In the calculus of Middle Eastern power politics, Saudi Arabia and Iran stand on the opposing axes of power. The nations suffer an ongoing cold war, originating in the Iranian Revolution, and have recently waged a series of proxy wars. Changing levels of U.S. engagement in the region, along with the effects of the recent Arab Spring, have fundamentally altered the rules of the game in the Middle East. In the increasingly polarized Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Iran’s responses, combined with the exercise of influence through the use of oil money, ideology, and strategic intervention, have ramifications for the security situation in the Gulf and beyond.
The Bad Neighbors
The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran proves a relatively recent exercise. As late as the 1970s, the Nixon Doctrine labeled both nations the twin pillars of U.S. policy in the region. Nonetheless, the 1979 Iranian Revolution brought to power a revolutionary regime increasingly antagonistic towards its Arab neighbors, as well as the United States. Saudi Arabia’s support of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, amounting to an estimated $25 billion, likewise contributes to today’s tensions with Iran. More recently, the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional league of Arab monarchies, was intended to contain Iran.
Following Ayatollah Khomeini’s dearth, more moderate Iranian leaders initiated what Mohsen Milani, a Persian Gulf expert, describes as “a charm offensive toward Persian Gulf countries,” in order to end Iran’s international isolation and rebuild its faltering economy. A period of relative détente followed, in which relations between Iran and its former enemies became cordial, if not entirely amicable. However, the U.S. invasion of Iraq created a regional power vacuum. Among the unintended consequences of the Iraq War was the end of a primary counterweight to Iranian power. Milani told the HPR that this was a “decisive moment” because the overall balance of power shifted due to the presence of American troops and Iraq’s transformation from “Sunni- dominated anti-Iran government to a Shi’a-dominated Tehran-friendly government.”
Clash of Civilizations?
Iran’s ascendency in Iraq did not come without struggle. As Saddam’s fall opened Iraq to Iranian influence, Iraq became the site of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia has funneled funds and fighters to Sunni insurgent groups, while Iran supported both the Shi’a government of President Nuri al- Maliki and more radical Shi’a actors, including the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Yet Iraq was only the beginning. Gregory Gause, formerly a Kuwait Foundation Visiting Professor at the Kennedy School, describes Iran and Saudi Arabia as a “very serious rivalry played out mostly in the domestic politics of Middle Eastern states.” In the context of this broader struggle for economic and political power throughout the Middle East, both sides exploit sectarianism. In particular, Iran and Saudi Arabia enjoy Shi’a and Sunni theocracies, respectively, which present themselves as the vanguard of the Muslim world and view each other as illegitimate. Christopher Boucek, an associate in the Carnegie Endowment for Peace’s Middle East Program, emphasizes that “You can’t separate the fact that one’s Arab, one’s Persian, one’s Sunni, one’s Shi’a [and] there’s a lot of chauvinism that goes around on both sides of this as well.”
The New Middle East
Iran and Saudi Arabia have played active roles in the Arab Spring, responding flexibly and pragmatically to the regional upheaval. Both nations have selectively supported autocracies and rebel movements when it suited their geopolitical strategy. Seriously threatened by the popular protests in fellow Gulf monarchy Bahrain, Saudi Arabia intervened militarily in support of the al-Khalifa royal family while accusing Iran of instigating Bahrain’s Shi’a majority. Iran, on the other hand, faces a serious challenge in the revolt against the al-Assad regime and has largely supported their long-standing ally in Syria while the Saudis call for regime change.
As Gause emphasizes, Saudi Arabia is “certainly against spread of democracy in the Middle East [and] in the Arab world, yet it may be willing to tolerate or even support the emergence of democratic regimes where it may be in its strategic influence to do so.” Similarly, Iran, banking on the power of its revolutionary ideology, has tried to portray its own 1979 revolution as the model for the Arab Spring. Nonetheless, Gause points out that Iran in Syria faces the loss of “strategic depth at the heart of the Arab world.” As the Arab Spring progresses, such flashpoints will become more and more prevalent.
Illusion or Stability?
Despite some amount of unrest and pressure for democratic change, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have largely proved able to maintain the status quo. Despite facing double-digit unemployment, both governments have used the continual influx of oil money to alleviate potential economic tensions through governmental redistributions. Saudi Arabia, while recently experiencing the outbreak of riots in its Shia- dominated Eastern province, has yet to face any sustained popular protest. Although the Iranian regime has been strengthened by its survival of the challenge of the Green Revolution, its position may be less secure. According to Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, “The tensions that underlay the 2009 demonstrations in Iran continue, and, if anything, they’ve become… stronger because the economy now is in worse shape.”
Indeed, Iran’s internal struggles complicate its foreign policy. Judith Yaphe, a former senior analyst on Middle Eastern and Persian Gulf issues for CIA, suggested to the HPR, “This could mean the end of the [Iranian] revolution as we know it.” In Saudi Arabia, the upcoming question of succession will necessitate passing power to the next generation. The nation’s recent concessions, most notably offering women certain electoral rights, indicate the regime’s awareness of the need for some amount of modernization. In the context of an uncertain international context and changing domestic dynamics, change is both eventual and inevitable.
Round and Round
The recent emergence of a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, allegedly linked to Iran, only sensationalizes the increasingly charged dynamics between these two countries. On the geopolitical chessboard of the Middle East, the recent alleged assassination plot is but one among many recent moves made by both countries. Regardless of the facts or motives behind Iran’s alleged plot, Boucek told the HPR, “If the Saudis believe it was a serious plot, then it’s a serious plot, and that’s how they’re going to treat it.” Beyond the media firestorm, as Yaphe said, “This is different, you haven’t seen this kind of…outright aggression before between both sides.” Escalation and the increasing heat of this cold war may play a decisive role in regional politics and will continue to shape the future of the Gulf.
Elsa Kania ’15 is a Staff Writer.