The hot Saudi-Iran cold war

Saudi Arabian-Iranian rivalry is now no longer about two nations vying for supremacy, but intertwined with regional geopolitics and sectarian equations.

June 15, 2015 01:07 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:35 pm IST

The rapid rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a development that must have taken many by surprise. What was once a small group of Sunni militants in north-western Iraq engaged in a sectarian battle with the Shia government in Baghdad till three years ago — the al-Qaeda of Iraq — has now transformed itself into one of the most sophisticated forms of jihadi machinery in the world, controlling territories that are as large as Great Britain with a population of around eight million.

What led to this phenomenal rise? There are multiple explanations, including >conspiracy theories such as the United States being responsible for its creation and of Saudi Arabia bankrolling it. If one sets aside the conspiracy theories and >starts looking for the historical factors that have led to this emergence , it’s >not difficult to see that Iran-Saudi rivalry is one of them.

A weakening of states

IS derives its strength from the weakening of nation states. And there are at least three factors that have contributed to the weakening of states in contemporary West Asia: external interventions; the Arab revolts and Saudi-Iran antagonism. The first two, relatively newer phenomena, gave the Saudi-Iran balance of power conflict a new context and battlefields, and together are reshaping West Asian geopolitics.

The Saudi-Iran competition dates back to the days before the Iranian Revolution. Both the Pahlavi dynasty of Iran and the al-Saud royal family of Saudi Arabia vied for regional influence as well as for an edge in the global energy market, even as they remained the “the two pillars” of the U.S.’s West Asian policy. The Islamic revolution of 1979, that overthrew the monarchy in Iran, brought about an ideological twist to this competition: Shia Islamist Republicanism versus Sunni Wahhabism. In the early months of the revolution, Radio Tehran used to air propaganda, targeting monarchy rule in general and the al-Saud family in particular. “Kings despoil a country when they enter it and make the noblest of its people its meanest,” began a broadcast on March 14, 1980, quoting from the Koran. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s call to the oppressed in the Muslim world to turn against their rulers did not go down well with monarchs in the region. The Saudis, who preferred status quo, saw the revolutionary Iran as a disruptive force. Sunni monarchs and dictators faced two challenges in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. First, the possibility of their own people — inspired by the Iranian revolution — turning against them; and second, the potential rise of Iran as a regional power. To prevent both, they wanted to contain Iran. Tehran, on the other hand, seeing Riyadh as the leader of a bloc that sought to cripple its natural rise, wanted to counter those efforts. The stage was set for a new form of rivalry in the region. Its first definite manifestation was the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, in which most Sunni states stood behind an aggressive Saddam Hussein despite their differences with him.

Two axes

Though the Sunni coalition could not achieve its goal of overthrowing the Islamic regime in Tehran, it succeeded in locking Iran into a long-lasting conflict with Iraq. At the same time, the Saudis stitched together an alliance of Gulf monarchies to strengthen their regional standing. The formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a group of conservative Gulf monarchies, in 1981 was initially designed to counter Iranian influence.

It became the lynchpin of the Saudi strategy towards Tehran. In the years that followed, an emergence of a Saudi-led axis of Sunni Arab monarchies and dictatorships pitched itself against Iran. Tehran’s response was initially limited as its primary focus was on Saddam Hussein. But it had a grand strategy too — for regional influence, which, unlike the Saudi model of a coalition of nation states, was focussed on non-state actors. Iran was behind the formation of the Hezbollah, a Shia militia-cum-political movement in Lebanon, in the early 1980s, and had been one of the consistent supporters of the Palestinian militant group, Hamas. Syria was perhaps the only staunch state ally of Iran in the region. The Iranians projected themselves and these non-state groups as an archipelago of resistance against an axis of dominance led by the Saudis. That the U.S. was backing the Saudi alliance actually strengthened the Iranian narrative that it was the vanguard of anti-imperialist struggle in West Asia.

What changed the rules of this balance of power game was the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The war not only toppled Saddam Hussein, Iran’s biggest direct threat in the region, but also set the stage for the political rise of Iraq’s majority Shia community, who had historical ties with Iran. Tehran immediately sensed an opportunity in the post-Saddam Iraq. It has expanded its presence in Baghdad ever since. The formation of a Shia government in Baghdad has only strengthened Iranian influence in Iraq. Saudi Arabia, which had seen Iraq as a buffer between Iran and the rest of the region, was alarmed by the fall of Baghdad into Iranian hands. To be sure, it was a historical blow for their interests, though that was not the least of American intentions while launching the war. To weaken the Iraqi government, Saudi Arabia refused to send an envoy to Baghdad, and demanded that Iraq repay a loan it gave to Saddam Hussein, estimated to be around $30 billion, during the Iran-Iraq war.

There were also reports that the Kingdom was helping Sunni extremist groups in Iraq’s Shia-Sunni sectarian civil war. According to WikiLeaks documents, the former Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, accused Saudi Arabia of “fomenting sectarian conflict” and “funding a Sunni army.”

The proxy wars This cold war went beyond Iraq into greater West Asia with the breakout of Arab street revolts. In the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia lost an ally. When protests touched off in Bahrain, a Shia majority country ruled by a Sunni royal family, the Saudis saw the Iranian hand. Iraq had already gone into the Iranian camp, and Riyadh didn’t want the same to happen in Bahrain, a GCC member. In March 2011, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent troops to Bahrain to brutally remove protesters from Manama’s Pearl Square. They did the same in Yemen months later, but failed to protect the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh in the wake of public protests. The Saudi game plan was to replace Mr. Saleh with another president loyal to them; Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi was chosen to do the job. But when the Hadi government was overthrown by the Shia militia Houthis, the Saudis were again unsettled. Afraid of growing Iranian influence in the Arabian Peninsula, Riyadh started bombing Yemen in March in a bid to push the Houthis out of power. The campaign is still going on, without an end-result in sight.

Syria’s slide In Syria, a Sunni majority country ruled by the Alawite-dominated Ba'ath party, this Saudi-Iranian rivalry played out disastrously. When protests broke out in Syria, the Saudis changed tack. If they batted for stability in Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen, their slogan in Syria has been regime change, because Damascus has been an ally of Tehran. Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies actively funded and weaponised Syrian rebel groups which played a major role in destabilising parts of the country. It’s from this chaos that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi rebuilt his dilapidated terror machinery into the IS of today. Most of the weapons the Saudi-Gulf nations supplied to the Syrian rebels ended up in the hands of al-Baghdadi’s men, who effectively erased the Iraqi-Syria border and established the Caliphate. On the other side, Tehran did everything it could to back the Syrian regime; if Mr. Assad falls, that would weaken Iranian power in the region. It would also cut off a vital link between Tehran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia group. Syria’s slide into a geopolitical battlefield was rather quick, much to the joy of extremist groups who love chaos.

Syria is now effectively a divided country where at least five blocs, including the regime, the IS and the so-called moderate rebels, hold on to territories. In Iraq, Baghdad’s writ rules only in the Shia majority regions, while the Iraqi Army’s fight against the IS is largely backed by Iran-controlled militias. Bahrain is uneasily quiet and could explode any time. Yemen is being destroyed by the Saudi bombers, while the Houthis, contrary to Riyadh’s declared goals, are tightening their grip over the country. Lebanon could be the next battleground where the Iran-backed Hezbollah is a strong actor.

The Saudi-led axis has already expressed concerns over Hezbollah’s growing clout in the country, where Sunni extremist groups are particularly targeting Hezbollah positions, threatening to drag the country into another civil war.

What’s common in all these crises is that both Saudi Arabia and Iran are involved in them, either directly or through proxies, adopting opposite positions. The Saudi-Iran rivalry is no longer about two nations vying for supremacy; it’s now deeply intertwined with regional geopolitics and sectarian equations. Any effort to find long-lasting peace in West Asia should primarily address this problem. If not, this game of destabilising the region in the name of proxy battles will go on, creating conditions for the emergence of more groups like IS.

Top News Today


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.