Image: Natalie Wu
By John Park
The deal earlier this week reaffirming military cooperation between Iran and Syria indicates that Iran will not risk losing its influence over one of several countries it is tightly competing for control over with its rival power, Saudi Arabia. While observers maintain that this rivalry is the result of largely secular and geopolitical factors, the role of religion should not be disregarded. Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran over competing geopolitical goals and, especially, differing interpretations of Islam have led to the development of increasingly zero-sum foreign policy stances. A string of proxy conflicts in the Middle East and the existential threat that each perceive from the other has come to shape a larger, regional “Cold War” between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
While Iran and Saudi Arabia saw eye-to-eye before 1979, the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran brought the end of the carefully set up “Twin Pillars” system intended to keep a balance of power between monarchies in Tehran and Riyadh. The newly formed Islamic Republic of Iran was led by Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The revolutionary imam’s ascent to power marks a critical point in the deterioration of Iranian-Saudi relations and the beginning of a sharp religious division between Shia and Sunni identities.
Nowhere was Khomeini’s revolutionary rhetoric taken more as a threat than in Saudi Arabia. Seeing a monarchy topple before their eyes and Khomeini’s expansionist religious ideology, Saudi Arabia moved closer to Iraq as a deterrent against post-revolutionary Iranian efforts to displace the status quo. Not long after the revolution, Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, launching the Iran-Iraq War. Many Iranians saw the war as an attempt by Saudi Arabia and the West to remove the revolutionary regime in Tehran. But during the decades following the war, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran were all restrained from making significant escalations due to a three-way balance of power.
However, after the collapse of the Iraqi Ba’athist state in 2003, Gulf power politics resumed between the two remaining rivals – each with more to lose. While conventional sources of tension – geopolitical challenges, differing demographics, resource competition, opposing national interests, ethnic divisions between the Persians and Arabs – continue to drive conflict between Tehran and Riyadh, religion has expanded to become not just a cultural identity but a national one. With no separation between mosque and state, Iranian and Saudi Arabian foreign policies increasingly reflect a true “cold war” since the conflict is not just a traditional security challenge but a war of ideology, where each is fighting for the right to exist and, ultimately, achieve regional hegemony over the entire Muslim world.
Tehran responded to the traditional security threats that surrounded it by retrenching itself into its unique status as a majority Shia nation to form a national ideology based on Khomeini’s interpretation of Islam, one that drives Iranian foreign policy. As a result, a significant calculus in the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia is winning the ideological battle defined by Shia-Sunni religious tensions – especially because Iran and Saudi Arabia are not ordinary Muslim countries. The regimes in Tehran and Riyadh rely on their image as the legitimate authority over the umma (the Islamic community) and the fight for the final say is nowhere more intensely reflected than in the foreign policies of both nations.
This is problematic as the existence of both regimes heavily depend on their status as the true leader of Islam, and both Iran and Saudi Arabia “must explain [their] differences in the language of Islam, suggesting that the other has a faulty understanding of ‘true’ Islam, either through ignorance, or, more frequently, through willful misinterpretation,” according to two experts. Because neither can afford to be seen as the one in the wrong, the Shia-Sunni divide encourages a zero-sum perspective in Iranian and Saudi foreign policies. The fight for geopolitical influence and control is wrapped up in the fight for the truest interpretation of the words of the Prophet. A cyclical phenomenon is then made obvious where a sectarian affinity with the “winning sect” is more or less a political affinity with the regional hegemon.
Saudi Arabia views Iranian revolutionary politics as “distinctly geared to promoting Shia Islam in a predominantly Sunni Muslim world, posing an existential threat to the kingdom, which remains concerned about Shia activism,” according to Banafsheh Keynoush, author of Saudi Arabia and Iran: Friends or Foes? And there is little reason to see the situation in another way; after the 1979 revolution, Iran’s political structure was controlled by Khomeini through the newly-created position of Supreme Leader.
On the other side of the divide, Wahhabism is an ultraconservative interpretation of Sunni Islam by the 18th century Islamic cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who was noted for his hostility to Shiism. The Saudi royal family has used al-Wahhab’s interpretation of the Qur’an as the basis of their raison d’etat, legitimizing their monarchy through the teachings of this particular Islamic scholar. The religious establishment grants political legitimacy to the royal family while the House of Saud funds and allows Wahhabi clerics to maintain a monopoly on the religious influence over Saudi life, overseeing parts of the education system, for example.
Khomeini, in turn, used the Saudi endorsement of Wahhabism to denounce the Saudi government and those who are “subjected” to practicing this fundamentalist interpretation of Sunni Islam. Khomeinism promotes political Islam and seeks to revise the Western-dominated regional order in the Middle East. Both Wahhabism and Khomeini’s brand of Shia Islam mobilize opposition against each other and serve to radicalize followers of their respective interpretations of Islam. The religious ideas then become politically transformed into ideologies used by the countries to push broader geopolitical goals in the region.
Yet, why hasn’t there been an all-out war between the two? Why proxy wars? Even when Tehran and Riyadh disagree on issues, Keynoush observes that: “their preference is to avoid open confrontation. Instead they rely on indirect, covert, or proxy operations, no matter how evasive the goal of reaching political solutions through these means are.” Since neither side possesses a monopoly over military force, neither are able willing (or able) to settle the matter on a traditional battlefield. The lack of conventional options has all the more intensified the need for proxies to try and weaken the other.
The Iran-Iraq War was in many ways the first proxy war between the Tehran and Riyadh. It has since been followed by a long list of incidents between Iran and Saudi Arabia ever since: Qatar 1992, Yemen 1994, Bahrain 1996, Yemen 2005, and especially Lebanon 2006. In 2016 and 2017 alone, there were nearly half-a-dozen active proxy conflicts taking place in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. As of July 2018, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria are still the major battlegrounds between the warring regimes.
In Lebanon, since the resignation and sudden “un-resignation” of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the country is expected to become an area of increased conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Some experts predict that “it is likely that Saudi Arabia will open a new front in Lebanon as it shifts its view of its relationship with the Sunni community in Lebanon.” The country acts as a base for one of Tehran’s most powerful tools – the Shi’a identity party Hezbollah – and Riyadh will not sit still. Saudi’s arm twisting that resulted in Hariri’s abrupt resignation, and claims that he was being held against his will in Riyadh provide hints of how much Saudi Arabia values weakening Iran’s strategic partner in this region.
Moreover, Iraq’s weakening since the rise of Islamic State has once more made it a contested area between Iran and Saudi. While Riyadh wants to use the fragility of the state to establish its own sphere of influence, Iran is backing pro-Tehran factions within Iraq’s democratically-elected Shia-majority government. Recent reports suggest that Iran is also moving ballistic missiles into Iraq with the cooperation of local Shia groups.
Yemen too is a stage for conflict. The country had been under the Saudi sphere of influence for many years when a majority-Shia group of rebels called the Houthis went further than their traditional demands for secession and captured the capital Sanaa. Saudi Arabia intervened in response. Not only is the proxy conflict causing one of the largest cholera outbreaks in history, but also Houthi forces still control strategic areas in Yemen with covert backing from Iran; the lack of a decisive strategic victory for either side is likely to prolong the conflict.
Syria, however, is currently the “hottest” proxy conflict in the Saudi-Iranian cold war and one that deserves special attention. The strategic calculus in Syria shifts often and rapidly. But the goal that Tehran and Riyadh have in mind is crystal clear: neither will allow the other to gain a foothold in the country. Tehran’s recent agreement with the Syrian government, and Riyadh’s simultaneous offer of $100 million in aid to separatist forces in the north point towards likely escalations in the proxy conflicts by both countries.
Instances of proxy conflicts in these fragile and contested areas are likely to increase in the coming years. An intensification of “war by other means” is likely – one such method being well-known but difficult to trace, allegations of Saudi and Iranian funding to sectarian terrorist organizations, such as the al-Nusra Front and Hezbollah. The foreign policies of Iran and Saudi Arabia can very well devolve into more intense demonstrations of brinkmanship. The ideological battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran will continue to drive their geopolitical competition for resource control, sectarian victory, governance and ultimately, regional hegemony.