Over the past years since 2003, Iran and Saudi Arabia, traditional rivals in the Middle East, have emerged as two powerful actors, by and large. Today, their rivalry and competition for power and influence largely define the political dynamics and diplomatic matrix of the region, in a marked shift from the past. Until recently, the U.S. was the mighty arbiter that attempted to dictate developments and force its choices onto the region, primarily to protect Israel and oil interests. Bill Clinton’s “dual containment” policy in the 1990s or George W. Bush’s post-2003 “democracy promotion” slogans are just two oft-cited examples. That is no longer the case, as America’s “imperial overstretch”, under the rubric of “war on terror”, to permanently create a pro-American Mideast regional order has mostly failed. Arguably, the gradual decline in U.S. role has correspondingly increased the pro-active roles of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the regional conflict and peace processes.
Riyadh and Tehran, by most accounts, have seized or on the way to seize the center stage in regional politics: they are formidable power-brokers in Syria and Yemen; they exert much more influence in Lebanon while Iraq has largely fallen into the Iranian sphere of influence; and, last but not least, they more or less command the support and loyalty of their sectarian coreligionists across the Middle East and beyond– Sunnis and Shias, respectively. Turkey is also deeply involved in the Syrian conflict but its overriding concern is to check the growing power of the Syrian Kurds with ethnic ties to their separatist Kurdish brethren across the borders in southwestern Turkey. After the July 15 botched coup, Ankara seems to gradually pivot to Russia and Iran that may eventually bring about a major strategic shift in Turkey’s Syria policy. The elevated regional statuses of Iran and Saudi Arabia bring them much political leverages to either stabilize the region or drive it towards more violence, while the U.S. and Russia have lined up behind their respective allies to defeat the Islamic State as well as to check each other’s domination over the region.
Rise of Iran and Saudi Arabia
In the past, a shifting pattern of alliances between the U.S., Iran and Saudi Arabia defined political and strategic dynamics in the Middle East, more specifically in the Persian Gulf neighborhood. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran was the principal pillar of post-war U.S. grand strategy and had played the role of a regional policeman, with Saudi Arabia and Israel playing supporting roles. Saudi Arabia rose to prominence in U.S. strategic calculations once the Shah was ousted from Tehran and Ayatollah Khomeini started pursuing an anti-U.S., anti-imperialism foreign policy. The 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait further cemented the strategic ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to keep Iran at bay while the March 2003 invasion of Iraq introduced considerable fluidity in Iran-Saudi-U.S. strategic matrix. Riyadh officially refused to support the U.S. invasion; Iran initially declared a policy of ‘active neutrality’ but subsequently got involved in Iraq to aid the Shia political forces to neutralize future Iraqi threats to Iranian security and also to hasten U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
It was the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that laid the groundwork for the rise of Iran and Saudi Arabia in regional politics, while the Arab pro-democracy movements created the actual battleground for competition for power and influence between the two regional rivals. The two events expanded their grip over regional politics in two different but related ways: both of them rushed to defend their geopolitical interests by siding with their cross-border allies and groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and thus developed their respective regional alliance networks; and, secondly, America’s failure or inability to put a brake on Iran–Saudi fierce rivalry for power and influence that often invoked inflammatory Shia–Sunni sectarian rhetoric. President Bush had failed to contain the divisive and bloody sectarian war in Iraq between 2006 and 2008 and his successor President Obama seemed to have set for a policy of gradual disengagement from the region. The Obama administration withdrew from Iraq in December 2011 but again returned in mid-2014 to fight the Islamic State, refused to bomb President Assad’s forces to effect regime change in Damascus, brought U.S.–Israel relations to a new low through half-hearted efforts to resolve the Israel–Palestine conflict, and finally signed a historic but apparently unsustainable nuclear deal with Iran in July 2015, by defying the hawks in Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh.
The proclamation of the Islamic State in June 2014 temporarily put the U.S., Iran and Saudi Arabia on the same strategic page to face the common menace but Iran–U.S. nuclear negotiations, secretly mediated by Oman, further ratcheted up tensions in Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel. For Washington and Tehran the Nuclear deal was the Holy Grail to avoid war, but for Riyadh and Tel Aviv it was their new Achilles’ heel in the Middle East. The Saudis and the Israelis interpreted the deal as a major concession to Iran and were appalled by the prospects of Iran’s rise as a dominant regional power. After unsuccessful attempts to foil the deal, they made a series of zero-sum calculations: that Iran’s rise would surely shrink their room for maneuver or that an unfettered Iran, in the absence of U.S.-led Western sanctions, would gradually rise to a hegemonic position in the Middle East’s poly nodal power structure to dictate regional affairs.
The Saudis were especially nervous that a nuclear Iran, to be eventually facilitated by the deal after fifteen years, would force the Arab states to seek Tehran’s prior approval on all regional policy issues or that actions on every regional issue must pass through Tehran. To compensate weaknesses, Riyadh first formed a 9-nation Arab Coalition to back up its war efforts to crush the Iran-supported Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen and thereafter launched a loosely knit 34-nation Islamic military alliance to square off against Iran, a policy what some analysts have labelled the “Salman doctrine.” Riyadh also stepped up overt and covert cooperation with Tel Aviv to counter a rising Iran. Saudi Arabia’s fear of Iranian dominance probably heightened more in the wake of Russia’s direct military intervention in the Syrian conflict in September 2015 to bolster President Bashar Al-Assad, and Iran’s recent decision to allow the Russian air force to use a military airfield in northwestern Iran to strike Islamic State targets in Syria. A very close Iran–Russia strategic partnership calls for a revision in Saudi Arabia’s strategic calculations to defend its position and interests in the Middle East.
In short, Iran–Saudi relations, following the nuclear deal, moved from bad to worse, at times creating the dangers of war, as was the case after the execution of prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in January this year. Latched onto their rivalry, in addition to nuclear-related tensions, has been a long list of thorny issues, including Riyadh’s fear of export of revolution by Iran to dislodge the monarchical regimes in the Gulf, Saudi cooperation with and support for U.S.-led sanctions to damage Iranian interests, U.S. military presence in the Gulf sheikhdoms and meddling in regional politics, energy politics and so on. Recently, some new issues are heating up their bilateral and cross-Gulf relations further. Riyadh points the finger at Iran behind the emergence of a Shia militant group – Hezbollah al-Hijaz in western Saudi Arabia. Tehran, in a similar vein, complains of covert Saudi hands in the recent surge in ethnic separatist violence in northwestern Iran, including the oil-rich ethnic Arabs-dominated Khuzestan province. Interference in each other’s domestic affairs, if that really happens, would dismally cross the red lines to breed perpetual chaos and violence across the region.
Towards More Violence or Peace?
In the post-American Middle East regional order, if we can speak of that, Iran–Saudi geopolitical competition is largely endangering the prospects of peace, while their cooperation is absolutely necessary to avoid a regional Armageddon. The rationale for rapprochement is much stronger than their obsessions with mutual antagonisms. The post-2001 Middle East has already experienced massive destructions and carnage of unparalleled magnitudes, with nearly half a million Iraqis killed between 2003 and 2011. George Bush’s 12 years of “war on terror”, sparked by the 9/11 attacks, has resulted in a massive kill of 1.3 million people in the three war zones of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The fight against the Islamic State has further aggravated the situation, with civilians being bombed, mistakenly or not, by different coalition jets or targeted by suicide bombers. The rival regional parties and the local people are the real losers, with price being paid in bloods and resources.
No less consequential are Iranian and Saudi contributions to this mayhem, which they can hardly justify in the name of real or perceived strategic gains or losses. Iran’s financial and military aid package to the Syrian government, according to one source, amounts to $6 billion per year, though it is domestically plagued with multiple serious economic ills. Saudi Arabia, supported by the U.S., is the principal supplier of arms and money to the Syrian rebel groups, and spends $6 billion every month for the air campaign and war on Yemen. The ultimate outcomes are more than gruesome: by the end of 2015, a total of 470,000 Syrians were killed, with another 1.9 million wounded and a huge economic loss of $255 billion incurred. In Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, some 10,000 people have already lost their lives, with children being the principal victims of the war, and the country’s economic objects and infrastructure being almost totally ravaged. With a stalemate in the wars in Syria and Yemen, both Iran and Saudi Arabia are in lose–lose situations. The Saudis should specifically note that all fights are taking place on Arab lands, all bombs are falling on Arab cities, towns and rural settlements, and almost all casualties are Arabs – males, females or children.
The dire situations in Iraq, Syria and Yemen call for a reassessment of this highly damaging Iran–Saudi competition for regional dominance. A move from conflict to cooperation by the two rivals may not be that difficult, as it might seem. Although known for pursuing regional confrontational politics, Iran and Saudi Arabia have had a good record of mutual cooperation. Under President Richard Nixon’s “twin pillar” policy, they collectively played decisive roles to combat communist threats across the region, particularly in Oman, the now defunct North Yemen, and Somalia. Their bilateral ties substantially improved during the reign of late King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al-Saud and the presidencies of two former Iranian presidents – Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. King Abdullah and President Khatami succeeded in signing two landmark agreements to promote mutual trust and cooperation between the two Gulf countries – the comprehensive agreement of 1998, and the security pact of 2001 to jointly deal with al-Qaeda fighters and operatives.
President Rafsanjani, who lobbies for improved Iran–Saudi ties, sees cooperation between the two giant Gulf neighbors as the best hope for resolving the major regional issues, but official or private initiatives towards that end are lacking. In the past, a set of common threats pushed Riyadh and Tehran to occasionally set aside their rivalry and cooperate. Common dangers like the post-war potential Soviet communist threats to penetrate the Gulf or the secular Arab Ba’athists in Iraq under Saddam Hussein that drove the Iranians or the Saudis towards cooperation no longer exist. The Islamic State has emerged as a common threat but the Saudis view it as a less severe threat, as a front against the Shias, while for Iran it poses existential threats.
Common threats or not, the rationale for Iran–Saudi move towards peace is already past due, principally to avoid massive killings, untold human sufferings and hellish destructions in the region. The regional and global hawks need to understand that war is not always and in every case the best option to settle issues, even intractable ones. The question is: Who would take the shot at initiating negotiations to come out of the morass? Last year, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called on Iranian negotiators to show “heroic flexibility” to resolve the nuclear dispute with the U.S. This is perhaps more required for a Saudi–Iran breakthrough today to drag the Middle East out of violence and carnage.
Dr. Mohammed Nuruzzaman is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Gulf University for Science and Technology, Kuwait. He can be reached at:email@example.com . His research webpage can be accessed at:https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Mohammed_Nuruzzaman