What is one to make out of the enduring tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia in light of the ongoing proxy wars in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, among others? The answer is more chaos and further tensions.
Yet, ongoing conflicts underscore the profound rivalry between the Sunni and Shiite power. It does not help matters when the inexperienced Saudi defense minister, Prince Salman, 31, issues belligerent comments that there would be no dialogue with Iran given its religious aspirations to control the Muslim world. While I can understand why Prince Salman will issue such proclamation, though it lacks rationality, the purpose of his assertion is to not only silence critics who argue that the role the desert kingdom plays in the Middle East is waning, but also to divert attention from his failed military strategy in neighboring Yemen.
Conversely, Security analysts are perplexed as to Prince Salman’s choice of words when he said that the Saudis would not sit and wait for war but would work so that it becomes a battle for them in Iran and not in Saudi Arabia.
Iran did not waste time when, in a strong language, defense minister, Gen. Hossein Dehghan responded to the Prince’s combustible statement. Apparently, Prince Salman has not learned yet from his failed strategy in Yemen; a conflict that demonstrates how resilient the Houthis are despite the support of the US and the UK. Further, Saudi Arabia’s ground and air strikes on rebel-held areas could not defeat the rebels. These strikes, however, are contributing to the displacement of more than three million Yemenis in addition to the spread of famine.
What Saudi Arabia needs to understand is that it cannot defeat Iran given the latter’s military strength, intelligence apparatus, and public support that perceive the kingdom as a corrupt and western puppet.
Using history as my guide, I argue that tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran go back to 1979: Iran’s Islamic revolution. Furthermore, the continuing upheavals in the region: civil war in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, and the kingdom’s last year execution of a leading Shiite cleric, Al-Nimr, further exacerbate the strained relations between Tehran and Riyadh.
To put this within a geopolitical context, I argue that Saudi Arabia’s concerns persist not only over Iran’s increasing political influence in the Middle East, but also the kingdom’s fear of losing its religious influence as Iran expands its Shiite crescent that includes Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, and surrounding areas. As to Prince Salman’s argument that Iran is going to take over the Muslim world; it’s nonsense! There’s no seeing eye to eye between these two branches of the faith and I do not predict it will change anytime soon.
Let’s assume for a moment that Saudi Arabia engages Iran militarily (which I do not foresee), such confrontation between the two rivals will only heighten regional instability. Both countries understand the ramifications of an armed conflict which will eventually involve major powers. Russia and China will inevitably support Iran while the US and UK back their traditional ally and main weapons’ customer, Saudi Arabia. France and Germany will remain neutral as to not jeopardize their economic ventures in both Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Of note: I am convinced Iran will be very careful as to not destroy the two most holy sites in Islam – Mecca and Medina – if and when it decides to respond militarily. Yet, Iran does not have to engage militarily first, all it has to do is deny the kingdom access to two main avenues of power: the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Doing so would disrupt global commerce and compel major powers to embark on a full-scale intervention, whatever form it may take.
Given the upcoming visit of President Trump, whose foreign policy knowledge is very limited, to the desert kingdom, the United States must be vigilant and avoid being pulled into this ideological spat between Iran and Saudi Arabia that traces its roots back centuries ago.
As I argue in my forthcoming book, Volatile State: Iran in the Nuclear Age, the Middle East is bound to experience a major political shift once Iran becomes a nuclear power. The changes might not be to the liking of the West, especially the United States. I predict that the region will enter into a new phase of its existence, one marked by even more political turbulence, a new political order, sectarian tensions, and yes, religious rivalry.