Iran vs. Saudi Arabia
Editor's Note: The following is the transcript of a Q&A with
Boucek, associates at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
focusing on the Middle East.
September 21st, 2011
10:11 AM ET
How is Saudi Arabia responding to the unrest in the region? How is Iran?
Boucek: What Saudi Arabia hates the most and wants to avoid at all costs is
a situation defined by insecurity, instability, and uncertainty. This is
what Riyadh sees in the transforming Middle East. The Arab awakening is not
something that is perceived to be in its own interests—quite the opposite
actually, as it threatens its foreign policy objectives.
Since Saudi Arabia wants to preserve the status quo, it has moved to shore
up its friends in the Middle East using money and religious ideology. At the
same time, the unrest has led to greater tensions with the United States as
Riyadh feels that Washington has not responded effectively to the protests.
The United States and Saudi Arabia, once closely aligned on many issues in
the region, don’t at first glance appear to have the same interests at this
Sadjadpour: Iran, on the contrary, tends to thrive in an atmosphere of
instability and chaos. The 2003 Iraq war, the 2006 Israeli war in Lebanon,
and the 2009 Israeli war in Gaza seemed to enhance, not diminish, Iran’s
regional clout by creating a more fertile ground for its ideology.
Tehran initially saw the Arab upheavals as unsettling and unseating only
Western and American-allied Arab autocracies like Tunisia, Egypt, and
Bahrain. Iran’s current leaders have long believed that democratic Arab
governments that genuinely represent the will of their people would produce
political systems much closer in nature to Tehran than Washington.
They didn’t anticipate that the upheavals would spread to Syria, which is of
tremendous concern to Iran given that the Assad family in Damascus has been
their only consistent regional ally since the 1979 revolution. If the Assads
were to fall, Iran would be rendered virtually friendless throughout the
Middle East, with the possible exception of the current Shia-led government
In the near term, Tehran is scrambling to do in various countries what it
did effectively in Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion—fill the power
vacuum by offering financial patronage to various political groups. Over the
medium and long term, however, the more democracy there is in the Middle
East, the more it highlights the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a
salmon swimming upstream against the current of history.
What is the history of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran?
Sadjadpour: There is a natural competition between the two sides in that
both predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia and predominantly Shia Iran see
themselves as the vanguard of the Muslim world and, according to most
estimates, they rank first—Saudi Arabia—and a distant second—Iran—in terms
of proven oil reserves.
In the 1970s, the United States saw Iran and Saudi Arabia as the twin
pillars of the Persian Gulf. The Shah’s Iran had a somewhat more privileged
role as America’s policeman in the region, but the relationship between
Saudi Arabia and Iran was stable and not zero-sum: They could each have a
strong relationship with Washington while enjoying more or less cordial
The relationship deteriorated significantly after the 1979 Iranian
revolution. Iran became an Islamic Republic, led by radical Shia clergy, and
Saudi Arabia’s concerns about the threat of Shia fundamentalism—emanating
both from Iran and at home—grew more acute.
The father of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had
tremendous contempt for Saudi Arabia, particularly because of Saudi support
for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
After Khomeini died in 1989, the Iran-Saudi relationship improved
significantly during the presidencies of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
(1989-1997) and Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005).
But the election in 2005 of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—whose politics and
temperament are often reminiscent of the early days of revolutionary
radicalism—has exacerbated tensions and relations have subsequently
Boucek: Additionally, when King Abdullah officially took power that same
year, Saudi Arabia chose a more activist foreign policy that put Riyadh more
at odds with Tehran.
It’s difficult to think of one instance since 2005 when the two countries
worked together constructively to resolve a problem. Today’s tremendous
rivalry and deep distrust are here to stay for the moment.
Why are the two countries considered rivals?
Boucek: The rivalry runs deep. In certain respects, there is a sense of
superiority in Saudi Arabia. It is the birthplace of Islam and the Arabic
language and Saudis rightfully take pride in their heritage. There are also
hardline Sunnis who feel that Saudi Arabia is the leader of the global
Muslim community and Shias are the worst kind of heretics.
There has always been a fear that Iranians cannot be trusted and Saudi
Arabia is therefore actively working to check Iran’s rise. But much of what
Riyadh does is for domestic consumption. This partially explains the
Islamization of its foreign policy and the championing of the Sunni
agenda—all of this helps shore up internal support for the government. Even
Saudi Arabia’s actions to help Bahrain’s Sunni government consolidate and
maintain authority in the face of protests is in part a message to Saudi
Arabia’s own Shia population.
It is also interesting to note that in times like when Bahrain’s stability
is in question, the Iranian boogeyman is a useful tool in uniting countries
in the Gulf. The Gulf Cooperation Council was essentially started to protect
the Arab Gulf states from Iran. And the problem that many countries have
with Iran goes much deeper than just the current government. So even if
there is democracy in Iran tomorrow, the Gulf’s historical animosities with
Persians or Shias are not going to evaporate overnight.
Sadjadpour: There is similar chauvinism among Iranians, who are inheritors
of ancient history and often feel a sense of civilizational superiority
vis-à-vis Gulf Arabs. It’s not a religious or sectarian antipathy toward
Sunni Arabs, but rather a sense of cultural supremacy.
Iranian officialdom also feels confident that wherever it faces Saudi Arabia
in the Middle East—whether that arena is Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, or
elsewhere—it is strategically and tactically superior. A former senior
Iranian official once told me that the Saudis simply throw a lot of money
around, but don’t they don’t have the human capital or work ethic to compete
Boucek: Another issue is oil. Saudi Arabia and Iran have had slightly
different ideals for the preferred world oil price in the past. Iran wanted
to see the price of oil as high as possible, but Saudi Arabia previously
favored a slightly lower price between $70 and $80 per barrel. This is
starting to change, however, following all of the spending that Saudi Arabia
announced in response to potential unrest and to deflect domestic
criticism—Riyadh now needs a higher price of oil to pay for its new
commitments and still balance the budget. Saudi Arabia will not be as active
in working to drive prices down so this aspect of the rivalry may diminish.
Where are the proxy battlefields in the rivalry? Is it a zero-sum game in
the Middle East?
Boucek: In many places, it increasingly looks like a proxy war between Iran
and Saudi Arabia. Whether it is in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, or other
countries, the rivalry is apparent. The Saudis look out and see the Iranians
meddling in Kuwait, Yemen, Egypt—it seems like the Iranians are everywhere.
But the buck stops in Bahrain for Saudi Arabia. Bahrain is the one place
above all others where Shia ascendency or the fall of the ruling monarchy is
a nonstarter for the Saudis.
The challenge is that both countries view power and influence in the region
as a zero-sum game. If Iran gains, Saudi Arabia loses—and vice versa. In
Saudi Arabia there is not just a fear that Iran wants a greater role in the
region, there is alarm that Iran wants to control the region. Saudi Arabia
often seems to view the region through sectarian lenses and wants to unite
people under the sectarian umbrella of Sunnis. Riyadh therefore views the
ascendency of Shias and the war in the region in zero-sum terms.
Sadjadpour: In contrast to Saudi Arabia, Iran doesn’t want to frame its
regional ambitions through a sectarian prism. Given that Shias constitute
only a small minority of the Muslim world, the Islamic Republic wants to try
to wave a pan-Islamic banner, not merely a Shia banner. It wants to unite
people under the umbrella of anti-imperialism and enmity toward the United
States and Israel, not Shiism.
Will protests threaten either government?
Sadjadpour: There is a key distinction between the Arab uprisings and the
tumult we’ve seen in Iran over the past two-and-a-half years. The Arab
opposition movements—whether in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, or Syria—have lacked
a common leadership but they have a common goal, which is to bring down
their respective regimes.
The Iranian opposition, in contrast, does have a symbolic leadership—Mir
Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both of whom are under house arrest—but
it lacks a common goal. People like Mousavi and Karroubi, who were regime
insiders up until 2009, still seem to want to reform the system, whereas
many younger-generation Iranians would like to see more wholesale changes.
The disillusioning experience of the 1979 revolution has also made many
Iranians averse to the prospect of another popular upheaval or abrupt
change. Whereas the word “revolution” has romantic connotations on today’s
Arab street, in Persian it’s a word that represents the past, not the
Boucek: Saudi Arabia can manage the Arab awakening internally better than
anyone else in the Middle East—although this does not mean that Saudi
Arabia’s foreign policy objectives are in any way helped by the change.
While it is not immune from the protest movement inside the country, Riyadh
is more equipped to handle it through its religious community and financial
resources. Saudi Arabia announced over $130 billion in new social welfare
spending and the protests within the country have been very small thus far.
Is either country gaining or “winning” in light of the regional upheaval?
Boucek: Despite the government’s strength at home, it would be difficult to
find anyone who says that Saudi Arabia is coming out on top. With countries
and friendly governments around it facing instability, the current season
does not seem to be in Riyadh’s interests. The Saudis feel like they are
The perception in the region is that if governments become more reflective
of popular opinion, this will be to Iran’s benefit. But this does not mean
that Iran will be the ultimate “winner.” In the medium and long term, both
countries are going to have some enormous challenges moving forward. As
countries become more open and tolerant, Iran and Saudi Arabia will be some
of the few that are resisting those trends.
How does the United States view events in Iran and Saudi Arabia? Should the
United States try to counter Iranian or Saudi influence? Does the Arab
Spring complicate U.S. objectives?
Sadjadpour: The U.S. government views the domestic situations in Iran and
Saudi Arabia in totally different ways. Popular unrest in Iran is seen as a
positive thing, because there’s a sense that if Iran had a more
representative government it would be more tolerant than the current one and
that it would lead to an improved U.S.-Iran relationship. So, popular
protests in Iran inspire hope in Washington.
The opposite is true in Saudi Arabia, in that Washington believes that a
popular upheaval in Saudi Arabia would likely bring about a government that
is more Islamist and less favorably disposed to the United States. For that
reason, news of political unrest in Saudi Arabia is a cause for concern in
Washington, not hope.
Regarding U.S. efforts to contain Iranian influence, I think Washington has
been too focused on military solutions to political problems. Meaning that
Iran’s ascent in the region over the last decade hasn’t been as a result of
its military prowess—Saudi Arabia’s military budget is several times that of
Iran—but of its political influence. Instead of a strategy that focuses
primarily on further arming Iran’s neighbors, the United States should be
trying to diminish Iran’s ideological appeal.
Two huge blows to the Iranian regime’s influence in the region would be an
Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and the fall of the Assad regime in Damascus.
A year ago they both appeared to be distant prospects; now only the former
appears a distant prospect.
Boucek: The gap between Saudi Arabia and the United States has gotten bigger
during the Arab awakening. There are greater tensions as Riyadh does not
think Washington is appropriately responding to the transformative times and
keeping its own long-term interests in mind. And Riyadh is worried that if
the United States pulls out of the region, the responsibility of containing
Iran will fall solely on Saudi Arabia.
Still, the relationship remains strong and is important for both sides. In
the end, the United States and Saudi Arabia need each other. Washington
needs to move away from trying to get Riyadh to do things to help American
objectives, to a relationship where both countries work together to reach
the same common goals.
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Received on Wed Sep 21 2011 - 10:35:33 EDT