The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is often referred to as the “Cold War of the Middle East”. The conflict between the two regional powers, which can be traced to the late 1970s, has intensified in the wake of the Arab Spring . This is particularly evident in the fact that Saudi Arabia and Iran each support their parties in regional conflicts, for example in Syria and Yemen.
- What is the reason for the contradictory relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran?
- Why is the conflict escalating?
- How do internal relations in the two countries affect the rivalry?
- How does rivalry affect the Middle East?
In January 2016, the rivalry reached a new peak when the Saudi regime executed Nimr Al Nimr (see facts), a Shiite scholar and activist. Saudi Al Nimr had long been an outspoken critic of the Saudi royal family. He was involved in the protests during the Arab Spring ; he was arrested for that in 2012. The execution of Al Nimr provoked strong reactions in Iran. The country’s leadership condemned the execution, and the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran was set on fire by angry protesters. Saudi Arabia responded by severing diplomatic ties with Iran.
2: Politics – not religion
Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran (a non-Arab country) have varied throughout history. Some would argue that the rivalry between the countries is a religious conflict between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. The idea of an eternal and predetermined conflict between different religious groups simplifies the conflict between the countries, and obscures other factors that underlie the rivalry. In reality, there are political reasons behind the conflict; religious contradictions are used by the respective countries for political purposes.
3: Saudi Arabia’s view of Iran
According to THEDRESSWIZARD, the Saudi regime has deep mistrust of Iran. The negative view of Iran is actively broadcast through official Wahhabi clerical and state media. According to the strictly monotheistic (belief in one god) Wahhabism, Shia Muslims are not orthodox Muslims. This is due to the Shiites’ devotion to Imam Ali and his son Huseyn, as well as their dissatisfaction with the first three Muslim leaders, the caliphs . In Sunni Islamic tradition, however, it is these caliphs who are considered to be righteous and guiding. Saudi Arabia’s own Shiite people are often accused of obedience to Iran and are referred to as a “fifth column” – people who fraternize (associate with) and are familiar with the enemy.
However, there are political reasons that fuel Saudi Arabia’s distrust of Iran:
GREAT POWER AMBITIONS . The conflict with Iran is driven by Saudi Arabia’s desire to be a great power in the Middle East and in the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia likes to play on the country’s Arab and Sunni Muslim identities, and recently launched an “anti-terror alliance”, which consists of 34 Sunni states. Rather than being an anti-terror alliance, it appears to be an anti-Iran alliance. Iran is also seeking a role as a regional superpower, and in that sense the rivalry between the two countries is very reminiscent of the superpower confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Ever since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Saudi Arabia has considered Iran its main rival in the competition for regional dominance. The revolution brought to power a revolutionary regime that was inherently opposed to monarchical regimes , including the royal house of Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, it represented an alternative model for an Islamic state that directly challenged the Saudi.
The conflict between the countries can be described as a cold war because the two parties do not fight directly against each other militarily. Instead, they are fighting for influence in other countries and among actors in the Middle East. The players experience that they are playing a “zero-sum game”: one loses, the other wins and vice versa.
TIRED OF INVOLVEMENT . Saudi Arabia has long been tired of Iran’s interference in Arab countries. From a Saudi perspective, the Iranians have strengthened their influence in the Arab world since 2003. At that time , the US invasion of Iraq changed the balance of power in the region in Iran’s favor – at the expense of Saudi Arabia. This trend has intensified since 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring. The Iranians have secured influence by supporting both state and non-state actors in the region’s weak states. This is a major source of concern in Riyadh, where the rulers experience that Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen are becoming Iranian vassal states.
As a result of this concern, Saudi Arabia launched a military operation against neighboring Yemen in March 2015, after the Houthi militia took control of the capital Sana. The Al Saud regime claims the military operation was necessary to counter Iranian influence in Yemen, as Iran supports the Houthis with weapons and training.
WEAKENED RELATIONSHIP WITH THE UNITED STATES. Another factor that feeds on the Saudis’ growing distrust of Iran is that they feel that their own alliance with the United States has been weakened . They are worried that the Americans will reduce their involvement in the Middle East (cf. shale oil and gas in the USA ) – and in this way create more room for Iran in the region. The conclusion of a nuclear agreement between Iran and the West in 2015 made the Saudis particularly anxious. Close associates of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman believe that the United States and the Western powers left the Saudis in the lurch by entering into an agreement with Iran.
INTERNAL CONDITIONS . Internal relations in Saudi Arabia are also helping to escalate the conflict with Iran. In Saudi Arabia, a new and even more Iran-critical leadership has taken over. At the head of Saudi Arabia’s more offensive line against Iran is the king’s favorite son, Vice Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). Since his father, Salman, took over the throne in 2015, MbS has taken on an increasingly central role in leadership. MbS seems convinced that Iran is seeking to deprive Saudi Arabia of its leadership role in the region.
This view has left its mark on both Saudi foreign policy and domestic policy. The country therefore seems to be increasingly on the offensive against Iran. The policy is legitimized by referring to the notion that Iran seeks to dominate the Middle East. The fear of Iran is also used to unite and gather support among the population. The strategy seems to work to some degree. On twitter, where Saudis are very active, MbS’s harder line towards Iran is praised. This was clear in the wake of the execution of Al Nimr.
4: Iran’s view of Saudi Arabia
Iran is not as visibly hung in Saudi Arabia as Saudi Arabia is by Iran. Iran views Saudi Arabia primarily as a family dictatorship with major internal challenges. For the Iranians, monarchy is a backward-looking form of government, something they got rid of in 1979. Saudi Arabia is still considered a young and newly rich nation, and because the royal family originates from the inland province of Najd, it is claimed that the country lacks roots in anything other than an uncivilized tribal society. . The Iranians therefore believe they are culturally superior when they can point to its millennial Persian history.
In addition to this sense of superiority, there are three specific issues that bring Iran on a coalition course with Saudi Arabia:
INCOMPATIBLE INTERESTS. The Iranians consider Saudi Arabia’s security strategy in the Middle East to be incompatible with their own interests. While Saudi Arabia leans heavily on the United States as a guarantor of its security interests, the United States and Israel have traditionally posed a security threat from an Iranian perspective.
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia were long allies with the United States during the Cold War. This changed with the revolution in 1979. At that time, Iran went from being a Western-oriented monarchy to becoming an Islamic republic ruled by Ayatollah Khomeini. Since then, Iran has taken an anti-American line , and instead built up and supported various militant groups to secure its interests in the region. The foremost example of such a grouping is Hezbollah in Lebanon, which was established in the 1980s to combat what they believed was Israeli aggression in the region.
STRONGLY CRITICAL TO WAHHABISM. Iran is strongly critical of Wahhabism, the Saudi form of Islam. Iran considers Wahhabism a dangerous ideology because it is anti-Shia and thus divides the unity among the world’s Muslims. Iran claims that Saudi Arabia, through Wahhabism, is spreading “Iranophobia” and thus undermining Iranian influence in the Muslim world.
Furthermore, Wahhabi ideology is linked to terrorist groups such as IS, and it is claimed that Saudi Arabia conducts state-funded support for terrorism. Iran naturally does not see itself benefiting from feeding on the Sunni-Shia split, as Shia Muslims are a minority in the Muslim world (about 15 percent). The country is instead seeking alliances with states and groups based on anti-Western and revolutionary ideology, including Sunni groups such as Hamas. By emphasizing Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist nature, Iran is also trying to isolate Saudi Arabia from the rest of the Sunni Muslim world.
DIFFERENT PARTNERS. Iran and Saudi Arabia are at different sides in a number of conflicts in the Middle East. War, unrest and weak governments have led to power gaps in the region that both Iran and Saudi Arabia seek to fill. In such a perspective, Saudi Arabia threatens Iran’s position in the Arab and Muslim world. Iran considers itself an obvious superpower in the region. To the great frustration of Saudi Arabia, Iranian leaders are happy to boast of controlling four Arab capitals; Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sanaa. According to the Iranians, Iran has a natural support in the Arab world, thanks to Iran’s anti-imperialist stance and because the country stands up for the oppressed – such as the Palestinian people.
The conflict-ridden relationship with Saudi Arabia is also fueled by the internal power struggle in Iran. Political Iran is divided between those who seek to approach the West and those who seek to stand by the country’s anti-Western line. Most of the Westerners, including President Hassan Rouhani, are seeking to avoid deteriorating relations with Saudi Arabia.
A small group of “political hawks” from the anti-Western camp, on the other hand, seek to escalate the bad relationship in order to undermine their political rivals. It is in this light, among other things, that we can read the storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran after the execution of Al Nimr. It is likely that hawks were the driving force behind this incident, in order to put the more moderate forces in Iran in a bad light and thus undermine the president’s attempt to bring Iran out of isolation.
5: From Cold to Hot War?
Despite the ice front between the two countries, a direct war between the parties is unlikely . Iran has no interest in going to war against Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi leadership is not willing to risk military defeat nor its alliance with the United States.
Nevertheless, the rivalry has a number of destabilizing and negative consequences for the region:
LOCAL CONFLICTS WORRY . The two rivals are waging proxy wars in a number of the region’s weak states, which are exacerbating and prolonging local conflicts. The foremost example of such a proxy war is the civil war in Syria. There, Iran supports the Assad regime while Saudi Arabia supports various rebel groups. This external support has contributed to the civil war in Syria developing into a protracted war, in which neither party seems capable of winning.
ENHANCED SECRETARY TENSION. The rivalry amplifies sectarian tensions in other countries in the Middle East. As mentioned, there are political reasons behind the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is basically about a desire for power and hegemony in the region. Nevertheless, the parties are fueling religious differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims for political purposes – so-called sectarianism .
Sectarian politics are more easily entrenched in societies marked by conflict and weak institutions – characteristics of a number of countries in the Middle East. In the absence of state governance structures such as the police and the judiciary, the population instead seeks sub-local and local actors. We are seeing the emergence of clearer sectarian divides in Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province and in Ahwaz in Iran.
DISTRUST. The rivalry also creates mistrust between governments and minorities. The population of the Middle East is characterized by ethnic and religious diversity. Saudi Arabia and Iran play under mutual images of enemies and often portray minorities as disloyal – and in cahoots with the “enemy”. The Shia Muslim minority in Saudi Arabia, which makes up between 10 and 15 percent of the population, is particularly vulnerable. Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iranian line contributes to large sections of the rest of the Saudi population harboring deep skepticism towards the Shiite Muslim minority. Not least because the regime’s rhetoric is fueling fears of Iranian interference.
This is also to the advantage of the regime as it ensures that the rest of the population directs their dissatisfaction towards “the others”, rather than towards the regime . At the same time, it prevents different groups from uniting in opposition to the royal family’s board. For example: During the Arab Spring, Sunni and Shia Muslim Arabs agreed on demands for more civil and political rights and less corruption. However, they were not willing to unite behind such demands, and thus were not strong enough to put pressure on the authorities.