Since the start of the year, there has been recurring speculation amongst some well-known, and many not so well known, Gulf commentators concerning the possibility that Saudi Arabia and Iran’s unwavering enmity might soon culminate in all-out war. The latest development to suggest a bleak outlook for relations between the region’s long-standing adversaries was Iran’s formal announcement that it would not accept Saudi Arabia’s assurances of security and protection during this year’s Haj season and therefore Iranian pilgrims would be strongly discouraged from participating. Iran’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ali Jannati, was quoted in the Iranian media explaining that Saudi Arabia “cannot guarantee the preservation of dignity of Iranian pilgrims during this year’s Haj.”
Commentators interpreted this failure to reach agreement over Iran’s access to Mecca as the latest development in the political and strategic stand-off between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.
It has also been understood in the conception of an evolving hegemonic “cold war” being played out across the Gulf and throughout the greater Middle East region. The practicalities involved in Iranians being granted access to Saudi represent the immediate cause of last week’s failure to reach agreement – even after Saudi’s Haj minister gave his personal undertaking to underwrite the safety of Iranian pilgrims. However it seems that this opportunity to ease the diplomatic friction, that has deteriorated further over the past year, and particularly since the conclusion of the international nuclear agreement with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA]) has been rejected by both sides. In turn, this suggests that relations between Saudi and Iran are set to become even more strained, with both sides probably taking further opportunities to seek political and strategic gains at the expense of the other. Consequently, this seems likely to make current political and strategic challenges in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, even more difficult to resolve.
However, the prospect of an all-out, fighting war between Saudi Arabia and Iran still seems a distant prospect. While most international observers continue to interpret the broad swathe of current conflicts across the Middle East as varying manifestations of the hegemonic rivalry between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, it seems much more likely that both Riyadh, with the steady support of its Gulf allies, and Iran will continue to conduct their conflict through third-party proxies rather than risking the more serious repercussions of direct military engagement.
The continuing conflict between Iran and Saudi is also more complex than some commentators allow, and to suggest that there are positive grounds for Tehran and Riyadh finding common cause in the near future, as some have done, also seems unduly optimistic. The conflict between the Kingdom and Iran dates back to the aftermath of the Iranian revolution in 1979 which had the effect of driving Western powers, and particularly America, more closely into supporting Saudi and the Sunni world, while at the same time Shia Iran faced ostracisation and international isolation. Arguably, this aura of Saudi pre-eminence and Iranian impotence, started to dissolve following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. This opened the way for Iran to exert greater political and strategic influence over neighbouring Iraq and particularly to take full advantage of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s overtly sectarian approach to the leadership of Iraq. In turn, last summer’s JCPOA also encouraged some international political leaders to pursue the notion that Iran could re-emerge, either as the West’s preferred partner to Saudi, or at least as a regional power of equal status.
There have been other recent indications that Saudi Arabia’s traditional primacy may be under threat. In this regard it is instructive to note the recent resurgence of US disquiet over culpability for 9/11 and that fact that 15 of the 19 al-Qaeda attackers were Saudi nationals. This discourse is increasingly linking Saudi Wahhabism to Daesh and Islamist extremism. Combined with international perceptions concerning the waning potency of oil, and therefore OPEC, as a strategic weapon, there seems to be both less fear of the economic damage that Saudi, as OPEC’s ‘swing producer’, is capable of inflicting and rising anger towards Riyadh’s seeming reluctance to curb Sunni extremism and unyielding opposition to Iran.
While some misplaced optimism continues to portray Iran’s ‘star’ in the ascendant, it also seems that Saudi Arabia is being painted by many commentators as the regional villain because of perceived support for Sunni (as distinct from Shia) extremism and King Salman’s deep resistance to recognising Iran as a power of equal status. In this context, even the atrocities of Assad and his Hezbollah support seem to be ranked below Saudi’s perceived encouragement and tolerance of Daesh and Islamist extremism. As further evidence, it is worth noting the international media narrative of the Shia militias (good guys) versus Daesh (bad guys) in the current fight for Fallujah – and in due course in Mosul. Viewed in this strategic and political context, it seems that whether Saudi and Iran will ever resort to direct conflict remains largely academic.
Of greater significance is the sense that Iran’s apparently more moderate positioning is winning international friends while at the same time putting Saudi into the same bracket as Islamist extremism. Saudi and Iran may be unlikely to be going to war soon but the deepening strains and schisms between these old adversaries is making peace and stability across the Middle East, increasingly difficult challenges.