.

Which brings me to the ongoing cold – and sometimes, like yesterday, lukewarm – war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which, post-de-Saddamised Iraq, stepped into the role of the great Sunni Arab champion against the Persian heretics. In the Iraq-Iran war, the United States generally – if tacitly – supported Iraq, not having forgiven Iran for the overthrow of the Shah and the hostage crisis (though the Iran-Contra “arms for hostages” swaps in the mid-80s served to arm Iran and arguably contributed to the eventual stalemate). While in the Saudi Arabia-Iran conflict, the former is an ostensible American ally and the latter is most definitely not, this time the United States should well and truly stay out of the way, perhaps intervening only in so far as to prevent any one side from achieving a crushing victory and therefore a consequent hegemony over the Persian Gulf and the Middle Eastern oil supply.

As states, neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran have much to recommend them to a Western observer, both being corrupt theocracies that export their toxic versions of Islam around the world to everyone else’s detriment. There are no doubt many arguments for which one of them is a lesser evil, but that shouldn’t blind us to the basic reality of how unappealing these states are in any conceivable way.

It’s true that an armed conflict between these two would disrupt oil production in a major way, leading to skyrocketing prices and possibly a global recession (Australia, with only three or four weeks’ worth of oil reserves the hardest hit), but it might almost be worth it, even if to start weaning the world off the Mid East oil. With the US being now for all intents and purposes energy independent and the largest oil producer in the world, an oil shortage and a price spike would be most harmful to China, which gets a significant quantity of its oil from the Gulf. On the flip side, Russia would benefit again, but no scenario is perfect. High oil prices are of course a powerful incentive for fuel substitution, benefiting the generally much cleaner gas and spurring domestic fracking industries as well as the quest for cheap alternative energy, be it nuclear or renewable. Environmentalists the world over should cheer on the prospect of a Sunni-Shia clash.

As the old saying goes, quarantine the region and let them all fight it out.