Saudi-Iranian cold war: stirring up sectarian hostilities

After more than three decades of antagonistic relations with short rapprochement attempts doomed to failure, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran are fighting their own “Cold War” in the Middle East, with armed non-state actors as proxies. The Russian backing to the Iranian policy and the initial American-Saudi cooperation, its indirect engagement in regional conflicts by supporting opposing forces as well as the nuclear programs of the two actors, allegedly aiming to develop atomic weapons, pictured the situation as an extension of the Cold War. Sectarian differences – Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia – do play an important role in regional dynamics but more as instruments than as main feature of the turmoil; economic gains and the struggle for influence prevail, the two powers crossing sectarian boundaries in order to pursue their political ambitions.  

The “Great Schism” of Islam

Although political at origin, the main denominations of Islam – Shiism and Sunnism – acquired a strong theological dimension. Shia and Sunni Muslims share many beliefs, the faith in Allah and the Quran; however, their religious organization, doctrine, law and rituals differ. Shiism emerged after the death of Muhammad in 632 as a political solution to the Prophet’s succession problem. Shiites believe that Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, is the legitimate successor of the Prophet and following his assassination in 661 Shiites have recognized only his descendants as imams (guides). Each imam had to choose his successor from the descendants of Ali, a procedure leading to new disputes within the Shia community. Today around 10-15% of Muslims are Shiites, most of them living in Iran, where Shia Islam is the state religion; it is also a majority’s religion in Iraq, while important communities can be found in Syria, Lebanon, Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Central Asia, East Africa, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. Unlike Sunnism, Shiism has a hierarchical organization composed of mullahs (clerics), led by the Ayatollah (Sign of Allah), which is considered to be an intermediary between Allah and believers.

Sunni Muslims, on the other hand, do not question the succession of the caliphs and is concerned with preserving the unity, umma, the Muslim community. Sunnism is based on the Quran and the sunnah, or religious traditions and practices established by Muhammad. In Sunnism there is no formal hierarchy of the clergy, those who have the will and study can become Islamic scholars and therefore, lead the service. The great majority of the Islamic community (85-90%) are Sunni Muslims. Sunni Islam recognizes four legal schools of Quranic interpretation: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali, the latter being the official school of jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Hanbali school is strictly traditionalist rejecting any kind of innovation, forerunner of the Wahhabi-Salafist movement, an ultraconservative, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, which has inspired the ideologies of extremist groups like ISIS or Al-Qaeda. In 2010 the Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has denied the existence of such a doctrine in the kingdom.

Saudis and Iranians: an history of a tumultuous relation

If in the late 1960s Saudi-Arabia and Iran had friendly relations and even agreed to cooperate in order to ensure security and peace in the Middle East in face of Nasser’s pan-Arabism and possible Soviet penetration, being regarded by the US as the “twin pillars” of the regional order, the Iranian Islamic revolution and proclamation of the Shiite theocracy in 1979 caused the deterioration of such relations and a deepening of the religious differences. Ayatollah Khomeini criticized the Saudi monarchy’s decadency and close ties with the West, contesting its religious legitimacy as Custodian of the Holy Places in Mecca and Medina, and supporting the exportation of Islamic revolution in the region. Iran’s efforts to mobilize Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority against the Saudi leadership deepened the kingdom’s concerns. Although the Islamic Revolution had limited success in the region due to its Shia character, it succeeded in creating the Lebanese Shia Islamist militant group Hezbollah. Shia Islamism was counterbalanced by the growth and exportation of Saudi Wahhabi schools, not only in the region but in the greater Muslim world.

Fear of Shiite revolution has convinced the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia to participate in the invasion of Iran launched by Saddam Hussein with the support of the Americans in 1980. Shortly after the outbreak of war, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia founded the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional organization that promotes security and economic interdependence of members as a response to Iran’s revolutionary threat. The war lasted 8 years and included direct confrontation of Iranians and Saudis: Iranian warplanes violated Saudi airspace, Iran attacked Saudi oil tankers, Saudi Arabia shot down two Iranian jets, more than 200 Iranians were killed in a protest and stampede in Mecca.

Iran’s condemnation of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, preceded by Khomeini’s death a year earlier, let to a shy rapprochement between Saudis and Iranians, the latter proposing a Iranian-Gulf Cooperation Council for strengthening regional security. However, the efforts were thwarted by a territorial dispute with the UAE and the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, of which Iran was held responsible. The late 1990s had witnessed another wave of cooperation between the two states in the field of security and economy (special emphasis being placed on oil politics), coupled with unprecedented high-ranking official visits.

Middle Eastern turmoil – On the road to proxy war  

The 9/11 attacks followed by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Arab Spring in 2011 destabilized three major regional actors, Iraq, Syria and Egypt, creating a power void. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey too, rushed to fill this political vacuum, not merely as an attempt to enhance their position – each of this countries having regional and/or larger Muslim world leadership aspirations – but also as a need to maintain and prevent the disorder to turn against them, by promoting “friendly” regimes. In this context the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran reached a new dimension. It’s not a secret that the two states compete for influence in the region, their interests clashing in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen.

When the so-called Arab Spring erupted in Syria, the opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime and pro-governmental forces did not adopt any sectarian stance. Their strategy changed when they received substantial financial and military support from regional powers, transforming the conflict into a proxy war of Iran and Saudi Arabia. On the Syrian soil, Iran backs the Lebanese Hezbollah and sends its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to fight for Assad’s Shia government (close ally of Iran), while Saudis arm Sunni jihadist militants, many affiliated with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front), linked to al-Qaeda, in an effort to topple the Syrian government. ISIS is seen as a major threat by both the Iranian theocracy – the extremist group calling for the elimination of Shiites – and Saudi monarchy – the kingdom being targeted by suicide bombers, who attacked even the mosque in Medina (one of the two Holy Sites of Islam). However, both states pursue their own interests in Iraq and Syria, seeking to have a friendly regimes in power and engaging different strategies. If initially Damascus found the groups’ advancements useful as it combated rebels and the Free Syrian Army, when ISIS reached Iraqand therefore posed a real threat to Iran (getting closer to its borders), the contested regime started to fight ISIS, together with Iran and Russia.

Iranian and Saudi foreign policy clashes in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia fight against the Houthis (Shiite), who took control of the country in 2015, allegedly supported by Iran, and in Bahrain, where Saudis believe that Iran backed the majority Shia population’s protests in 2011 against the Sunni monarchy.  

Moreover, the two powers accuse each other of interference in their domestic affairs: while the Saudis accuse Iran of inciting protests in the Kingdom’s majority Shia Eastern province (2012), Iran claims that the renewed violence of the militants of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) after a decade of inactivity is sponsored by the Saudis. At the beginning of 2016, Saudi Arabia executed Nimr al-Nimr, a top Shia cleric who supported the mass anti-government protests, triggering demonstrations across the Middle East. As a result diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia were cut and the two countries engaged in a sharp exchange of words accusing each other of being false Muslims and extremists.

When realpolitik beats the ideology: beyond sectarian lines

Sectarian relations are not the cause but the weapon used to mobilize Muslims under the umbrella of Saudi or Iranian leadership. Up to this date, Iran has more chances to win the “competition” with the Saudis. The Obama administration’s “pivot” towards Iran through the nuclear deal and the “punishment” of Saudi Arabia through JASTA bill (Justice Against State Sponsors of Terrorism) forecasts such an evolution. The nuclear deal brought back Iran on the international oil market after a long absence due to the economic sanctions imposed by the West. Recently there has been a modest shift in the Gulf states’ policy (traditional allies of Saudi Arabia) towards Iran, seeking closer economic ties with the Shia theocracy. The joint ownership of Qatar and Iran of the largest independent gas reservoirs in the world makes the Gulf monarchy more rational when it comes to its relation with the Shia power. Oman, Kuwait and UAE have also established economic relations with Iran, although their bound to Saudi Arabia remains powerful. Moreover, Iran openly supports the Hamas, despite being a Sunni militant organization and anti-Zionism remaining a key feature of Iranian foreign policy.

Saudi Arabia was “betrayed” by some of its allies, like the UAE and Egypt. While an UAE financed worldwide Islamic conference concluded that Wahhabism does not belong to Sunni Islam, challenging again the Saudis legitimacy, Egypt voted in favor of Russia’s UN resolution, and established closer ties with Iran. These developments show that potential economic gains and growth of influence in the Middle East play a more important role, than sectarian affiliation in the positions assumed by regional actors in the Saudi-Iranian power struggle.

Iulia Oprea

Ph.D Candidate in History of Europe at Sapienza University of Rome


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