Saudi Arabia and Iran are two regional powers in the Middle East, that act as two big divides in the region- as far as the religious ideologies are concerned. Both the states are backing their allies in their respective neighboring countries. This funding has led to many armed conflicts where these states are not direct participants though: Iran is largely being supported by Russia, while KSA is the American friend. The Iranian nuclear program is being perceived as threat by the Saudis, where Riyadh has reportedly considered the option of launching its own nuclear program, as its ‘enemy’ is pursuing it.
KSA and Iran are divided by longstanding structural tensions. Each has inspirations for Islamic leadership and each possesse different visions of regional order. Tehran regards Riyadh as America’s proxy and a buffer against Iran’s rightful primacy in the Gulf, while Saudi Arabia worries about Iran’s asymmetric power and regional ambitions, especially its expanding influence in the post-Saddam Iraq and its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapon program. A particular concern in Riyadh is Iran’s ability to challenge the legitimacy of the al-Saud before regional and domestic audience by upstaging them on pan-Arab issues such as Palestine.
The ties worsened after the Shia cleric Sheikh Baqir al Nimr was beheaded along with other 47 persons in Saudi Arabia. The Iranian response resulted in the attack on Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked by violent mob and the furniture was set on fire. This led to Saudi Arabia severing the diplomatic ties with Iran. Several other countries like Bahrain and Sudan also cut diplomatic ties. This led to more tensions in the region. Pakistan’s civil-military leadership visited Saudi Arabia and then Tehran so that the tension between the two countries could be resolved and a middle way sorted out.
The regional dynamics are changing as Iran is improving its ties with the West. After the nuclear deal has been signed Iran expects to receive billions of dollars that were confiscated by the world powers due to sanctions. Saudi Arabia on the other side is not at all happy with the proceeding of the Iranian nuclear deal, as it perceives this as a threat for the region. The rise of Iran would make the region insecure as the power dimensions would be disrupted. This rise would also threaten Israel, which is often being criticized by the Iranian leadership.
Iran supports groups beyond its boundaries. Assad regime in Syria is constantly supported by Iran, where the latter is also assisting the Shia-led government in Iraq and helping them fight ISIS. Al-Quds brigade is operating in Iraq for quite some time. Hamas labeled as a terrorist organization is also being backed by Tehran. Moreover, this network of assistance extends all the way long to Lebanon and Yemen where they are supporting Hizbullah and Huthi tribe. Thus, the Iranian involvement is there in the entire Middle East.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia also does not have its hands clean. KSA has reportedly been supporting al-Qaeda. Bin Laden belonged to Saudi Arabia. Saudis are reportedly supporting the ISIS with its network spread across the Middle East. Saudis had also helped Taliban in making roots in Afghanistan. They were funded by Saudis. They also financially assist the countries who follow their religious doctrine and political dictation.
The US invasion of Iraq played a pivotal role in disturbing the balance of power in the Middle East. One of the most significant effects of the Iraq war is Iran’s seemingly unprecedented influence and freedom of action in regional affairs, presenting new strategic challenges for the US and allies. Although Middle ME governments and the US are in agreement about diagnosing Tehran’s activism as the war’s most alarming consequence, they disagree on how to respond. The conventional US view suggests that a new Arab consensus has been prompted to neutralize and counter Tehran’s rising influence across the region in Gaza, the Gulf, Iraq, and Lebanon. Parallels to Cold War containment are clear. Indeed, whether consciously or unwittingly, US policy has been replicating features of the Cold War model by trying to build a “moderate” Sunni Arab front to bolster US efforts to counter Iranian influence. Despite signals that the Obama administration intends to expand US engagement with Iran, the foundations of containment are deeply rooted and engender bipartisan backing from Congress. Even if the Obama administration desires to shift US policy toward Iran, containment policies will be difficult to overturn quickly; if engagement with Iran fails, reliance on containment will only increase.
The containment strategy seems to be founded on what many US officials and analysts perceive as one of the Iraq war’s few silver linings: the removal of Saddam Hussein as the “eastern flank” of the Arab world laid bare Iran’s longstanding malevolence towards the region and spurred Arab states towards greater activism in line with US strategy. Yet, this premise is dangerously flawed. It is the result of misreading local politics and the nuanced ways Arab states are managing and, in some cases, exploiting the challenge from Iran and the broader effects of Iraq war. The events over the past two years in the Gulf, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon suggest a different picture. Arab states are certainly alarmed about growing Iranian influence in the region, particularly about alleged Iranian activities within their own states. Gulf states with Shia population, like Bahrain, feel especially vulnerable to Iranian intervention. Moreover, Iranian support for Hamas during crises such as the Gaza war in 2008–2009 burnishes Iran’s pro-Palestinian credentials among Arab publics and challenges the authority and legitimacy of pro-Western Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan.
This alarm, however, does not translate into unequivocal balancing against Iran or a wholesale embrace of US regional containment policy. Instead, Arab states are more likely to blend confrontational policies towards Tehran with elements of conciliation, engagement and accommodation, thus hedging against sudden swings in the US policy towards Iran while maintaining deeply rooted economic and cultural ties with their neighbour to the east. For some, the threat of US military action against Iran is as worrisome as a potential nuclear threat from Iran itself. There is also little evidence for broad-based support for a single Arab “balancer” against Iran, despite the best efforts of Saudi Arabia and its assertive new diplomacy. Indeed, for some observers, the consequences of Riyadh’s response to Tehran are a cause for greater concern than the Iranian challenge. Finally, some Arab leaders have skillfully exploited Washington’s preoccupation with Iran and its wariness of democracy in the region to further entrench their authoritarian rule and defer much-needed internal reforms.
In this atmosphere, Washington needs to be clear about its priorities if it wants to get anything done with Riyadh. The United States should cooperate on issues where common interests are clear, such as stabilizing Yemen, containing Iran’s regional power, destroying al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates. It should encourage the Saudis to reconsider policies such as isolating the Iraqi government and stoking Shia-Sunni animosities that could harm both US and Saudi interests in the future by making clear that overall cooperation on security issues requires these steps. Finally, US policymakers should make clear that nuclear proliferation by Saudi Arabia would put at risk any future collaboration on security issues.
The author is a researcher based in Islamabad