- Recent reports of heightened anxiety in Western capitals, and in Israel, about the progress of Iran’s nuclear programme, reflect deep underlying concerns about Iran’s regional ambitions.
- The alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States has focused particular attention on the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This enmity has geopolitical, ideological and sectarian aspects.
- This is one of the key rivalries defining strategic dynamics in the region, which manifests itself in various points of conflict across the Middle East.
- The Arab Spring has intensified the Iranian-Saudi conflict. Saudi Arabia, concerned to prevent Iran from capitalising on regional instability, is adopting an unprecedentedly proactive strategy. Iran, in turn, is seeking to keep its allies in power and, where possible, to benefit from unrest in Arab states allied to the West.
- The Iranian-Saudi rivalry also expresses itself in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, although in a more complex way. Iran, a non-Arab state favouring a militant anti-Western point of view, supports Palestinian violence against Israel. Tehran, for example, is the main supporter of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Saudi Arabia is no less opposed to Israel on an ideological basis, but has at times supported the diplomatic process, in line with the agenda of its US ally.
Recent reports of heightened anxiety in Western capitals, and in Israel, about the progress of Iran’s nuclear programme, reflect deep underlying concerns about Iran’s regional ambitions.
The revelations in October of an alleged plot by Iran to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir, have focused particular world attention on the ongoing, bitter rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The precise details of the plot remain unclear, and many analysts have expressed scepticism about it. Whatever the facts surrounding the plot, the rivalry to which it has drawn attention is certainly genuine.
The Iranian-Saudi conflict is one of the most important and central strategic processes currently under way in the Middle East. It manifests itself in a variety of conflicts across the region. The Iranian-Saudi cold war is itself connected to the broader challenge that Iran is issuing to the US-led order in the Middle East. Riyadh is a central lynchpin and beneficiary of this order.
What is the basis for the dispute between Riyadh and Tehran? Why is it increasing in intensity and visibility at the present time, and how may this affect Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian arena?
Saudi Arabia and Iran: the basis of the rivalry
The enmity and rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran is of long standing. This rivalry includes sectarian, ideological, practical and geopolitical aspects.
Regarding the sectarian basis, Iran is a majority Shia country and is ruled by a Shia Islamist regime (which nevertheless claims to act in the interests of all Muslims and avoids overt sectarian pronunciations). Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, holds to an ultra-conservative, Salafi interpretation of Sunni Islam that overtly demonises Shia Muslims.
As both a Western-backed state and the custodian of the two most holy sites of Islam, the Saudi monarchy has long been a particular target for the derision of the anti-Western Iranian regime. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, described the Saudi monarchy unambiguously as ‘heretics’ and ‘vile and ungodly Wahhabis’ (referring to the particular Salafi stream of Islam followed by the Saudis, which was developed by Mohammed Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab). Saudi propaganda, in turn, has depicted the Iranian regime as a purveyor of fitna (discord) in the Muslim world, a harsh accusation in the Islamic context.
The rivalry is also related to practical issues of power. The Iranian regime seeks to increase its power and influence in the Middle East, at the expense of what it regards as the retreating US. The central arena for Iran in this ambition is the Persian Gulf, which is the main site of Middle Eastern oil supplies. The security of this area is currently maintained by the US, with whom Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are aligned. Bahrain, for example, is the base of the US Fifth Fleet, which ensures the security of the Gulf states in the face of a conventional military threat.
The Saudis believe that Iran wishes above all to replace the US in this role as the guarantor of the security of energy resources in the Gulf. Riyadh is the most important US client in this area. This places Saudi Arabia and Iran in a situation of direct rivalry.
Why does the Iranian-Saudi rivalry matter to the West?
The Saudi regime is a key strategic partner of the US. Sitting on 20 percent of the world’s proven oil resources, it is pivotal player in ensuring the stability of the global oil supply. It is also a significant investor in the US economy, and imports very large quantities of US and UK defence supplies and training. Iran’s antagonism towards it is part of a broader Iranian hostility to Western-led alliances and arrangements in the region.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are both regional powers, with interests and clients across the Middle East. Both exercise influence and power far beyond their borders. Consequently, the rivalry between them manifests itself in a variety of areas in the Gulf and beyond including Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and among the Palestinians.
Saudi Arabia is also deeply concerned about the Iranian nuclear programme. Should Iran develop a nuclear capacity, one of the side effects would be the near certainty of a regional arms race as other powers seek nuclear capabilities. Riyadh would likely seek to buy such a capability from the Sunni Muslim state of Pakistan, enabling it to quickly build a deterrent.
Why is the rivalry heating up now?
The series of political upheavals in Arab states in the course of 2011 have served to exacerbate and intensify the Iranian-Saudi rivalry. The upcoming US withdrawal from Iraq constitutes an additional arena for the Saudis and Iranians to clash.
The Arab Spring has led to Saudi fears that Iran may seek to capitalise on and benefit from instability. This, combined with Saudi dismay at US willingness to see the rapid demise of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, has served to produce a more proactive stance from Saudi Arabia. The most important manifestation of this so far has been the intervention by a Saudi-led military force (the ‘Peninsula Shield’) to crush rebellion in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia was convinced that the protests by the Shia majority population against the Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy were orchestrated by Tehran, and it viewed Iran as seeking to spread Shia sedition southwards towards the majority Shia Saudi eastern province. A new regime in Bahrain aligned with Tehran would mean Iranian control of the western littoral of the Persian Gulf. The Saudis are determined to prevent this.
This pattern of greater Saudi willingness for independent action to oppose the Iranian threat is replicated elsewhere. Increased Saudi economic assistance to Egypt and Jordan is intended primarily to offset the possibility that anti-Iranian regimes could be weakened or brought down by internal dissent. In this regard, the invitations to Jordan and Morocco to join the Gulf Cooperation Council are significant.
Saudi Arabia is also backing the Sunni uprising against the Assad regime in Syria, which is dominated by the minority Alawite sect of Islam, whilst Iran is directly engaged in helping Assad to stay in power. Saudi Arabia sees the uprising as an attempt by a Sunni Arab population to throw off the yoke of an Iran-backed, heretical regime. Through his maternal line, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has close kinship ties with Sunni clans in Syria. Riyadh discerns a strategic opportunity in Assad’s current travails.
In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iran are directly opposed. Iran established and supports the radial Shia Hezbollah movement, whilst the March 14 movement, the main opposition to Hezbollah, is financed by Saudi Arabia.
The imminent departure of the US from Iraq creates the likelihood of a new arena for Iranian-Saudi rivalry. Iran has been actively engaged in helping to arm Shia insurgents fighting Western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is concerned about the emergence of a pro-Iranian, Shia regime in Baghdad following the US departure and is seeking to cultivaterelationships with Sunni Arab political and paramilitary forces in central Iraq.
Does the Iranian-Saudi cold war have implications for the Israeli-Palestinian arena?
Iranian regional ambitions impact directly on the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Iran, as a non-Arab power with regional ambitions, has sought to make use of the conflict with Israel as a means to build its own legitimacy and popularity in the Arab world. To this end, Tehran helped establish Hezbollah in the early 1980s, and has built a close strategic relationship with both Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The result of this has been the development of a curious, unstated commonality of interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel. In the regional cold war, Israel and Saudi Arabia are on the same side.
Should Iran develop a nuclear capacity, this would embolden Iran and enable it to increase its subversive activities across the region, heightening its threat to other states, and also its influence. The Israeli government regards the possibility that Iran may acquire nuclear weapons capability is its foremost strategic threat. The issue of possible military action against Iran is its most agonising dilemma.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are not straightforwardly backing opposing proxies in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, as elsewhere in the region, but each country has its own agenda. Whilst Iran openly backs organisations engaged in violence against Israel, Saudi Arabia has at times been actively engaged in the diplomatic process, launching the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 and the short-lived Mecca Agreement of 2007, which briefly reconciled Fatah and Hamas.
The Saudi position appears anomalous because on an ideological level, Saudi Arabia is no less hostile to Israel than Iran. This in turn reflects a central contradiction at the heart of the Saudi Arabian outlook, in that it is both a Western-aligned state and yet also the carrier of extremely anti-Western and anti-Israel ideological views. Yet the fear of Iran is a more urgent matter for Saudi Arabia at the present time than is the enmity towards Israel. The Wikileaks revelations demonstrated the depth of Saudi fear of Iran, and hostility towards it. They also indicated Saudi support for a military option against the Iranian nuclear programme.
Initially, Iran believed that it would benefit from the events of the Arab Spring, by simply watching as pro-Western regimes were brought down by popular revolts. However, the Arab Spring has also affected pro-Iranian countries, such as Syria. The region-wide instability in turn has increased the sharpness of the Iran-Saudi rivalry.
With the US perceived as in a process of withdrawal from the region, Saudi Arabia is taking a far more proactive role in seeking to ensure its standing and that of its allies. The result is increased tensions with Iran. The true facts behind the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US have yet to emerge. Regardless, the Iranian-Saudi cold war constitutes one of the most important strategic processes currently under way in the Middle East. The possibility that Iran may acquire nuclear weapons capability will escalate the rivalry even further.