Saudi Arabia vs Iran: A lukewarm war that risks becoming nuclear

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A cartoon on the Saudi-Irani rivalry

It was in Karbala, Iraq, in 680 AD that the forces of the Umayyad dynasty killed Hussain, the son of Ali, the third Islamic Caliph. This event marked the beginning of the rift between those who would become known as “Sunni” and “Shia” Muslims. The latter group refers to the followers of Imam Ali, who was Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. The split, or fitna as Muslims call it, holds true today, and has taken a political and strategic turn over the years instead of maintaining its religious and doctrinal implications.

It is from this ancient rift and act of violence that one can begin to understand the nature of the current rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia holds the two most sacred Islamic locations, Mecca and Medina, and therefore has a prominent role in the Sunni world. Iran, rather, is the main point of reference for Shiites all over the world and was the scene of Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in 1979. Following the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD, the split divided Islam into two denominations, Sunni and Shia, and today, the struggle for power and control is present in both the Islamic and geopolitical scenes.

Historically, Sunni Islam has always been the religion’s largest denomination while Shia Muslims have been and continue to be a minority group – comprising around 10-15% of the world’s Muslims. Another significant factor is that the Islamic Caliphates – starting with the Umayyad dynasty and ending with the last Ottoman Caliphate – were always led by Sunnis. From this stems the notion with which Shiites define their status as “oppressed”. For their part, the Iranian Shiites joined Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in 1979 with the same spirit of vengeance that was bestowed upon them by the first followers of Ali. Iran then developed its own policy of expansion in hopes of gaining influence in the Near East region through its main players: the Lebanese Hezbollah party and the Shiite forces in Iraq and Yemen, as well as – more recently – its strategic allies, the Syrian al-Assad regime and Russia. Only through understanding these fundamental historical particulars can one analyze the rift – which is more geopolitical than religious - between Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies on the one hand, and Iran and Hezbollah on the other.

In an interview with the US network CBS, the Saudi Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman declared that his country “will develop a nuclear bomb if Iran takes this step”. Two days prior to his meeting with US President Donald Trump, Bin Salman called Ayatollah Khamenei “the new Hitler of the Middle East” and highlighted that “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit” to counter the threat of Iran in the region.

The Saudi-Iranian conflict as we know it today really began in 1979 following the Islamic revolution in Iran. It is a struggle for power and influence in the region. For Saudi Arabia, it is important to secure the historical role of Sunni hegemony, and as for Iran, it is important to salvage what was once unjustly taken away 1,400 years ago from Imam Ali, the legitimate authority. Based on this purely ideological foundation, the conflict went on to take geopolitical, strategic and economic proportions.

The latest aspect of this rivalry is manifested in Syria where forces on the battlefield are fighting a proxy war between the Gulf monarchies that support certain anti-regime groups and Iran which is the main supporter of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Last November, Saudi Arabia made a direct accusation against Iran and blamed it for rocket explosions in Riyadh, thereby further aggravating the crisis between the two countries to an unprecedented escalation.

The regional balance within the “lukewarm war” between Saudi Arabia and Iran is determined by US foreign policy positions which have recently undergone a drastic change under the presidency of Donald Trump, who unraveled the relatively balanced and rather prudent attitude adopted by created by his predecessor, Barack Obama. The current administration’s hostile stance toward Iran has contributed to strengthening the political power of the Gulf and Israel over Iran.

Since the so-called “Arab Spring”, and particularly over the past five years, Iran has achieved direct and indirect victories on the battlefield to the detriment of the Gulf States. Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran can claim to be victorious in Syria where its ally Al-Assad is still in power thanks to – and only because of – the military support provided by Iran and Russia. Another major victory attributed to Iran is that achieved over ISIS, specifically in Syria. It is through this second aspect that Iran was able to secure a winning card with the Gulf States, especially in the eyes of the international community. Together with that, Iran also secured an ideological victory. Jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS, who identify themselves as Sunni, are often supported and sponsored by wealthy Sunni sympathizers, some of whom are in the Gulf. This is not a problem, however, that affects Iran. On the contrary, since Shiites are considered heretics by Sunni extremists including jihadist groups, Iran has proceeded to openly combat ISIS. Moreover, the religious buildup of the two entities, the Sunni reality in the Gulf and the Shiite in Iran, has contributed to the steadfastness of the two groups. While Iran has an Ayatollah, who is a leader and point of reference in the Shiite community worldwide and can influence the country’s foreign policy, the Sunni world lacks a unified leadership.

As the custodian of the most sacred Muslim sites,the Saudi Kingdom has consistently tried to assume a role of leadership in the Sunni world, but in recent years, new Sunni regional actors have emerged like Qatar. These actors have gradually aimed for a bigger role to play, one that was historically filled solely by the Saudi Kingdom. This struggle for power weakens the Sunni players and exposes them to the Iranian front. The Syrian conflict is currently magnifying the massive strategic and geopolitical potential of Iran as it stands united compared to the Sunni front.

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