Growing tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia has popularized talk of a new cold war in the Middle East. While the most influential regional powers in the Persian Gulf take care not to get embroiled in a direct conflict, they try to outflank each other by seeking allies among regional political forces, and through intense propaganda – hence the analogy with the cold war between the US and Soviet Union.
1. Iran vs. Saudi Arabia: Perfect Enemies?
At its core, the Iranian-Saudi rivalry is about power and money: two oil-rich giants, vying for control of the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow water passage that accounts for almost 20% of all oil traded worldwide (and 40% of all US crude imports pass).
Iran and Saudi Arabia would always struggle to avoid collision, but ethnic and sectarian tension certainly doesn’t help. Iran is a majority Persian country that belongs to the Shiite branch of Islam. The vast majority of Saudis are Sunni Arabs, with a Shiite Arab minority (about 10%).The two governments are also ideological rivals:
- Wahabism: Saudi royals have spent vast amounts of money funding the spread of the (Sunni) Wahabi school, an ultra-conservative, literal interpretation of Islam, which is the state religion in Saudi Arabia. The official title of the Saudi King includes the duty of the "Guardian of the Two Holy Places", Mecca and Medina, suggesting a degree of a divine authority.
- Supreme Leader: The Islamic Republic of Iran, on the other hand, has promoted its version of political Islam, a combination of elected republican institutions under the guidance of a Muslim cleric, the Supreme Leader. The founder of the Iranian regime, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, condemned the Saudi monarchy as a tyrannical, illegitimate clique that answers to Washington, rather than God.
2. The Rise of Iran & Sunni-Shiite Sectarian Tension
Cultural and ideological differences aside, the growing tension has more to do with Iran’s growing regional clout that threatens Saudi Arabia’s position in the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf.
When the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran brought to power Khomeini’s Shiite Islamists, Saudi Arabia feared that Iran would try to export its revolution into the Gulf Arab monarchies. When Iraq attacked Iran in 1980, Saudi Arabia enthusiastically supported Saddam Hussein’s war effort, and the Iraqi dictator remained a bulwark against Iran’s expansion until he was toppled by the US-led coalition in 2003.
The perceived threat never receded. Although Iran’s distinctly Shiite model of an Islamic state found little traction among Sunnis in the Arab world, Gulf Arab monarchs feared that Iran would incite rebellions among Shiite populations in Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait.
With Saddam’s regime now replaced with a government dominated by Shiite political parties friendly to Iran, Saudis thought that the nightmare scenario was closer than ever. In 2004, Jordanian ruler Abdullah II warned of an emerging “Shiite Crescent” in the Middle East.
Since the peak of the Sunni-Shiite civil war in Iraq (2006-07), the geopolitical rivalries in the Middle East have been acquiring an increasingly sectarian tone. With Iran firmly embedded among the Shiite Islamists in Lebanon and Iraq, Saudi Arabia poses as the protector of Sunnis. Never before has religious identity in the region been so politicized.
- Read more: Guide to Tension Between Sunnis and Shiites
3. The Hotspots of Saudi-Iranian Rivalry
Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in a series of seemingly intractable disputes which have the potential to destabilize the entire region:
- Iran’s nuclear program: Iranian bluster is primarily aimed at Israel, but Saudis believe that nuclear capability would give Iran a crucial strategic edge in the Persian Gulf. Saudi royals have privately egged on the US for military action against Iran (see Reuters report).
- Arab Shiites in the Gulf: Saudis have long accused Iran of fueling discontent among Shiite communities in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, who are demanding equal political and cultural rights.
- Lebanon: While Iran backs Hezbollah, a Shiite party that commands the strongest armed force in Lebanon, Saudis support Lebanese Sunnis. This proxy battle is a major driver of instability in the country.
- Iraq: Saudi Arabia has frosty relations with Iraq’s ruling Shiites, and has in the past been accused by Iraqi government of backing the Sunni Islamist rebels.
- Syria: The regime of Bashar al-Assad is Iran’s key Arab ally, and a conduit for weapons that flow from Iran to Hezbollah via Damascus. To further isolate Iran, Saudi Arabia has extended diplomatic and financial support to Syria’s opposition, and has called for the arming of the rebel Free Syrian Army.