Is sectarianism the fundamental ideology antagonising these bitter rivals?
This article explores the reasons behind the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, manifested in indirect armed and non-armed confrontation in Middle Eastern countries. Is this rivalry simply historical, sectarian, or else? Uncovering the reasons for this rivalry may also provide insights on possible peaceful outcomes in this regional cold war.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are indirectly fighting each other in Middle Eastern countries. In Yemen, Saudi Arabian forces are fighting Houthi rebels, who are supported by Iran. In Syria, Iranian forces are fighting insurgent groups supported by Saudi Arabia. In Lebanon, political groups supported by both countries compete against each other for power and control. In Qatar, the blockage by Saudi Arabia has resulted in increased trade with and improved relationships between Qatar and Iran. Tensions in the Middles East in general, and specifically between the two countries have reached historical highs. Their key alliances are aligned with the forces shaping the current world order, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. on the one side, and Iran with China and Russia on the other. Religious differences do not fully explain current levels of confrontation. Exploring the root causes of this rivalry will clarify the prospects for a peaceful resolution between the two countries.
3. Main questions
How is the conflict manifested?
According to Cambridge Dictionary (no date), conflict is defined as a serious disagreement between people, organizations, or countries with opposing opinions. The undisputable rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia may not be in the form of direct armed conflict, however, the serious disagreement between these two countries is clearly manifested in their support of opposing groups in the entire Middle East and beyond, and in their increasing investments in arms and defense, pretty much like the USSR and the USA confronted each other during the cold war.
What is not so clear and explicit, is the opposing opinions that confront the two countries and drive them to indirectly confront each other in the numerous regional conflicts.
The countries and nations where Iran and Saudi Arabia are confronting each other include, starting with countries affected by armed conflict, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and Qatar, among others.
In Syria, a country where the majority of the population practices Sunni Islam, the armed conflict started in 2011 and is ongoing although slowly coming to an end. The armed conflict has caused, according to the UN, over 250.000 deaths, 1 million injured, more than 5,6 million refugees, 6,1 million internally displaced people, and more than 13 million people requiring humanitarian assistance (data from 2018). The conflict started with rebel groups taking-up arms against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a follower of Shia Islam. In the eight-year-long conflict, Iran has been openly backing the regime of Assad, while Saudi Arabia has been providing support to rebel groups (The Middle East Institute, 2016). An example of the support that Saudi Arabia has been providing to rebel groups is provided by journalist Robert Fisk. According to an investigation carried-out by Fisk, a shipment of weapons manufactured in the US and legally sold to Saudi Arabi, ended up in the hands of al-Nusra, an Islamist group fighting the Assad regime (The Independent, 2018).
The armed conflict in Yemen started following social and political unrest brought by the effects of the Arab Spring. The incumbent President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to step down in favor of his deputy, Saudi-backed Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The Houthis, a tribal people from northern Yemen practicing Shia Islam, allied with former President Saleh and part of other Yemeni groups, took-up arms, conquered the capital Sanaa, ousted President Hadi and took control of a significant part of western Yemen. The Saudi’s joined the ousted President to fight against the Houthis. The Iranian government is accused of supplying missiles and weapons to the Shia Houthis (BBC, 2019). In the latest events of 2019, oil installations in Saudi Arabia were attacked by drones causing major oil production disruptions. The Houthis have claimed responsibility for the attacks, however, the United States and Saudi Arabia blame Iran for the attacks (Aljazeera, 2019).
The invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003 resulted in deposing Saddam Hussein, then Iraq’s President, a follower of Sunni Islam. Iraq, where the majority of the population follows Shia Islam, has since then been governed by a Shia-dominated government. Since the establishment of a Shia-dominated government, Iran’s political and economic influence in Iraq, and the rise of pro-Iranian Shia political groups has risen significantly. To confront Iranian influence in Iraq, Saudi Arabia has been supporting the Sunni insurgency against Iraq’s central government. (Atlantic Council, 2019)
Lebanon has been for decades under the competing influence of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran has been supporting the Shia political and militant group Hezbollah since its inception in 1985. Saudi Arabia, in turn, has maintained close historic, economic and political links with the family of the, until recently, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a follower of Sunni Islam. With the support of Iran, Hezbollah managed to obtain, together with its allies, the majority of seats in Parliament in the 2018 elections. In turn, in 2017 life on TV from Riyadh, Hariri announced his resignation as Prime Minister and making references to Iran’s interference in the country. He, later on, withdrew his resignation (TRT World, 2019). Saad Hariri holds also Saudi Arabian citizenship. (Middle East Eye, 2017)
Qatar was accused by its neighbors for supporting terrorism, having increasingly close ties with Iran, and interfering in neighboring countries political affairs. To pressurize Qatar and force changes in its foreign policies, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrein, and the United Emirates imposed a total land, sea and air blockade to Qatar in 2017, and cut diplomatic ties. Iran, among other countries, quickly came to support Qatar allowing them to use Iranian airspace and shipping routes to circumvent the blockade. As a result, trade between the two countries increased significantly, and their relationship reached new heights. (Atlantic Council, 2017)
What are the key alliances and how do they influence the conflict?
The alliance between Saudi Arabia and the US dates back to 1945 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed an agreement with King Abdul Aziz in which the US would provide the newly born Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with security, in exchange for oil. The 70 plus years agreement still stands strong under the Presidency of Donald Trump, and the influential Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. (The Week, 2018)
The enmity between the US and Iran dates back to 1953, when the CIA, with support of British intelligence, staged a coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, as a result of Mosaddeq’s move towards nationalization of the oil industry, which was, until then, in hands of the British. Mosaddeq’s overthrow was complemented by the reinstatement of Iran’s Shah, Reza Pahlavi, a pro-western monarch who would safeguard the west’s oil interests in the country, and who ruled the country for a quarter-century more until the 1979 Islamic revolution. (The Guardian, 2013)
The anti-american sentiment was bolstered with 1979 the Islamic revolution and hostage crisis. The revolution deposed the Iranian Shah in favor of theocratic rule by the Ayatollah’s, Iranian Islamic clerics. The Shah fled the country and eventually entered the US seeking medical treatment. The revolutionaries wanted the US to extradite the Shah back to Iran for his trial. When this was rejected by the US, a mob of revolutionaries stormed into the US embassy in Tehran and took most of the US diplomats hostage. Negotiations to free the hostages took over a year. During negotiations, the US engaged in a vigorous anti-Iranian diplomatic campaign, imposed economic sanctions to Iran, filed suit against the Iranian government in the International Court of Justice, and supported Saddam Hussain, Iraq’s President at that time, in the invasion of Iran by providing finance and weapons. The war between Iraq and Iran lasted for eight years, inflating Iranian economic and social hardship, and established permanent mutual antagonism between both countries. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019)
The alliance between Saudi Arabia and the US is strengthened by the US position of viewing Iran as the greatest danger to Middle East stability. The US believes the Saudis can counter-balance Iran’s regional influence. More recently, Saudi Arabia and Israel have developed closer links to work against Iran’s growing regional influence (The Week, 2018). Israel, one of Iran’s greatest enemies, is also the US greatest ally in the Middle East. Both, Saudi Arabia and Israel, have developed increased worries with Iran’s expanding influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. (Aljazeera, 2019)
Russia and Iran have been close allies in the Syrian conflict. They have both fought along the Syrian troops to preserve the regime of Bashar al-Assad, against the Syrian rebel groups supported by the US and Saudi Arabia. More broadly, they are both opposed to US hegemony in the Middle East. (Atlantic Council, 2019)
China is the greatest trading partner of Iran. Trade and collaboration between Iran and China are not only restricted to oil, breaching US sanctions on Iran, but extend to arms sales and geostrategic balancing against the US. Iran is also one of the key countries in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the flag-ship foreign, trade and investment policies of the Chinese government. (Foreign Policy, 2019)
China and Russia have been deepening cooperation during the last quarter of a century, seemingly reconciling their national and regional interests. Although not reaching a fully-fledged alliance, both countries have opted out to increase cooperation and not compete against each other. (Open Forum, 2019)
In turn, the US sees China as its major rival, capable of overtaking the US economically and technologically. Russia occupies second place in terms of rivalry in the US. The three countries are currently the most powerful players in the global military and geopolitical game, dynamically shaping the new world order after the Cold War. (East Asia Forum, 2019)
Alliances are thus created not only through common interests but also in relation to who is the common rival. Two main axes have so developed, the Iran-Russia-China axis, and the Saudi Arabia-US-Israel axis. This somewhat reductionist analysis of highly complex reality is perhaps illuminating although ignoring other many variables not explored in this paper, including the role of other relevant players such as Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, European Union countries, among others.
What is the role of sectarianism in the conflict?
Islam emerged in the 7th century when Mohammed unveiled the new faith to the people of Mecca. Within a century, Islam had spread from Central Asia to Spain. Following Mohammed’s death, his followers debated over his succession. Some argued that leaders of the new religion should be inherited on the basis of qualifications, and believed that Abu Bakr, a close companion of Mohammed, should be the succeeding Leader of the Islamic community, while others believed it should result of Mohammed’s bloodline and Ali ibn Abi Talib, Mohammed’s cousin and son in law, should take the leading role. This basic division was the emergence of Islam’s two main sects, Shias, supporting that religious leaders of the Muslim world follow Mohammed’s bloodline for succession, and Sunnis, who oppose succession based on bloodline. Armed conflict and killings between Shias and Sunnis arose in the early days of Islam. (Council on Foreign Relations, no date)
In the sixteenth century, the Safavid dynasty was established in Persia and adopted Shia Islam as the state religion. Over the next couple of centuries, they fought against the Ottoman Empire, at that time the seat of Sunni Islam, establishing the borders between the Shia and Sunni worlds, roughly represented by modern-day political borders between Turkey and Iran. Today, Sunnis make up around 85% of the Muslim world, while Shias the remaining 15%. (Council on Foreign Relations, no date)
The relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia was, during a long time, relatively stable. However, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, that deposed the Iranian monarchy and instated the Ayatollahs’ regime as theocratic rulers, the relationship between the two countries has progressively deteriorated. The Ayatollahs consider the monarchic rule, by and large, as “immoral and irreconcilable with Islam”, questioning the legitimacy of the Saudi’s claim as custodians of Islam. At the same time, the Saudi monarchy perceives themselves as the dominant Arab nation, custodians of Islam and its holy places, and denounce the Shia faith as “a deviation and subversion of Islam and condemned its religious followers as apostates.” (Atlantic Council, 2018)
Under the Ayatollahs’ ruling, Iran began a campaign of Islamic revival, supporting Shia groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, and Pakistan. The increased centralization of Shiism under the leadership of Iran resulted in a counter-balancing act by the Saudis, who pushed in the region the propagation of Wahhabism, a puritanical brand of Sunni Islam antagonistic to Shia Islam. The efforts by Iran and Saudi Arabia to propagate their own antagonistic religious schools resurrected the “centuries-old sectarian rivalry.” The revived rivalry ignited sectarian violence, resurfacing confessional identity that is now very present in current conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, including Saudi Arabia where approximately 10% of the population is Shia. (Council on Foreign Relations, no date)
The contemporary rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is thus originally rooted in historic and sectarian grounds, reinvigorated by current geopolitical hegemonic interests of both countries, that merge with the geopolitical hegemonic interests of the global forces that are shaping the current, post-cold war, world order.
Can a sustained peaceful outcome be reached?
Reaching a sustained peaceful outcome is a possibility that may result from extensive diplomatic interaction and commitments from both parties.
Both, Saudi Arabia and Iran seem to be interested in turning a page on the current state of high volatility, mistrust, and conflict around the region. They have been recently expressing their desire to finding a political compromise that “would allow for the two regional powers to peacefully co-exist.”
Iran is not only interested in, but also dependent on re-joining the international community and leaving behind decades of isolation to further economic and social development, ridding itself of the severe current economic sanctions. There are indications that Tehran understands the need for becoming part of the regional sub-system, and for that to be achieved through compromises at the regional and global arena. Compromises will include the need for respecting the sovereignty of some Arab states where it is interfering, including Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria. (Aljazeera, 2019)
Saudi Arabia, in turn, has pursued for at least a decade the US military intervention in Iran. The Saudis preference was for the US to restore the power balance in the region that existed before 2003 when Iran was heavily sanctioned and contained. The Saudis have not only failed to achieve this, but they have also recently realized that they may not get the expected direct US support in the eventual case of an armed conflict with Iran. (The American Prospect, 2019)
The fear of being left alone in an armed conflict with Iran, something that would stand in the way of the ambitious plans of Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and his Vision 2030 for Saudi Arabia, has led the Saudis to seek a compromised solution with Tehran. An indication of this was resorting to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to transmit this message to Iran. (AL-Monitor, 2019)
Saudi Arabia is now considering sitting down with Iran to establish a new security architecture for the region, opening up a window of opportunity for a sustained peaceful agreement. (The American Prospect, 2019)
This will not be easily achieved since it will require both countries to review their regional policies, reduce their interference in the internal affairs of their neighboring countries and respect each other as important regional actors. This will also require the neutral participation and support of global powers.
Sunni and Shia Muslims share their faith in the Quran and the Prophet Mohammed’s teachings, they live in peace in many countries, where intermarriages are common and so is praying at the same mosques (Council on Foreign Relations, no date). The current discussions seeking a peaceful, mutually satisfying compromise to their differences refer purely to geopolitical interventions and interests. If Iran and Saudi Arabia manage to settle their dispute and maintain a power balance in the region, Sunnis and Shias will most likely be able to co-exist in peace as long as politics do not interfere once again.
Aljazeera (20 September 2019), Saudi oil attacks: All the latest updates [online] available at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/saudi-oil-attacks-latest-updates-190916102800973.html (accessed 20 September 2019)
AL-Monitor (31 October 2019), Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the ‘Trump variable’ [online] available at https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/10/iran-saudi-dialogue-tensions.html (accessed 22 November 2019)
The American Prospect (8 August 2019), Is Trump accidentally triggering reconciliation in the Middle East? [online] available at https://prospect.org/world/trump-accidentally-triggering-reconciliation-middle-east/ (accessed 22 November 2019)
Atlantic Council (17 June 2019), GCC dispute pushes Iran and Qatar closer but with caveats [online] available at https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/gcc-dispute-pushes-iran-and-qatar-closer-but-with-caveats/ (accessed on 8 November 2019)
Aljazeera (7 October 2019), Israel seeking ‘non-aggression’ agreements with Gulf states [online] available at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/israel-seeking-aggression-agreements-gulf-states-191006145121280.html (accessed 8 November 2019)
Atlantic Council (February 26, 2019), Is Saudi Arabia Pulling Pakistan Into War With Iran? [online] available at https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/is-saudi-arabia-pulling-pakistan-into-war-with-iran (accessed 23 August 2019)
Atlantic Council (10 April 2019), Saudi Arabia’s plan to lure Iraq from Iran [online] available at https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/saudi-arabia-s-plan-to-lure-iraq-from-iran/ (accessed 20 September 2019)
Atlantic Council (2018), The Saudi-Iranian rivalry [online] available at https://www.atlcom.nl/upload/trans-atlantisch-nieuws/AP_2_2018_Van_der_Heiden_and_Krijger.pdf (accessed 23 August 2019)
BBC (21 March 2019), Yemen crisis: Why is there a war? [online] available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29319423 (accessed 20 September 2019)
Cambridge Dictionary (no date), definition of conflict [online] available at https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/conflict (accessed 30 August 2019)
Council of Foreign Relations (no date), The Sunni-Shia Divide [online] available at https://www.cfr.org/interactives/sunni-shia-divide#!/sunni-shia-divide (accessed 15 November 2019)
The Diplomat (9 February 2018), How Strong is the Iran-Russia ‘Alliance’? [online] available at https://thediplomat.com/2018/02/how-strong-is-the-iran-russia-alliance/ (accessed 8 November 2019)
DW (20 January 2017), Iran and Saudi Arabia struggle to reconcile differences [online] available at https://www.dw.com/en/iran-and-saudi-arabia-struggle-to-reconcile-differences/a-37214280 (accessed 22 November 2019)
East Asia Forum (5 May 2019), China, Russia and the United States contest a new world order [online] available at https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2019/05/05/china-russia-and-the-united-states-contest-a-new-world-order/ (accessed 8 November 2019)
Encyclopaedia Britannica (28 October 2019), Iran hostage crisis [online] available at https://www.britannica.com/event/Iran-hostage-crisis/Conflict-and-resolution (accessed 22 November 2019)
Foreign Policy (5 September 2019), China’s Great Game in Iran [online] available at https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/05/chinas-great-game-in-iran/ (accessed 8 November 2019)
The Guardian (19 August 2013), CIA admits role in 1953 Iranian coup [online] available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/19/cia-admits-role-1953-iranian-coup (accessed 22 November 2019)
The Independent (July 23, 2018), I traced missile casings in Syria back to their original sellers, so it’s time for the west to reveal who they sell arms to [online] available at https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/syria-missile-arms-deals-west-us-uk-saudi-arabia-a8459731.html (accessed 30 August 2019)
Middle East Eye (6 November 2017), Saad Hariri and his deep-rooted Saudi links [online] available at https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/saad-hariri-and-his-deep-rooted-saudi-links (accessed 20 September 2019)
The Middle East Institute (January 19, 2016), Too Big to Fail: The Iran-Saudi Relationship [online] available at https://www.mei.edu/publications/too-big-fail-iran-saudi-relationship (accessed 22 August 2019)
TRT World (13 February 2019), The Saudi-Iranian battle over Lebanon [online] available at https://www.trtworld.com/mea/the-saudi-iranian-battle-over-lebanon-24097 (accessed 20 September 2019)
UN News (no date), Syria [online] available at https://news.un.org/en/focus/syria (accessed 30 August 2019)
The Week (10 November 2018), How Saudi Arabia became America’s ally? [online] available at https://theweek.com/articles/806654/how-saudi-arabia-became-americas-ally (accessed 8 November 2019)
Open Forum (19 August 2019), Russia-China Relations in Central Asia: Why Is There a Surprising Absence of Rivalry? [online] available at http://www.theasanforum.org/russia-china-relations-in-central-asia-why-is-there-a-surprising-absence-of-rivalry/ (accessed 8 November 2019)