Cold War in the Mideast: Regime change epidemic raises stakes in Iran-Saudi rivalry

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By Fariborz Saremi

The so-called Arab Spring, a series of pro-democracy and anti-regime protests that in some cases has ended in regime change and revolution, has stoked the long running political rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The uprisings forced both countries to review their regional priorities in the aftermath of Iran’s own Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with Iran's Supreme National Security Council secretary, Saeed Jalili, on Aug. 7. / Reuters

Saudi Arabia was horrified and unsettled by the removal of the Egyptian president, a strong cornerstone of the regional political status quo. The Iranian leadership, however, saw in Mubarak’s ouster the potential to spread its own form of Islamic revolution further and to add to its considerable influence. Until now Saudi Arabia’s financial resources have given it an advantage in this struggle for influence.

Now the unrest has spread to Syria, Iran’s closest Arab ally. Quite naturally the regime in Tehran has been alarmed by events there. Relations between Syria and Iran have not always been easy since they have disagreed on a number of important political issues and have tended to vie for seniority within their overall relationship. Nevertheless, their relationship has generally been characterized by cooperation and friendly ties.

In contrast, Saudi Arabia being an absolute monarchy has a long history of distrusting Syria.

As a result, the lurch towards civil war in Syria is a greater threat to Iran, as one of Syria’s allies than it is to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Arabian ruling elite is still very conservative politically and sees revolutionary upheaval and the pro-democracy movement unfavorably. As such it is keen to gain a high-degree of influence over political affairs in Syria should the Baathist government eventually fall.

Nervous times indeed in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. Prince Bandar bin Abdul Aziz has been appointed as the head of the Saudi Intelligence. As the new intelligence Chief, he has been immediately thrust into a game-changing scenario in the Middle East in which Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have once again joined hands to oust Syrian President Assad and cut Iran to size.

Prince Bandar with the support of Turkey and Qatar is trying to support the Syrian opposition and push back what has been a highly successful projection of Iranian strategic influence out to the Mediterranean with the help of President Bashar Assad.

It is also argued that Russian and Chinese economic and strategic interests embedded in the survival of the Assad’s Regime have outweighed their humanitarian concerns. The Russian naval base in Syria — the only Mediterranean access available to the Russian navy — has intertwined Russia’s strategic interests with the current political establishment in Syria.

While both countries define themselves as Islamic, Saudi Arabia is a conservative Sunni/Wahabi Muslim Arab state, and Iran a Shiite state. In fact, the Iranian leadership continually strives to portray Iran as the defender and natural leader of Shiites throughout the region. This difference has a major influence on each of the two countries’ interests and how they view events and their regional policy responses to them.

As an absolute monarchy Saudi Arabia has fundamentally been interested in maintaining the power status quo in the region.
Iran as a revolutionary state has tended to seek revolutionary change throughout the Persian Gulf region and the Middle East as a whole. Saudi Arabia has not shied away from developing strong ties to western non-Islamic countries to help consolidate its regional power base, while Iran has constantly sought to provoke the USA and Israel, the two nations it considers its most dangerous enemies.

As a result, Iran uses its muscle to expand its power in the Persian Gulf, which is a key area of competition between the two states.

As a natural reaction to this Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries often attempt to rein in Iran’s quest for dominance. Thus, Saudi Arabia has constantly proven to be much the stronger in its influence in the Persian Gulf forcing Iran to accept that it can never hope to overshadow Saudi regional influence over the states there. The best that the Tehran regime can expect is to pressure Persian Gulf states to reduce or abandon their military links to the West.

More recently, Sunni-Shiite tension in the Persian Gulf has been on the increase for a number of reasons culminating in the March 2011 Saudi-led military intervention in Bahrain. Clearly, this has only served to add to tensions between Riyadh and Tehran.

Over the last twenty years, Palestine and Saudi Arabia and Iran have competed to portray themselves as the champions of Palestinian rights and as opponents of Israel. Iran has supported the Palestinians through various means including supplying weapons, training and the financial backing of Palestinian militant groups.

Saudi Arabia in contrast has not only provided financial support and political clout to strengthen the Palestinian cause but has also put its weight behind an Arab league peace plan. This has proven controversial among Islamic supporters of the Palestinians since the peace plan has also been of some interest to several Israeli leaders.

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia maintain close ties to various political parties within the region. Riyadh has regular political relations with both, Fatah and Hamas in Palestine, although the latter is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel. Iran is a keen supporter of Hizbullah and the Shiite community in Lebanon, officially funding Hizballah to the tune of 150 million dollars annually.

The unsettled situation and potent Sunni-Shiite divide in Iraq has only served to further complicate Saudi-Iranian rivalry, especially since the USA withdrew the rest of its military forces from that country. Since the future of Iraq is of such central concern for Iran and Saudi Arabia, their cold war has intensified along with their meddling in Iraqi affairs. Iran has been prominent in sponsoring Shiite militias who engage in terrorism. These pro-Iranian militia, sometimes known as Special Groups, have been given weapons and training by Iran through its Al-Quds force of the IRGC.

This assistance is potentially dangerous not only within Iraq but also in the wider region if the terrorist activities spread beyond Iraq’s borders. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, supports Sunni radicals in Iraq.

On the global scale, China and Russia are very concerned by the linkage between Syrian crisis and the future of Iran in the region. Any change in the political structure of the Syrian regime would have resounding implications for all the above relationships especially those in connection with Iran’s role in the region.

Dr. Fariborz Saremi is a commentator on TV and radio (German ARD/NDR TV,SAT 1,N24, Voice of America and Radio Israel) on  Middle East issues and a contributer to, and Defense&Foreign Affairs.

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