Abdul Rasool Syed |
All cold wars have the potential to suddenly turn hot, probably only for a moment before the leaderships ‘turn off the war’. This risk exists in the case of Saudi/GCC versus Iran.” Michael Knights
In Middle Eastern geopolitics, Saudi Arabia and Iran are the key strategic rivals; each trying to have ascendancy over the other and thereby establish hegemony in the region. The rivalry between the two countries is premised on religious, political, and economic antagonism.
Iran’s first supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini backed Shia militias and parties abroad. In response, Riyadh sought a closer relationship with other Sunni governments.
Religiously, Saudi follows and fosters Sunni school of thought exclusively the Wahabi brand of Islam whereas Iran stands for the Shiaism and keenly pursue its policy to export its version of Islam generally in the whole Muslim world and particularly in the Mideast. Both countries are therefore engaged in proxy wars in the Mideast and support their ideologues with money, men and material.
Economically, both the countries having enormous reservoirs of oil at their disposal are cut-throat competitors. And politically as well, both Iran and Saudi Arabia are diametrically opposed to each other; the former is somehow a theocracy ruled by the supreme leader called Ayatollah whereas the latter is monarchical kingdom governed by Aal-e Saud (the progeny of King Mohammad bin Saud, the founder of Saudi Kingdom) dynasty.
The animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran has a long chronological account. But Iran’s 1970 Islamic revolution acted as a catalyst to provoke the hostile environment in the region. To Saudi Arabia, the emergence of Islamic Republic posed an existential threat because its leaders were unabashedly Shiite following the opposite school of thought and were staunchly anti-American, opposing a close ally of the monarchies on the Arabian Peninsula.
Iran’s leaders were keen to export their fervor beyond their frontiers. Iran’s first supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini backed Shia militias and parties abroad. In response, Riyadh sought a closer relationship with other Sunni governments. This move led to the erection of GCC (Gulf cooperation council). Tensions further deepened in the 1980s, when Saudi Arabia supported Sadam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. After the 1991 Gulf war—which significantly weakened Iraq—Saudi and Iran emerged as two regional powers…
He blamed Iran for radicalization in Saudi Arabia, global terrorism and the rise of an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, where Iranian Influence and Shia ascendancy led to marginalizing Sunni population.
There are more recent pressure points that have put the two countries at loggerheads.
The U.S led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that resulted in the fall of Saddam Hussein, the key bulwark of Saudis against Shiite influence in the region who kept Iraq’s Shia majority at bay and thereby impeded them to reach the corridors of power. Iraq’s newly installed government in aftermath of U.S military adventurism cemented Shiite foundation in the country.
During Arab spring in 2011, Saudi Arabia and Iran flexed their muscles, often backing opponents in the countries with unrest.
The nuclear deal clinched in 2015 by P5+1 (UN Security Council’s five permanent members and Germany) was vehemently opposed by Riyadh, which feared an end to Iran’s international isolation. Consequently, Saudi kingdom extended an olive branch to Israel which too spat venom against the deal and is an arch adversary of Iran in the region.
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Furthermore, in 2016, the execution of a popular Shia cleric Nimar Al-Nimar ignited an unmanageable ire in Iran. Iranians rioted in Tehran and attacked the Saudi embassy, leading to the suspension of diplomatic relations. This ongoing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has unfortunately created deep fissures among the Muslim Ummah and has thereby severely shattered the Muslim unity and integration.
Broadly speaking, the strategic map of the Middle East vividly reflects the Shia-Sunni schism caused by the cold war between the two major powers (Iran-Saudi) in the region. In pro-Saudi camp are the major Sunni actors in the gulf- the UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain, as well as Egypt, and Jordan.
In Iranian camp is it’s strongly backed Syria’s government, where pro-Iranian Shia militia groups, including the Lebanon based Hezbollah, have played a prominent role in fighting predominantly Sunni groups. Besides, Shia dominant Iraqi government is also a close ally of Iran.
Saudi influence in Iraq evaporated after most Sunni Arab-majority provinces seceded to join the ISL “caliphate” in 2014, and then were conquered by the central government’s army and its Shiite militia auxiliaries…”
Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, a de-facto ruler of Saudi kingdom often talks about the Iranian threats. Iranophobia is quite evident during his talks as well as actions. He always strives to capitalize on this situation to his advantage and thereby consolidate his power. He knows that the existence of a fearful enemy is the inescapable sine qua non for his own strength.
Prince Mohammed deliberately promotes the Iranophobia in order to deflect the focus from domestic challenges. Political grievances, inequality, and unemployment in the youth are the pressing domestic concerns for Saudi Arabia.
Prince Mohammad with utter indifference to these challenges furthers populist anti-Iranian rhetoric and promises to roll back Iranian influence in Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. This strategy is employed merely to appease the internal dissension.
Iranophonia was apparent during several visits of the crown prince to the United States. He left no stone unturned to demonize Iran. He blamed Iran for radicalization in Saudi Arabia, global terrorism and the rise of an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, where Iranian Influence and Shia ascendancy led to marginalizing Sunni population. He further held Iran responsible for creating violent sectarian militias that terrorize the Sunni population in Iraq and Syria and referred to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as the new Hitler…
Furthermore, a regional political analyst Juan Cole also explains Saudi’s Iranophobia in the following words:
“Iran’s influence has gone from almost zero in the 1990s to predominant in the eastern reaches of the Middle East today. The Shiite Houthi rebels staged a coup in Yemen in 2014 and deepened their control over the country. That was mainly a local development, but Riyadh projected its Iranophobia on it. The pro-Iranian party-militia Hezbollah in Lebanon has dominated that country’s national unity government since 2016.
The establishment of Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) formerly referred as IMAFT (Islamic military alliance to fight terrorism) is viewed by the defense and security analysts as an organization to be used against Iran.
Another Iranian client, the Bath regime of Bashar al-Assad, appears to have won the civil war in Syria, and Saudi cat’s paw there, the extremist Army of Islam has been defeated. Saudi influence in Iraq evaporated after most Sunni Arab-majority provinces seceded to join the ISL “caliphate” in 2014, and then were conquered by the central government’s army and its Shiite militia auxiliaries…”
All these developments as pointed out by Juan Cole clearly depict that Saudi’s control and influence in the region is diminishing exponentially. This very situation has inculcated Iranophobia among the Saudi rulers. Saudi crown prince is therefore poised to employ all the means available to protect its country’s interests in the region by containing mushrooming Iranian influence and its expanding regional dominance.
Prince Mohammed, therefore, rubs out the criticism of his domestic policies by reminding the Royals and the commoners that he is fighting an existential threat from expansionist Iran. He blames Iran for the protests by Shiite citizens of Saudi Arabia in the oil-rich Eastern provinces and accuses the Shia citizens of being Iranian clients.
Moreover, The Saudis also see the resurgence of the Iranian influence as a revival of the Old Persian nationalism. Amplifying the Iranian threats, therefore, allows the crown prince to magnify his own rule as a survivor of the Saudi Arabia and the broader Arab region from Persianization and Shiification.
Additionally, Saudi leadership also sees Iran, an oil-producing neighbor, through the lens of competition. It will never allow any efforts aimed at regional integration, which could lead to Iranian human resources and products being readily available in the Gulf region.
In the end, I would quote Obama here who famously told the Atlantic’s Jeffery Goldberg that Iran and Saudi Arabia need to learn how to “share neighborhood peacefully”…
Prince Mohammad’s vision 2030—an ambitious transformation plan towards export diversification and weaning country off its dependence on oil—and other economic development plans excludes Iran while kingdom seeks greater regional integration with the UAE, Jordan, Egypt, and possibly Israel.
Finally, apart from economic containment, the kingdom also seeks to contain Iran militarily. The establishment of Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) formerly referred as IMAFT (Islamic military alliance to fight terrorism) is viewed by the defense and security analysts as an organization to be used against Iran.
To cap it all, Iran and Saudi Arabia should iron out their differences peacefully. Their rivalry has given and will keep giving a great setback to the Muslim unity and brotherhood that would for sure, be exploited by anti-Islam forces. In the end, I would quote Obama here who famously told the Atlantic’s Jeffery Goldberg that Iran and Saudi Arabia need to learn how to “share neighborhood peacefully”…
Advocate Abdul Rasool Syed is a lawyer by profession and is based in Quetta, Baluchistan. He also has MBA from IBA Karachi. He is passionate about writing and contributes to various publications including Daily Times and Frontier Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.