Saudi-Iranian current issues

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Regional Confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia after the U.S. Invasion of Iraq 2003

Saudi-Iranian current issues

Aims and objectives

This research aims to:

  • Critically analyse relations between KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) and Iran in order to explain the ways in which this relationship impacts on the broader Middle East region. In order to achieve this the research will cover a range of issues:

  • Historical relations between Iran and KSA in order to identify critical points in the development of current relationship status.

  • Critically examine the “proxy wars” between Iran and Saudi Arabia by identifying the causes of the “wars” and their effect on Iran-Saudi Arabia relations.

  • The United States interests in the gulf region and how such interests have played a role in supremacy battles between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

  • Analyse the security repercussions of icy relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, including the possibility a nuclear Cold War between the two countries

  • Iran-Saudi “proxy wars”

  • Security perspective of Iran-Saudi rivalries

  • Nuclear cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia

Background

The rivalry between Iran and KSA is a struggle for regional influence, with both Iran and KSA seeking to become leaders in the Islamic world. The competition is also necessitated by the aspirations of Iran to expand its territory, and takes the form of rivalries with regard to geopolitical and ideological influence. The competition on ideological grounds can be witnessed in how the states support various groups in the region, wherein Iran and KSA usually take opposing positions in conflicts, as witnessed in Bahrain, Syria and Iraq.1 Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have avoided open hostility and disagreements.2 They have instead focused on influencing decisions, shaping developments and steering events to ensure that their political interests and preferences are taken care of. This research seeks to explore the relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Iran, while putting special emphasis on the rivalries between the two states and the implications of the rivalries on the geopolitical and security situation in the Middle East. The research will analyse various academic and policy literature with a view of critiquing them and coming up with solid opinions on the current situation and feasible recommendations on actions that can be taken to improve the situation. The research will deliberately avoid the religious aspect of the rivalry between KSA and Iran, which plays a minor role, and capitalize on the political and diplomatic perspectives of the rivalry.

The extent of KSA and Iran rivalries was confirmed during the Arab Spring. Approaches by Iran and KSA on the uprisings are not clear-cut as counterrevolutionary of revolutionary, rather they are motivated by real-politick considerations. Therefore, not only do both states support their allies in the Gulf, but they usually find themselves supporting opposition in uprisings where such opposition is a threat to their adversaries. In Bahrain, for instance, Iran supported the opposition with a view to deal a blow on Saudi Arabia. In Syria, Iran has always been against change, while KSA called for political change. Conversely, KSA helped Bahrain in its bid to quash revolt by sending troops. The author will examine the dynamic standpoints of the RSA and Iran with regard to recent revolutions with a view of showing that their positions in various conflicts during the recent uprisings was not informed by ideology but competition and rivalry.

Among the results of the Arab Spring, the shifting preferences of Egypt and the emergence of Turkey as an influential state are perhaps the most significant to the relationship between Iran and the KSA. “Turkey has articulated a proposed new order in the Middle East, one in which Ankara’s former allies Syria and Israel fall into isolation and the Saudi-Iranian dyad is replaced by a new Turkish-Egyptian axis of influence stretching from the Black Sea to the Nile”.3 Additionally, Turkey’s ruling party offers a desirable balance between Islam and liberalism that is appealing to Arab world stakeholders, particularly the youth. Although it is too early to say how such admiration will actually turn into ground support, Turkey has affected regional changes in landscape, which can potentially upstage the KSA and weaken Iran. The rivalry between the KSA and Iran is therefore likely to lead to a mutually undesirable result of strengthening Ankara’s geopolitical and ideological influence in the Arab world.4 This research will seek to establish the extent of influence that emerging influential states like Turkey and Egypt have, and the effect of such influence on the rivalry between Iran and the KSA.

Another issue that may have an impact on the rivalry between the KSA and Iran is the future of Iraq. Iraq’s future has been uncertain since the US withdrew its forces in late 2011. Before the withdrawal of US troops, Iraq was stable in terms of regional influence because it was highly unlikely that any Arab state would invade Iraq. However, the situation in Iraq is now volatile because regional countries can freely decide to take military interventions to help their supporters in Iraq if and when such supporters are in political problems. During the Iraq war, Iran provided weapons to militias and thus it is highly expected that in case a crisis occurs in Iraq, Iran will supply weapons to its militia allies. Such an action is unlikely to go unpunished by the KSA and other Gulf states that supported military action by the US government in Iraq. Additionally, some of the aforementioned militias have been known to carry out terrorist activities. This implies that a confrontation between Iraq militias and the KSA and surrounding Arab states is likely to attract international condemnation because terrorism is an issue of international concern.

In addition to the security perspective of Iraq as a battlefield between the RSA and Iran, the RSA has concerns about oil and diplomacy with regard to Iraq. Iraq is seriously consulting with international companies dealing with oil to rebuild its infrastructure with a view to emerge be a leading exporter of oil. Such reconstruction is likely to weaken Saudi Arabia’s international reputation in the oil market. However, rebuilding oil infrastructure in Iraq is unlikely to affect Iraq because Tehran’s interests in oil are similar to those of Baghdad. On the diplomatic front, the RSA is worried that in the event of a Tehran-supported government in Iraq, the RSA would be unable to win any diplomatic standoff with Iran because the latter would team up with Baghdad in spreading and supporting diplomatic propaganda. The RSA is also worried that such a situation could encourage subversion of the KSA by Tehran and Baghdad. “Even a temporary alliance of this sort could be potentially devastating for the advancement of Saudi interests throughout the region”.5 The author will seek to examine how Iraq can potentially worsen the rivalry between the RSA and Iran and how rivalry by the two countries over Iraq can potentially draw in international attention, and/or military action.

Interference by the KSA and Iran in regional conflicts aggravates identity politics in unstable Arab states. “Local groups that receive Iranian and Saudi financial support and other forms of aid become more emboldened to press their claims, perhaps through militancy, while the regimes backed by the two powers grow more unyielding and violent in their crackdowns”.6 Each player in the rivalry is taking huge risks in escalating the rivalry. Rulers in both states, while struggling with succession strategies and local debates, have attached the legitimacy of their respective governments in their role as regional leaders in issues like populism, Islam and Arabism. For Iran, the recent and ongoing revolts in countries like Syria present an opportunity for it to attract new alliances and end their strategic loneliness leading to the shaping of a new order favouring them. This research will seek to establish the current levels of influence by the KSA and Iran, and the effects that such influence has on unstable Arab states. The research will also seek to show how the KSA and Iran have been eager to meddle in regional conflicts with the intention of gaining strategic advantage in the Arab world in terms of influence.

For the masses in states that have recently faced or are still facing revolution like Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the hypocrisy of KSA and Iran has been exposed. Recent polls have indicated that the two states are currently rated poorly by their Arab counterparts that they seek to influence. “Crowds who cheered in 2006 for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or who lauded the economic benevolence in Lebanon of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, now carry banners praising Facebook, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and, most significantly, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey”.7 The author of this paper will examine how the RSA and its rival, Iran, are continually losing popularity in the Gulf, especially after the Arab uprisings of 2011.

In 2011, the US Attorney General (AG), Eric Holder believed that Iran made an attempt on the life of the KSA US ambassador. The AG accused Iran of using a car salesman connected to senior military officials in Iran to hire Mexican hit men belonging to an infamous drug cartel. Iran had paid $1.5 million to the assassins but they later proved to be connected to the US Agency for Drug Enforcement leading to successful foiling of the assassination plot. The AG accused elements of the government in Iran of having sanctioned the assassination, specifically, officers belonging to the Quds Force, a Guard Corps subset that deals with action abroad. The assassination attempt added to a list of other incidences in the rivalry between KSA and Iran.8

Despite the fact that both the KSA and Iran yearn for regional influence, the KSA’s fear or possible nuclear strikes from Iran and Iran’s dependence on the KSA economically are likely to ensure that none of the two states gains stifling power over the other. This is especially the case because both states are keen on ensuring that they do not confront each other directly. Actually, the aforementioned attempt on the life of the KSA ambassador to the US can be viewed as an isolated case because the two countries engage in proxy battles in a bid to gain a better strategic position of influence. All in all, both states will continue to compete for regional influence but the fact that each of them has an internal interest in survival of regime, their rivalry is unlikely to result in outright animosity. Nevertheless, the relationship between these two states has enormous effects on the Gulf region as well as the international community because of oil control by the KSA.9 This research will determine the effects that the relationship between the KSA and Iran has on the Gulf region. The author will show that the effects of rivalry between the KSA and Iran extend to countries all over the world and that such effects are likely to have diplomatic and security repercussions for countries in the Gulf region and also outside the Middle East.

Increasing use of diplomacy by the US in Arab countries has resulted in a disgruntled Riyadh. Firstly, the recent diplomatic agreement between Russia and the US to remove chemical weapons from Syria after Assad attacked Damascus using them is viewed as a mistake by the KSA. The mission, which was sanctioned by the UN Security Council, is viewed as a diplomatic success in the US because it avoided bloodshed and US-military involvement. Saudi Arabia had voiced its support for a military intervention by the US against Assad.The KSA viewed a military intervention by the US in Syria as an opportunity because it would imply that the US is directly involved in the crises in Arab countries. This would ensure that Saudi Arabia is safe because it has been a US ally for a long time. Secondly, recent negotiations between the US and Iran on the latter’s nuclear program are viewed in Riyadh as a sign that Washington’s power is declining in the Middle East. Iran is hell-bent to collaborate with the US in stabilizing Iraq while discussing its nuclear program. Riyadh’s outrage regarding Washington’s outreach to Tehran has been evident in public denunciations of the US in the KSA. Last October, Riyadh protested against Washington at the UN Security council by “campaigning for a seat on the UN Security Council and then theatrically rejecting it, something no country has ever done”.10 This action showed that the KSA is highly dissatisfied by the recent actions that Washington has been taking with regard to Arab countries because Washington is seemingly selfish. That is, Washington has taken several actions against the interest of its ally, Riyadh. It remains to be seen whether the recent diplomatic efforts by the US in Arab countries will end the alliance between Washington and Riyadh. The author will explore recent issues that have led to the not so rosy relationship between the US and the KSA.

Significance of Research

This study provides invaluable information on the status of the relationship between the KSA and Iran. It gives information on the historical relations between Iran and the KSA and how they have contributed to the current rivalries and analyses possible scenarios that the world should expect in the near future regarding the rivalry between the KSA and Iran and its effect on the geopolitics and security of the Gulf region. The study will therefore add to the literature on the relations between the KSA and Iran and their fight for Gulf supremacy, and give policy recommendations that can be used to ensure that the rivalry between the two states is checked by security stakeholders before it escalates to unmanageable levels. The study also critiques current research on the topic with the aim of ensuring that the recommendations it gives on the situation do not have adverse repercussions. The study also explores the interests of the US in the Gulf region and examines how such interests can potentially worsen rivalry between the KSA and Iran, and ultimately lead to undesirable outcomes in the Middle East. It also gives recommendations on how the US should act with regard to the supremacy battles between the KSA and Iran. The study also explores emerging influential states in the Middle East and how such states are likely to affect the relationship between Iran and the KSA.

The study identifies gaps in previous research with an aim of identifying critical research areas that can be pursued in the future. It therefore offers a basis on which further research, perhaps at PhD level, can be done. The study is a valuable document for scholars, policy makers, International Relations experts, and any other person interested in the geopolitical future of the Gulf region.

Iran-Saudi “proxy wars”

From the smooth enjoyed by Saudi Arabia and Iran before the Shah was overthrown in 1979, through the cessation of diplomatic ties in the 1990s, to the Arab Spring — the thesis will discuss relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.11 Special emphasis will be given to the proxy wars the two countries have been engaged in recently, especially the newly unstable states in the Middle East that have joined historically unstable states like Yemen and Lebanon.12 Historical relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia will be retrieved from the second last reference. This topic will also draw its research from the fourth reference.

Iran and Saudi Arabia usually take opposing sides in any political confrontation in the Middle East. Despite popular opinion, Shi’a-Sunni divide is just a minor factor in the issue.13 The thesis will discuss issues like the role of the U.S. in Middle East politics and regional hierarchy, which are some of the main reasons behind the “Wars” between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The third last reference will inform research on this part of the thesis.

Security perspective of Iran-Saudi rivalries

Despite the fact that the U.S. does not have troops in Saudi Arabian soil, the latter has often been viewed as an American ally balancing influence by Iran in the Gulf. “Saudi Arabia has long been a major importer of advanced weapons systems from the West, and military procurements have been geared in large part against perceived threats from Iran”.14 Saudis have also expressed concern over the nuclear program being implemented by Iran. These concerns are occasioned by Saudi Arabia’s desire to check Iran’s regional power and the fact that such a program may lead to an arms race between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The aforementioned concerns have given Iran and Saudi Arabia’s “otherwise local security concerns global significance”.15 The security concerns may however be overrated if recent reconciliation efforts in the Gulf countries is anything to go by.16 Research in this section will be informed by the first, second and third reference.

Nuclear Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia

The aforementioned rivalries have led to fears that Saudi Arabia and Iran may start an arms race that may lead to development of nuclear weapons. However, recent research has shown that Iran and Saudi Arabia have been making commendable progress on the nuclear arms issue.17 This part of the thesis will be informed by the third last reference, which has discussed the nuclear standoff between Iran and Saudi Arabia in detail. Additionally, the thesis will also give reasons why Saudi Arabia is slow to acquire its own nuclear arms to counter Iran’s acquisition of the same, including the fact that Saudi Arabia does not want to strain its bilateral relations with the U.S.18 This part of the thesis will be informed by the last reference.

Bibliography

Al-Hajri, Rashid. “UAE tries to scuttle Qatar-Saudi reconciliation”. Al-monitor.com. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/08/saudi-qatari-rapprochement-uae-threat-gulf-reconciliation.html#

Ciorciari, John. “Crisis in Iran: Preparatory Memo for Saudi Arabia”. Open.umich.edu. http://open.umich.edu/sites/default/files/3549/PubPol638-IPE-prep-memo-for-SaudiArabia.pdf

Downs, Kevin. “A Theoretical Analysis of the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry in Bahrain”. Journal of Politics & International Studies. 8 (203-237). http://www.polis.leeds.ac.uk/assets/files/students/student-journal/ug-winter-12/130213-win12-kevin-downs-6.pdf

Ersoy, Eyup. “The Rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East”. Turkishweekly.net. http://www.turkishweekly.net/news/146072/the-rivalry-between-saudi-arabia-and-iran-in-the-middle-east.html

Gause, Gregory. “Why the Iran Deal Scares Saudi Arabia”. Newyorker.com. http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/why-the-iran-deal-scares-saudi-arabia

Gause, Gregory. “Iran’s Incoming President and the New Middle East Cold War”. Brookings.edu. http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/iran-at-saban/posts/2013/07/08-iran-saudi-middle-east-cold-war

Guffey, Robert., Hansell, Lydia., Ghez, Jeremy., Nader, Alireza., Karasik, Theodore., Wehrey, Frederic. “Saudi-Iranian Relations since the fall of Saddam”. Rand.org. http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2009/RAND_MG840.pdf

Jahner, Ariel. “Saudi Arabia and Iran: The Struggle for Power and Influence in the Gulf”. Iar-gwu.org. http://www.iar-gwu.org/sites/default/files/articlepdfs/Saudi%20Arabia%20and%20Iran.pdf

Mabon, Simon. Saudi Arabia and Iran: Soft Power Rivalry in the Middle East. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Terrill, Andrew. “The Saudi-Iranian rivalry and the future of Middle East security”. Handle.net. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015090309116

Wehrey, Frederic. “Uprisings Jolt the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry”. Bemidjistate.edu. http://faculty.bemidjistate.edu/mlawrence/Wehrey.pdf

1
Mabon, Simon. Saudi Arabia and Iran: Soft Power Rivalry in the Middle East. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

2 Ersoy, Eyup. “The Rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East”. Turkishweekly.net.

3
Wehrey, Frederic. “Uprisings Jolt the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry”. Bemidjistate.edu. p. 335

4
Wehrey, Frederic. “Uprisings Jolt the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry”. Bemidjistate.edu.

5
Terrill, Andrew. “The Saudi-Iranian rivalry and the future of Middle East security”. Handle.net. p. 45

6
Wehrey, Frederic. “Uprisings Jolt the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry”. Bemidjistate.edu. p. 352.

7
Wehrey, Frederic. “Uprisings Jolt the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry”. Bemidjistate.edu. p. 352.

8 Mabon, Simon. Saudi Arabia and Iran: Soft Power Rivalry in the Middle East. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

9 Jahner, Ariel. “Saudi Arabia and Iran: The Struggle for Power and Influence in the Gulf”. Iar-gwu.org.

10
Gause, G. “Why the Iran Deal Scares Saudi Arabia”. Newyorker.com. p. 1.

11 Jahner, Ariel. “Saudi Arabia and Iran: The Struggle for Power and Influence in the Gulf”. Iar-gwu.org.

12 Gause, Gregory. “Iran’s Incoming President and the New Middle East Cold War”. Brookings.edu.

13 Guffey, Robert., Hansell, Lydia., Ghez, Jeremy., Nader, Alireza., Karasik, Theodore., Wehrey, Frederic. “Saudi-Iranian Relations Since the Fall of Saddam”. Rand.org.

14 Ciorciari, John. “Crisis in Iran: Preparatory Memo for Saudi Arabia”. Open.umich.edu. p. 2.

15 Downs, Kevin. “A Theoretical Analysis of the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry in Bahrain”. Journal of Politics & International Studies. 8 (203-237). p. 205

16 Al-Hajri, Rashid. “UAE tries to scuttle Qatar-Saudi reconciliation”. Al-monitor.com.

17 Guffey, Robert. et. Al. “Saudi-Iranian Relations Since the Fall of Saddam”. Rand.org.

18 Wehrey, Frederic. “Uprisings Jolt the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry”. Bemidjistate.edu.