SO huge were the thick plumes of black smoke that they were visible from space. As they billowed over the desert, staff at the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Aramco) struggled to comprehend the scale of the drone and missile attacks that had rained down in the early hours of the morning on September 14.

“I really thought this was the end of the world for us  …  I was speechless, it was numbing,” an industry official later told the Financial Times. “This is the powerhouse of the global industry, and puff! It was like somebody had hit you with a baseball bat.”

Last week’s attack on the Saudi state oil company’s Abqaiq plant, the world’s largest oil processing hub, instantly made world headlines. In one fell swoop it triggered the worst disruption to the kingdom’s oil industry in Aramco’s 86-year history, knocking out half of its daily oil production, equivalent to 5% of global supply.

But it’s the story behind that headline that is even more important, one that points to the Middle East’s pattern of violence being dramatically recalibrated. It’s the story of a new Cold War that is rapidly heating up. One in which the battlelines now stretch through Israel and Syria, to Yemen and the Persian Gulf in the east.

At the heart of this Cold War turning dangerously hot, lie two countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia. For decades now both have struggled for dominance in the region, leaving their fingerprints on every battleground in the Middle East. Last week’s attack on the Abqaiq plant however, regarded as the Saudi state oil company’s crown jewels, marked a dangerous escalatory salvo in this expanding regional power struggle between the two countries.

This bitter rivalry is nothing new, but few would deny that it is getting riskier by the day. At its roots lie a number of deep religious, historic and political factors, but there are also certain primary catalysts bringing it currently towards boiling point.

To begin with, of course, it’s important to recognise that Iran and Saudi Arabia are on opposing sides of a more than 1000-year-old argument at the heart of Islam – between Sunnis and Shia. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, his followers split over who was his rightful heirs. That said, it’s vital not to overstate this division. Sunnis and Shia share fundamental beliefs and have co-existed for centuries. It’s perhaps more accurate today to view the animosity between Iran and Saudi Arabia through the telescope of a power struggle in the Middle East and beyond.

In recent times the rift between the two nations can be traced to the Iranian revolution of 1979, which saw a pro-Western leader toppled and Shia religious authorities taking over. Tehran then began backing Shia militias and parties abroad, and Riyadh, concerned at the growing influence of a newly strident Iran, strengthened its links to other Sunni governments.

In the past 15 years especially, the differences between the two have been sharpened by a series of events.

The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq overthrew Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab who had been a major Iranian adversary. This removed a crucial military counter-weight to Iran. It opened the way for a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and Iranian influence in the country has been rising ever since.

Then there were the uprisings across the Arab world in 2011 that caused political instability throughout the region. In the wake of this, Iran and Saudi Arabia exploited these upheavals to expand their influence, notably in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, further heightening mutual suspicions.

Adding fuel to the fire, Riyadh and Tehran broke off diplomatic relations in January 2016, after Iranians stormed Saudi Arabia’s embassy and consulate in response to the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.

Throughout this period both countries have made mischief in the region and beyond. Nowhere perhaps has this been more manifest than in Yemen. There an emboldened Saudi Arabia, buoyed by its renewed relationship with the US under President Donald Trump, continues to ramp up airstrikes and trade embargoes that have disproportionately affected Yemen’s civilians.

Elsewhere, despite claims by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that Saudi Arabia is at the forefront of countering Islamist-inspired terrorism, his kingdom continues to stand accused of exporting Islamic radicalism and of covert support for Sunni extremist groups.

The National: Crown Prince Mohammed bin SalmanCrown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

According to one investigation carried out by CNN, Saudi Arabia and its coalition partner in Yemen, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), transferred US-made weapons to groups with al-Qaeda links and a Salafist extremist militia whose commander once “served with” the Yemeni branch of the Islamic State (IS) group.

Meanwhile, for its part, Iran continues to covertly back Houthi rebels, who last week claimed responsibility for the attack on the Abqaiq oil installation.

Iran’s emphasis on developing proxy forces across the Middle East goes back to the 1979 revolution that deposed the American-backed Shah and gave rise to the Islamic Republic.

The Shiite theocracy created at the time then sought to export its revolution and empower Shiite groups in the Middle East with an expansionist ethos that Middle East Institute senior fellow Alex Vatanka has described as “part of Iran’s DNA”.

According to estimates by some Middle East monitoring groups, Iran’s so-called “axis of resistance”, which, by some counts, totals more than a hundred Shiite militias with widely diverse manpower and materiel, has now entrenched itself across the Middle East. As of 2019, many of these militias and groups, the primary drivers of Iranian influence in the region, operate in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Hezbollah, a Shiite paramilitary group and political party in Lebanon, is Iran’s earliest and most successful proxy project. It remains the most powerful of Iran’s non-state allies. Nicholas Blanford, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and an expert on Hezbollah, has described the paramilitary group as “the most formidable of all the Iranian proxies in the Middle East”.

Formed during the Lebanese civil war in 1982, Hezbollah has since transformed from a small group of clerics and fighters into a major political force in Lebanon, and its active role in crushing the rebellion in Syria has given the group additional fighting experience.

Iran has created and supported such proxies primarily through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, a special arm of its military focused on external operations. In April this year the Trump administration designated the IRGC a foreign terrorist organisation. Few Middle East battlefields have seen the presence and influence of the ICRG more profoundly in recent years than Syria.

“Since mid-2011, Iran’s military intervention in Syria has grown steadily. By 2015, at least eight Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps generals had been killed in Syria,” observed political journalist Robin Wright in The New Yorker recently “As of February 2018, Iranian forces and their proxies were deployed in nearly 40 facilities, including headquarters, logistical nodes, drone control rooms, training centres and other sites not including forward positions,” Wright noted, citing the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

Led by IRGC Major General Qasem Soleimani, who answers directly to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, the Quds Force organises and trains fighters with allied militias and provides them with weapons, says a newly published report by the Soufan Centre, a non-profit organisation that analyses global security issues. Among the other key findings of the research is how Iran’s grand strategy is intended to achieve absolute security, defined as the ability to thwart its adversaries’ capacity to overturn its regime or invade Iran militarily.

The National:  Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei

Related goals, the research concludes, are preserving the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity, as well as keeping the country free from foreign interference, especially from America. This brings us to that other key catalyst in bringing the Iran-Saudi rivalry to a head as witnessed in last week’s attack on the Abqaiq oil plant, namely President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018.

The 2015 international agreement involved Iran agreeing to limits on its nuclear work in exchange for relief from economic sanctions imposed by countries worried Tehran was trying to develop a nuclear bomb.

WHILE the US and Iran have lived in a state of hostility for decades, rarely have relations been as tense as in recent months as the Trump administration brought sanctions back into force and in the process sought to deprive Iran of oil revenue, the lifeblood of its economy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Iran has not sat idly by and accepted this, and the attack on Abqaiq and sabotaging of oil tankers in the Persian Gulf are Tehran’s ways of hitting back, say observers.

“The US-Iran stand-off, once limited to Iranian small boats harassing US Navy ships in the Persian Gulf, or pinprick Israeli airstrikes against the Lebanese Hezbollah in Syria, has now enveloped the region,” warned the veteran Middle East correspondent Scott Peterson recently in The Christian Science Monitor.

“All the while, high-value targets, which once might have been deemed off limits for fear that they would start an all-out war, are increasingly common,” Peterson added, echoing the fears of many Middle East watchers.

In all these proxy war or Cold War encounters to date there is one constant, says Peterson. Escalations of such magnitude are incrementally broadening the map of conflict across the region and, as the Abqaiq attack revealed, they have the potential for global impact.

So what, then, in a worst-case scenario would an all-out war between Iran and Saudi Arabia involve?

If war breaks out the “winner”, say military analysts, will largely depend on how the war is fought.

Both countries are significantly different in terms of the size and the capabilities of their militaries.

While Iran has a much larger military, composed of the IRGC and the Islamic Republic of Iran Army (AJA), its capacity to fight a war has suffered due to heavy on-and-off sanctions since the 1980s.

This has prevented it from acquiring foreign military technology and weapons, leaving its military outdated in many respects.

But despite this it would still pose a considerable threat, capable of targeting further missile volleys at ships, bases and other critical infrastructure throughout the Gulf.

The Quds Force, too, could also mobilise regional allies, from the Houthis in Yemen to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to attack Western and Arab interests, which is one reason why some within the Pentagon have been discouraging Trump from ordering a military strike.

Iran’s accomplished cyber-forces might also be brought to bear, disrupting energy, financial and political networks within the region and beyond. In 2012, Iranian hackers were blamed for crippling 30,000 of Saudi Aramco’s computers in one of the costliest cyber-attacks ever.

In total, Iran’s defence budget was around $12.3 billion in 2016, meagre compared to Saudi Arabia’s defence spending, which is considered one of the largest in the world at $69.4bn in 2018.

Clearly, the US would also lend substantial support were its Gulf ally likely to be embroiled in a war with a country the Trump administration itself just stopped short of attacking following the downing of a US Navy drone by Iran in June.

In all, with neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia having the ability to fight across the Arabian Gulf, carry out mass troop landings and airdrops, or even take and hold key land in enemy territory, any war would most likely focus on air and missile strikes inflicting the highest possible amount of damage to force the other side to end aggressive activities.

In this, of course, the US has a crucial role to play. The great problem with American policy in the Saudi–Iran rivalry, and of its policy in the Middle East more generally, has long been Washington’s predictable strategy of trying to play one against the other. In the end this has only served to entrench the corrupt autocrats and extremists on both sides.

If there’s any good news in this entire doomsday scenario it’s that, for the time being at least, it appears that neither Tehran nor Riyadh want a direct war.

This is not to underestimate how close the region is to a terribly dangerous turning point. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia and indeed the US have shown themselves prone to costly miscalculations in the past.

Make no mistake about it, as the attack last week on Abqaiq starkly revealed, this is Cold War on the boil.