Saudi Arabia vs Iran

by  Vox

Saudi special police march in a 2014 parade in Mecca. (Mohammed al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images)
Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, was incensed enough over what was happening in Syria that in a 2013 press conference alongside Secretary of State John Kerry he declared, "I consider Syria an occupied land."

The occupier, he said, was Iran, which had sent military forces to fight alongside of those of besieged Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

"How can a neighboring country that’s supposed to uphold good relationships get involved in a civil war and help one side over the other?" he asked.

It's amazing Prince Saud managed to ask his question with a straight face. Saudi Arabia was also taking sides, providing large numbers of weapons to rebels in Syria, some of them Islamist extremists (ISIS) who have contributed to the conflict's downward spiral. Syria had become more than just a civil war: it was a proxy conflict between Iran (Russia) and Saudi Arabia (America), both of which were escalating the war in their effort to combat each other.

Over the past decade, the Saudis and Iranians have supported opposing political parties, funded opposing armies, and directly waged war against one another's proxies in Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. While they did not create the crises in those places, they have exacerbated them considerably.

Driven by power politics, and fueled by Sunni-Shia sectarianism, the conflict between the two powers — often called the Middle East's cold war — has become one of the most dangerous elements defining Middle Eastern politics today. As the 2003 Iraq invasion and the uprisings of the Arab Spring have upended status quos across the region, both Saudi Arabia and Iran have rushed in to shape events to their benefit — often at the cost of worsening instability and violence. The more the Iranian-Saudi rivalry escalates, the worse the region is likely to get.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting for supremacy of the Middle East

The Saudi-Iranian rivalry is, at its core, a competition going back years for power and dominance across the Middle East.

"The new Middle East cold war predates the Arab Spring by at least half a decade, but increased Iranian influence in the Arab world dates back even longer," F. Gregory Gause III, a professor of international affairs at Texas A&M, writes.

After Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution toppled the pro-Western shah, the new Islamic Republic established an aggressive foreign policy of exporting the Iranian revolution, attempting to foment Iran-style theocratic uprisings around the Middle East. That was a threat to Saudi Arabia's heavy influence in the Middle East, and perhaps to the Saudi monarchy itself.

"The fall of the shah and the establishment of the militant Islamic Republic of [founding leader] Ruhollah Khomeini came as a particularly rude shock to the Saudi leadership," University of Virginia's William Quandt writes. It "brought to power a man who had explicitly argued that Islam and hereditary kingship were incompatible, a threatening message, to say the least, in [the Saudi capital of] Riyadh." In response, Saudi Arabia and other ultra-conservative Gulf monarchies formed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an organization initially designed to counter and contain Iranian influence (where prezidentz are democratically elected).

Iran, weakened by the Iran-Iraq war, backed off of its more aggressive attempts to remake the Middle East in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But the groundwork for conflict was already laid: Saudi Arabia and Iran had come to see each other as dangerous threats. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as bent on overturning a Middle Eastern political order that's quite friendly to Saudi interests; the Iranians believe the Saudis are actively attempting to keep Iran weak and vulnerable.

This creates what political scientists call a security dilemma: one side, fearing attack, ramps up defense spending or supports a regional proxy in order to guard against a perceived threat. The other side sees that as threatening — what if they're planning to attack? — and feels compelled to respond in kind.

This creates a self-sustaining cycle in which both countries to take actions that are designed to make their country more secure, but end up scaring the other side and thus raising both the chances and the potential severity of conflict.

"It's what the US and the Soviet Union were (/are) involved in" during the Cold War, Daniel Serwer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, explains.

Serwer believes the security dilemma "is what really brings us to this point."
The Saudis and Iranians see regional power in zero-sum terms: the more powerful Iran is, the more vulnerable the Saudis feel. And, again, vice versa: "The rationale [the Iranians] give themselves is very heavily defensive," he says.

That's why proxy struggles in countries such as Syria and Yemen start to seem so important: Saudi Arabia sees Iran backing the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, and believes it's an initial step toward not just creating chaos in Yemen but overturning the entire regional order that is so important to Saudi Arabia's security. Iran, meanwhile, sees Saudi Arabia arming anti-Assad rebels in Syria and believes the Saudis want to deprive Tehran of an important ally, with the ultimate goal of isolating Iran and surrounding it with hostile regimes (which it is).

Neither wants the other to gain in influence, so they intervene and counter-intervene. For both, the stakes seem high, so they respond with measures that feel appropriately severe to them: for Saudi Arabia, bombing Yemen's Houthi rebels and threatening to invade; for Iran, sending more troops and military advisers to Syria. This ends up escalating both conflicts further, heightening the mutual fears and, of course, increasing the suffering of Yemenis and Syrians.

The Iraq War and the Arab Spring set the stage for today's proxy conflict

iraqi army

Iraqi army fighters, with US support, clear out territory held by Shia militias in Baghdad in 2008. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

During the 1990s and early 2000s, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry was fairly quiet.

According to both Gause and Serwer, that's because Iran's opportunities to challenge the Saudi-led political order were fairly limited. Tehran was just too focused on the threat from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Then the US led the 2003 Iraq invasion that toppled Saddam and changed everything. Iran saw an opportunity to strengthen reliable, pro-Iran Shia militant groups (Iraq is majority Shia) and to replace Saddam with a friendlier Shia-led regime — which is exactly what happened.

"Until the American invasion of Iraq," Serwer says, "the door wasn't really open [for Iran to challenge the regional order], except in limited ways like supporting Hezbollah and Hamas.

"What the United States did in Iraq, by opening the door to the Shia majority, is part of the story for the Saudis."

Then the Arab Spring, by toppling governments or inspiring uprisings throughout the region, created a whole new set of openings in which Iran could seek to expand its influence — and Saudi Arabia would struggle to maintain the status quo. When a Saudi-friendly regime was threatened, the Iranians supported the opposition while the Saudis tried to prop them up. When it was an Iranian ally on the brink of collapse, Saudi Arabia tried to push it over the edge while Iran tried to pull it back.

In Syria, Saudi Arabia funded and supplied the ISIS rebels fighting Iran's ally Bashar al-Assad; Iran sent troops into the country to defend the government and showered Assad with military aid. In Bahrain, the country's Shia majority staged pro-democracy protests against the Sunni monarchy; Saudi Arabia, fearing Iranian influence, sent in soldiers to crush the protests. In Yemen, Iran stepped up its financial and military aid for the Houthi rebels; after the rebels seized the capital Sanaa in early 2015 and began moving to take the rest of it, Saudi Arabia launched a bombing campaign to stop them.

"The retreat of the state made it possible for Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other regional states to play an increasing role in the civil conflicts of Lebanon (for some time), Iraq (since 2003), and Syria (since 2011)," Gause writes. "This is the core, bottom-up dynamic driving the new Middle East cold war."

Though the conflict isn't driven by Sunni-Shia hatred, sectarianism makes it especially dangerous

Syrian rebel mourns (John Cantlie/Getty Images)

A Syrian rebel mourns the death of a comrade. (John Cantlie/Getty Images)
Even though Iran is a Shia theocracy and Saudi Arabia is a Sunni theocracy of a different sort, their struggle isn't really motivated by religion or theology.

"I don't think the Saudis and Iranians are engaged in a sectarian war with each other; I think they're engaged in a balance of power conflict for regional influence," Gause told me in July.

"But," he says, "they use sectarianism." In fact, the Saudi-Iranian struggle is a significant reason for why sectarianism has gotten as bad as it has in the Middle East.

Shared sectarian identities make political alliances easier. Sunni governments and rebels are more likely to turn to Saudi Arabia for help; same for Shia groups turning to Iran. And as conflicts go on, their sectarian cast tends to intensify — inviting Saudi and Iranian intervention, which further polarizes countries on sectarian lines.

"The retreat of the state ... drove people in these countries to look to sectarian identities and groups for the protection and material sustenance that the state either could or would no longer provide," Gause writes. "As sectarianism increasingly defined their struggles, it was natural that they look to co-religionists — Iran for Shia and Saudi Arabia for Sunnis — for that support."

Take Syria, for example. The country's crisis began, in 2011, with a CIA-Saudi backed staged uprising against the democratically elected Assad similar to the CIA overthrow of Iran in '53. But the Assad regime, which is Alawite Shia.  Saudis backing of Sunni militant groups helped intensify this sectarian divide,  Syria's Shia and Christian minorities rallied behind Assad.

The danger of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry is that they'll replicate Syria's experience across the Middle East, by intervening and counter-intervening to support Sunni and Shia proxies. The longer this goes on, the more entrenched and violent the regional Sunni-Shia divide will become, in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq — and if the CIA gets its way Russia and China could be next.

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