Why Is Iran Escalating Their Conflict With the Saudis?

The death of close to 500 Iranians in a stampede at the annual Hajj pilgrimage on September 24 sparked a severe reaction from the Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In a speech after the incident, Khamenei threatened Saudi Arabia with a "tough and harsh" response. He added,

The Islamic Republic of Iran has so far shown self-restraint... but they [Saudi officials] must know that... if it wanted to show reaction to troublesome and mischievous elements, their conditions would not be good and they would be no match for Iran in any arena.

Following Khamenei's remarks, on October 3rd the Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, took the threat to another level: "In line with materializing the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution's will, the IRGC has prepared all the possible capacities for Iran's swift and tough reaction to make the Saudi regime accountable for the horrifying catastrophe in Mina and to restore the rights of the victimized pilgrims in Mina and we are waiting for the execution order."

As Khamenei stated, Iran had adopted a policy of self-restraint toward the Saudis prior to the Mina incident. Iran's sudden policy shift has raised the questions of why Iran has abandoned their passive position, and what the goal of their new hawkish stance is.

Has a new situation emerged?

For decades, Saudi Arabia was a very cautious and geopolitically conservative player on the international stage. Since King Salman was crowned as king of Saudi Arabia in January, the Saudis have shifted their foreign policy dramatically. The new government adopted an aggressive policy toward Iran, which saw its peak when they launched air strikes against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in March.

As the Saudis intensified their war of words against Iran, the Iranian foreign policy apparatus cautiously responded to the Saudis muscle flexing, advising them to change their unproductive approach. Iran's leader, in the meantime, occasionally criticized Saudi policies but never threatened them with the use of force.

The reason for Iran's cautious approach was obvious. They did not want to rock the boat during the nuclear negotiations and appear as a threat to the region's stability. Doing so would have provided the Saudis, Israel, and its supporters with ammunition to derail the negotiations. Iran sorely needed a nuclear deal to remove sanctions.

By signing the nuclear agreement between Iran and the world's six powers, Iran emerged as a country that could maintain intelligent and rational negotiations to the extent that it could defeat formidable forces inside and outside of the US, including the Saudis and Israel, both of whom were opposing any deal with Iran.

Furthermore, as many analysts would predict -- and this was precisely the Saudis' and Israelis' concern -- the path to Iran's recognition as a regional power was unblocked by the realization of the nuclear agreement. While in the last four years Iran was continually ignored by the US as a player in the Syrian crisis, on September 28, in his speech before the United Nations General Assembly, US President Barack Obama announced that the US would be willing to work with Iran (and Russia) to end the Syrian war.

It was not hidden from the eyes of the Iranians that the Saudis relied on the US, were a military confrontation to occur between them and Iran. The nuclear agreement completely changed the American position toward Tehran and thus upset and nullified the Saudis' calculations.

In a press conference in May, following a summit with the leaders of Arab countries in the Persian Gulf region (the GCC or Gulf Cooperation Council) at Camp David, President Obama put forth the new paradigm under which the US would approach the region. "I want to be very clear," he said. "The purpose of security cooperation [with the GCC countries] is not to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran or even to marginalize Iran. None of our nations have an interest in an open-ended conflict with Iran."

Why did Obama say that? Because the survival of the nuclear deal, which is supposed to prevent Iran from nuclear weaponization, is now linked to the survival and stability of the Iranian establishment. In other words, any effort to destabilize the Iranian government defeats that purpose, as it is tantamount to undermining the nuclear agreement.

Simply put, the materialization of the nuclear agreement has significantly weakened Saudi Arabia's position in its conflict with Iran. Iran, aware of that, has taken advantage of the new geopolitical environment to counter, and perhaps nullify, the Saudis' regional push that started since King Salman came to power.

Why is Iran now taking a confrontational stance?

Were Iran to be passive in response to the Saudis' constant muscle flexing and heightened war of words, the authority of the Iranian government would be called into question both regionally and domestically. Iran's continuing of its passive stance could disappoint their friends and allies in the region, and encourage its foes to become more aggressive.

Meanwhile, Iran's foreign policy, since the nuclear talks began in 2013, was in the hands of the moderates, while the hardliners were marginalized. The Saudis' accusations were countered by mild reactions from the Iranian administration. In the eyes of Iran's supreme leader, this approach might have been prudent while the nuclear negotiations were in progress. But with the conclusion of the talks, he did not see any reason to continue to let key foreign policy issues be handled by the moderates, as traditionally he was in control of sensitive foreign policy cases.

His approach is different from the moderates. He objects to a soft approach toward what he perceives as Iran's enemies. "By appeasing them (the enemies), the hostility will not be resolved. ... The idea that if we don't say a certain thing, or do not do such a thing, be considerate with the enemy and their hostility will decline, is a wrong idea," he remarked on September 28.