The Saudi-Iranian rivalry is often narrowly portrayed from the perspective of sectarian conflict. Essentially, this rivalry between the Iranian theocracy and the Saudi monarchy is a geopolitical struggle for religious legitimacy, military, and economic supremacy, and imperial aspiration. This geopolitical struggle for dominance in the region predominantly emerged after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, also known as the Islamic Revolution. Moreover, in contemporary times, this enmity is fueled by proxies, Shia-Sunni ethnicity, the acquisition of advanced military technology, and predominantly by foreign encouragement. External powers like the USA, Russia, and Israel may also be successful in achieving political and military ambitions, especially in terms of the private military-industrial complex resulting from the dysfunctional relationship between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The regional hegemonic geopolitical, military, and economic objectives of both rival and external powers create regional instability by indulging both states in the arms race.
Furthermore, the elements of proxies sponsored by both states create a humanitarian crisis and threaten the peace and stability of the Middle East. From the theoretical perspective, neorealism, one of the shots of realism, which is a landmark theory of International Relations (IR), provides a concise, comprehensive, and better lens for the understanding of steps taken by both rivals.
After the revolution, under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran adopted a policy of nationalism and cut off diplomatic relations with the Western States. Whereas, Saudi Arabia has a rapidly expanding strategic alliance with the Western states, especially the USA. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia gets multidimensional benefits from the West. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Iran, because of its revolutionary, discriminatory, and incompetent nationalist policies, faced criticism and economic restraint from the West.
Moreover, the direct or indirect involvement of both states for geopolitical objectives, in the different conflicts like Yemen and Syrian wars and proxies in the region and outside the region intensified the relations between the two rivals. Recently, Iran’s ambition to become a nuclear power in the region and the rigorous policies of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, known as MBS, towards Iran, may prove the leading factors in the perpetual rivalry. When discussing the roots of the Saudi-Iran rivalry, it is also impossible to ignore the fact that both states have provided state support for militant groups operating in the region.
Ambitious and Perspectives of Iran
Iran has an extensive natural resource base, a crucial geostrategic location, a rich cultural heritage, and a long history of Persian civilization. Due to its unique strategic location, and religious and cultural influence in the region and throughout Central Asia and the eastern Mediterranean, Iran itself is considered the regional dominant power. In addition to this, some pro-Iranian scholars and journalists argued that Iran has superiority in the Persian Gulf, but the presence of the US has threatened Iran’s hegemonic aspirations and created obstacles for Iran to achieve its regional geopolitical objectives. Moreover, it is also claimed that alliances like the Islamic Military Alliance and a coalition like the GCC formulate to sabotage the Iranian political and economic structure.
Iran also considered Israel one of the obstacles to achieving the regional geopolitical objectives.
To eliminate the post-existential threats from hostile regional powers, Iran used asymmetrical tactics by using Islamist militant groups like Hezbollah, which is considered an integral part of the doctrine of Iranian regional engagement.
Iran employs proxies for deterrence and to avoid direct conflict with the major powers. Furthermore, the Iranian leadership justifies its nuclear program.
Saudi’s Ambitious Perspectives
Saudi Arabia was deeply agitated about Iranian geopolitical ambitions after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The Saudi monarch argued that they were betrothed to take steps to maintain the status quo counter to the expansionist regime of Shia theocracy and the militaristic and revolutionary ideology of Iran. Simultaneously, the Saudis themselves were considered the custodians of Islam, so they argued that they maintained the regional geopolitical order while Iran adopted a revolutionary ideology to disturb the regional order. Furthermore, it is clear from history that Saudi Arabia criticizes Iranian religious practices using the Wahhabi doctrine. The Saudi monarch considered Iran an existential threat to Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical ambitions.
Saudi monarch claim that the presence of Iran in the Strait of Hormuz, where 40% of world trade passes through, can create security and instability for the region and the entire world.
Is Rapprochement Possible?
MBS recently made it clear in a statement that the region would benefit more from good relations between these bitter rivals. He also emphasizes the need for mutual cooperation and de-escalation for the stability and prosperity of the Middle East. Whereas, the Iranian leadership appreciated the MBS initiative for de-escalation.
Contrarily, the two countries were previously opposing any initiative for negotiation; even Saudi Arabia labeled Iran a “revisionist nation.” But there the question has been raised “Is rapprochement possible or not?” Yes, a rapprochement is probable at any time. It has been observed that the worst enemies in history have fraternal relations today. As “it’s never too late,” the patterns of enmity can be erased from the base. Effective and trustworthy diplomatic channels are both desperately needed right now.
By encouraging bilateral and regional economic arrangements, both states can maintain good relations.
From history, it is evident that every conflict has been resolved through negotiation, not by violent means. For the sake of stability and regional development, it is imperative to negotiate a settlement to the political conflicts that have existed since the beginning of time. Since the region has a unique geostrategic location and rich natural resources, including oil, which contribute effectively to the world economic system. In a nutshell, without the stability of the Middle East, it is quite difficult to say that peace and stability would be possible in neighboring countries as well as across the entire globe.
Nadir Ali holds a degree in Strategic and Nuclear Studies from the National Defense University, Islamabad, Pakistan. He has written for Modern Diplomacy, Pakistan Observer, Pakistan Today, and numerous other publishers. He tweets at @hafiznadirali7 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org