The regional tensions between Tehran and Riyadh have existed since the Islamic Revolution in 1979: Saudi Arabia is a Sunni state governed by a royal family and the last thing they want is a revolution instigated by Shiites. On the other hand, the leaders of Tehran, beginning with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself, are duty-bound to “export the revolution” to any place where revolutionary seeds could grow (preferably where there are “oppressed” Shiites).
But tensions have mounted distinctly since Hassan Rouhani ascended the presidency. Paradoxically, Rouhani is not hell-bent on exporting the revolution: he is more of a politician than a revolutionary and he seems focused on the welfare of the Iranian people more than on the welfare of people in another country who might be deemed “oppressed” enough to merit a revolution. But Rouhani’s election, and specifically his engaging foreign policy, radically changed the balance of power in the region.
Unlike his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was content to keep Iran isolated and maintain relations only with the few countries who were fans of Tehran, Rouhani reached out to the West in an effort of “constructive engagement” in order to bring Iran out of isolation. His efforts paid off with a nuclear deal which promises to lift the crippling sanctions and create an economic boom.
It is this change in the balance of power that has simultaneously strengthened Tehran and weakened Riyadh that is at the core of the mounting tensions in the region.
A Regional Rivalry
But Rouhani’s foreign policy, however benign as it might seem, doesn’t exist in a vacuum and what could have had a simple and happy ending turned into another nightmare: The nuclear negotiations reshuffled the definitions of allies and enemies and the long and winding road to the JCPoA raised suspicions, accusations and questions regarding the true motives of the parties involved. Meanwhile, the Saudis were significantly left out of the talks while Tehran’s ongoing efforts to export the revolution to Syria, Iraq and Yemen took on a military nature through the raging civil wars in Syria and in Yemen as well as the fight against ISIS in Syria and in Iraq.
Syria and Yemen are vaguely mirror situations for Tehran and Riyadh: In Syria, Tehran supports and fights for the Assad government against the Syrian rebels who want to oust him and who are supported by Riyadh. In Yemen, Riyadh supports and fights for the Mansur Hadi government against the Houthi rebels who are supported by Tehran and succeeded in ousting him out temporarily until Riyadh retaliated. Although Tehran and Riyadh have not yet met each other on the battlefield, they are getting dangerously to doing so through their proxy wars (Riyadh supplies weapons to Syrian rebels fighting Hezbollah and Iranian troops in Syria, while Tehran trained and supplies Houthis fighting Saudis in Yemen) and taunting explosive rhetoric emanating from both sides.
Every move by either Tehran or Riyadh is scrutinized by the other side in an effort to find a point of weakness or a point of aggression to merit a new verbal volley: The Saudi bombing in Yemen, the death of an Iranian general in Syria, the Iranian support to Syria, the pilgrim tragedy in Saudi Arabia, the Tehran-backed terrorist cells in Bahrain…all feed the animosity between the two nations.
A Global Rivalry
It’s true that Tehran has repeatedly stretched its hand to Riyadh in an effort at diplomacy but Riyadh is too weary of Tehran’s regional aspirations and its new found friends. The nuclear negotiations and the deal itself resulted in Tehran being wooed by the P5+1 (Russia & China, US & EU) as well as numerous other countries through politicians and trade delegations who have come to court the regime and make a lot of money. These countries, which had once ignored Tehran and visited Riyadh are now sending an endless stream of politicians and trade delegations to Tehran and, on the whole, ignoring Riyadh. In fact, a recent survey in Saudi Arabia found that the Saudis are more worried about Iran than they are about ISIS.
But for those who view this as some far-away conflict that is regional in its nature, here’s the bad news. The conflict between Tehran and Riyadh has the potential to go global within milliseconds since both nations are at the front edges of the battle between the Old World Order and a budding New World Order. Tehran, as Zarif so eloquently explained, aspires to change the global world order and its new status following the nuclear deal, specially vis-à-vis Russia can be a springboard to make these revolutionary visions materialize. Zarif also explains how such a change can come about following the nuclear deal: Tehran wants to “bring about conditions of such a type that the world economy is so entangled with our economy that other countries do not have the power to sanction us“.
Riyadh traditionally belongs to the OWO historically backed by the West and the large Sunni countries in the region (the GCC, Egypt, Jordan and now Sudan) while Tehran is betting on the backing of the East (Russia, China), the EU (which is distancing itself from the US) and the Non-Aligned-Movement countries (NAM). A war between these two nations is bound to light up warning lights in all the major capitals of the world. It is exactly because of this that Rouhani, backed by all the global players should begin a new round of “constructive engagement” with Riyadh…the consequences of a war between these two countries could be nothing short of disastrous.