The people in the United States didn’t think well of those living in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There was a basic mistrust and a lack of kind words on both sides. But what you didn’t hear was anyone excitedly talking about wanting to completely annihilate the other side despite both having the capacity to do just that. Fast forward to 2018: to Saudi Arabia and Iran and a new regional Middle East version of Mutually Assured Destruction, where it takes on a whole new meaning. Both of these nations maintain terrible images of each and neither would probably shed a tear if the Earth suddenly opened up and swallowed the other. Forgive the propensity to reach hyperbole, but in truth this rivalry goes back 1,385 years when, just after the death of the prophet Mohammed in AD 632, there arose among the faithful a disagreement concerning the issue of succession. Mohammed drafted a Last Will & Testament and set up an ancient version of a Trust Fund for the kids’ college/ lifeneeds, but never said a word about succession. In hindsight we now know what colossally poor planning this was as it led to a split between two key factions that would come to be known as the Sunni (who favored a vote for succession) and the Shi’a (who favored keeping it in Mohammed’s bloodline). “The Sunnis prevailed and chose a successor to be the first caliph.” (Shuster, 2017, 1) What followed was a swinging pendulum of tension with hundreds of years of both war and peace interspersed between the two sides. Today, it looks like they’re heading back to war in some form. But the real question is, are they heading back to war because of a 1,000+ year old religious grudge match? Many experts think not. Some say that the bad blood that has been forming between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not about religion, but something else: competing and hostile legitimizing myths. “With the aim of uniting peoples behind their leaders in distinction to ‘the other’, as it is so often the case, religion is misused as a dividing tool in order to enforce a political agenda.” (Reimann, 2016, 3) Not surprisingly, there are religious overtones embedded within these regional hegemonic politics pushing both sides continuously to greater episodes of dangerous tension.
The House of Al Saud, the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia, is composed of the descendants of Muhammad bin Saud, founder of the Emirate of Diriyah, which was known as the First Saudi state (1744–1818), and his brothers. The ruling faction of the family, however, is primarily led by the descendants of Ibn Saud, the modern founder of Saudi Arabia. The government of Iran is a modern Shia theocracy that was forged in part by the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, in 1979. Today, “Iran is considered a unitary Islamic republic with one legislative house. The country’s 1979 constitution put into place a mixed system of government, in which the executive, parliament, and judiciary are overseen by several bodies dominated by the clergy. At the head of both the state and oversight institutions is a ranking cleric known as the rahbar, or leader, whose duties and authority are those usually equated with a head of state.” (Editorial Staff, 2017. 1) Ironically, many have argued that Iran has one of the most democratically structured Constitutions in the world, if not for these extra-constitutional religious oversight bodies that sit over all of the constitutional structures. Even putting the religious affiliations and religio-political structures aside, these two countries are as different as Persian night and Saudi day.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran view themselves through the legitimizing myth of being the purer form of Islam and true holder of Mohammed’s legacy. As if that wasn’t conflictual enough, to make matters worse, the Wahhabist theocratic leadership in Riyadh sees the government and family of Saud as secular barbarians that strategically use their Sunni Wahhabist religious connections as a hedge to maintain power. The royal family of Saudi Arabia, for its part, views the theocracy of Iran as a bastardized form of Islam led by illegitimate Imams that hold a potentially progressive nation hostage to outdated religious edicts that have no relevance in the modern Islamic world. Even more dismissively, the Saudi royal family sneer at how this ‘Iranian backwardness’ has led directly to decades of crippling American sanctions against the people. Of course, the theocracy in Iran sees the cozy relationship between the Saudis and Americans as proof of the infidel fall of the keepers of the Prophet’s two great cities, Mecca and Medina. The Saudis are in bed with the Great Satan.
These underlying myths that debate ancient religious legitimacy may be fueling the hatred and Muslim-on-Muslim discrimination found on both sides. But disturbingly, there is one more legitimizing myth that might actually rule over all the others and it’s tied to the massive political power and influence greased by black crude. Saudi Arabia comes in as number 2 in terms of the world’s known oil reserves. Iran sits at number 4. That oil, and the wealth and political power it translates to, is not lost on either side. Oil is easily the top revenue-producing commodity in both countries. While ups and downs in the global market can have serious consequences for both countries, it means more damage for Iran than Saudi Arabia. The royal Saudi family has wisely/secretly over the past half century stashed away over half a trillion dollars to uniformly smooth out the revenue curves that are innate to the natural resource market in a volatile global economy. Since Tehran has been the subject of severe sanctions, due to its association with Islamic extremism and terrorism, it simply has not been able to create the same safety net/golden pillow of economic protection. Consequently, Iran has not been able to capitalize on its vast reserves of oil, selling much of it on the black market for rock bottom prices to less-than-ideal market consumers. This disparity in oil wealth, the freedom of action within the world market, and the subsequent ability to wield enhanced political power in the region is the real legitimizing myth that acts as a true political hammer separating the two and concretizing their strife with one another.
Iran’s political and military expansion into Syria, and its alliance with Russia, is another facet of its hegemonic intentions and desire to unseat Saudi Arabia as the real regional power broker. Iran appears willing to become a client or “dependent” ally of Russia, much as Saudi Arabia has a similar arrangement with the United States. Obviously, this is a dangerous recipe: regional power pretenses, advanced weapons from larger global powers, divergent religious positions, and political gamesmanship operating in the middle of another country’s civil war. Both Russia and the United States have cautiously moved their respective chess pieces as events develop in Syria, but unfortunately this caution does not exhibit the press for peace: rather, the American-Russian chess game in Syria only seems to exacerbate the animosity between the Saudis and Iranians. The alleged chemical weapon attacks on rebel positions inside Damascus by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian forces, caused a direct but limited military response by Washington. American cruise missile attacks on Syrian chemical weapons plants, though marginally effective, nevertheless was a message to Russia and Iran that the U.S. would defend its interests in the region. Those interests are decidedly in favor of a Saudi regional hegemonic leadership. Thus, what we have are cross-competing and hostile legitimizing myths being created in real time about what the future role of each of these players is going to be, America supporting the Saudi myth and Russia supporting the Iranian one.
Clearly, Saudi Arabia and Iran are going to remain deeply entrenched in hostile efforts for political and military dominance in the region. Though ancient religious strife seems like a convenient excuse for continued bad feelings between the two powers – and is focused on to a heavy extent by world media – modern strategic reasons are more dangerous and multi-layered. What we can recognize is an old fashion game of power politics in which both sides have aligned themselves with powerful and protective allies. This game is being made manifest in a critical region of the world where resources are converted to global wealth and power. The parties should remember that oil is combustible. Politics built on oil even more so. But politics built on oil, doused in religious fervor, and shaken vigorously by outside players with their own agendas is the most combustible of all. For the time being, this Mohammedan Game of Thrones seems to have a plotline that will be as deadly and bloody as its more famous Hollywood moniker.
*Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of ModernDiplomacy.eu. He is Senior Doctoral Faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University and was just named the future Co-Editor of the seminal International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. His work is catalogued at: https://brown.academia.edu/ProfMatthewCrosston/Analytics