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  • Cold War in the Islamic World: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Struggle for Supremacy by Dilip Hiro
  • James Devine (bio)
Cold War in the Islamic World: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Struggle for Supremacy, by Dilip Hiro. London: Hurst, 2018. 432 pages. $34.95

As its title suggests, Dilip Hiro’s book focuses on the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. His approach to the subject is journalistic. Cold War in the Islamic World is therefore descriptive rather than analytical [End Page 511] or theoretical, and Hiro targets a well-educated general audience rather than academics. To Hiro’s credit, while he is critical of Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman and the administration of United States president Donald Trump, his account is fairly balanced. The research is also impressive in its breadth, though the sources are primarily open-source media rather than original interviews or archival material. In fact, Hiro leans heavily on work he has already published, such as Iran under the Ayatollahs (Routledge, 1985) and Holy Wars: The Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism (Routledge, 1989). Cold War in the Islamic World is therefore a suitable introduction to Iranian-Saudi relations for someone wanting to go beyond the headlines. Indeed, the book’s strength is that it provides background on the political systems of both Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic, allowing readers to put the current conflict into historical perspective.

The Iranian-Saudi rivalry, or cold war as it is often referred to now, has been increasingly in the public eye due to the post–Arab Spring civil wars in Syria and Yemen. However, its roots are much deeper. Hiro covers it all in chronological order, going back to the late 1960s and 1970s, when Shah Mohammad Reza tried to establish Iran as the “gendarme” of the Persian Gulf. He follows the two states, jumping back and forth between them, through the chaos of the Iranian Revolution, the carnage of the Iran-Iraq War, and the détente they achieved in the 1990s. From there he moves on to the overthrow of Saddam Husayn and the deepening crisis in Lebanon following the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri and the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese group Hizbullah. He finishes with the Arab Spring, the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, though much of this discussion is placed somewhat awkwardly in an epilogue.

Trying to capture the vast sweep of this relationship in a single text is a monumental task. This is not just because of the many twists and turns in the story but also because the rivalry is multidimensional. In part, it is a realist military struggle between two regional powers vying for control of the Persian Gulf and the larger Middle East. It is also a struggle between competing ideologies and religious identities. The ideological dimension is particularly important because both the Saudi and Iranian regimes are battling to maintain ideological hegemony at home as well as abroad. Losing ground in the cold-war therefore poses a threat to the survival of their respective regimes. The two states are also competitors in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), where their different resource endowments and economic needs have left them with almost diametrically opposing interests. With less reserve capacity, and a string of economic crises, Tehran has historically pursued a quick fix, favoring high prices and demanding a higher quota within the cartel. Conversely, Riyadh, with superior reserves and lower production costs, have been concerned with market share and long-term demand rather than maximizing immediate profits.

To add an extra layer of complexity to the picture, the Iranian-Saudi cold war is nested within a constellation of other rivalries. For instance, Iranian support for Hizbullah, which frustrates Saudi interests in Lebanon, is one of the main pillars in Tehran’s strategy to deter the United States and Israel. The dynamics of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry are therefore driven in part by developments in these other relationships. It is not even clear which rivalry is dominant for Tehran. With both the US and Israel making threats to bomb Iran, the Iranian-Saudi rivalry may be...


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pp. 511-513
Launched on MUSE
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