The Iran-Saudi Rift

By Charlotte Partow, Harvard Class of 2019

In his final state of the union, President Obama declared that, "The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia." The most notable age-old showdown in the Middle East, that between Sunnis and Shias, is no better exemplified than by the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Or is it? At the JFK Jr. Forum this past Monday, February 29th, Bernard Haykel, Director of the Institute for Transregional Studies at Princeton, and Karim Sadjadpour, Senior Associate of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, proposed alternative reasons for the decades-long "soft power" conflict which has escalated due to their proxy war in Yemen, Iranian domination of Iraq, and most recently, the Iran nuclear deal.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have different roots for their ill will towards one another. Wahhabi Sunni Islam is the key cornerstone of the Saudi state and culture; therefore, Saudi Arabia can only frame the roots of its conflict with Iran in religious terms. When Iran exports its Shia ideology throughout the region using the Alawite Assad regime, Hezbollah, the Shiite population within Iraq, and now the Houthis in Yemen, it is perceived as a fundamental threat to the foundation of Saudi Arabia's existence. Iran, on the other hand, has varied reasons for its grievances with Saudi Arabia. Vitriol towards Saudi Arabia, for its Arab ethnic makeup, Wahhabi society, and Western-oriented foreign policy, is a fundamental principle of the Iranian Revolution, Sadjadpour explained. Additionally, Persian cultural chauvinism feeds into the superiority 2500-year-old Iran feels over Saudi Arabia, founded not even one century ago.

The United States should examine the roots of this rift in order to determine who their natural ally should be in years to come. In an interview, Sadjadpour explained that, "In Iran there's a sense that if the country were to be governed by a system that reflected popular views, it would be much more liberal than the status quo government, and there would be more overlapping interests between the U.S. and Iran. So I certainly think it's plausible to say in two or three decades that we can see a United States that has more common interests and is more aligned with Iran than Saudi Arabia..."

The biggest takeaway from the heightened tension in the conflict is the opportunity to shift away from Saudi Arabia and develop stronger ties with Tehran, continuing with President Obama's strategy. While Iran is not a viable partner right now, they offer the strongest foundation for a nation-state in the region, a unique quality that no other American ally can provide. Sadjadpour ended the interview by emphasizing that, "Iran is a nation-state which has 2500 years of history; people have a very strong Persian identity which can be totally distinct from their Muslim identity. You have Iranians who are totally secular, you have Iranians who are Jewish, Bahai, Christian, who still feel a strong attachment to Iran and feel a strong Iranian identity, whereas in Saudi Arabia, you have a nation-state with less than a century of history and whose identity is inextricably linked to being Muslim." A core value of the United States is freedom to and from religion; implicit in this right and liberty is the fact that we do not rely on religion to unite us as a nation. Rather, our principles, history, and culture serve as the basis for the strength of our nation-state. While Iran and Saudi Arabia are still stuck in the rut of religious rule, only one of these nations shows potential to remain without religious law as the justification for its existence. The United States is a secular nation whose society is held together by something greater than a 2,000 year old text; it's about time this was reflected in our Middle East policy.