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Oct 26, 2017

The Iranian–Saudi Hegemonic Rivalry

The Persian Gulf region’s major powers, the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), have, at least since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, been engaged in a hegemonic rivalry over power and influence, marked by differences in sectarianism, nationalism, revolutionary ideology, competition over regional hegemony, oil prices, attitudes towards the US military presence in the Gulf, and towards the Hajj.



Introduction: Exacerbated post-2011 Hegemonic Rivalry

The Persian Gulf region’s major powers, the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), have, at least since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, been engaged in a hegemonic rivalry over power and influence, marked by differences in sectarianism, nationalism, revolutionary ideology, competition over regional hegemony, oil prices, attitudes towards the US military presence in the Gulf, and towards the Hajj.

At the core of the rivalry stand maximalist positions taken by both sides that are hardly reconcilable with each other, barring a power-sharing arrangement constituting the only way out of this seemingly unending hegemonic rivalry. The latter has been exacerbated by (a) a post-2011 geopolitical environment marked by the Arab Uprisings (affecting both countries’ alliances and alignments structures), collapsing state orders (especially in Iraq and Syria), the relative retreat of US power (especially over Syria) and Russia’s entry into regional crises (especially in Syria). Iran has been particularly successful in filling the vacuum left from failing and failed states by political and military means, often creating quasi-parallel state structures there; and (b) by the process of rapprochement between the IRI and the KSA’s traditional Western allies culminating in the July 2015 JCPOA, which deepened Riyadh’s strategic angst nurtured from its “Arab Spring” experience of the US abandoning its long-time ally Hosni Mubarak of Egypt against the backdrop of a parallel process of a rehabilitation of Iran on the international arena, thus putting an end to the demonization of Iran under President Ahmadinejad that under the umbrella of rapprochement fuelled by economic and geostrategic interests turned into an equally misleading glorification of the IRI under President Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Zarif. At the core of Saudi mistrust has been the Western, above all, European tendency to extrapolate Tehran’s “constructive engagement” with the West on the nuclear issue onto other foreign policy fields, above all Syria and Iraq, where Iran has sought to maintain hegemony.

The Hegemonic Rivalry’s Nature: Geopolitical and Ideational Factors

During the Cold War, Iran and Saudi Arabia formed the twin pillars of US foreign policy in the Middle East, but this changed abruptly with the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Ever since, the IRI has pursued a foreign policy independent from the West, which pitted Tehran against the West, and the US in particular, as well as with pro-Western states in the region, including Saudi Arabia.

In the 1990s, Iranian President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani (1989–97) engaged in a bilateral process of détente between KSA and IRI, which in 1997 took the form of rapprochement during his successor Mohammad Khatami (1997–2005), before the rivalry experienced a revival under the subsequent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration (2005–13) – a development from ‘relative friendliness’ to a ‘state of enmity and rivalry’ that can be traced back to changes in the IRI’s dominant state identity during each of those periods as well as those in the geopolitics of the region. The rivalry can be seen through the lens of Realism, i.e. inter-state competition for survival or hegemony, but changes in the countries’ respective state identities, especially in the official foreign-policy discourse, have also assumed a significant role in shaping bilateral relations.1

The Role of Sectarianism

The Saudi–Iranian rivalry is not sectarian in nature nor is it the continuation of a supposedly ancient enmity between the Sunni and the Shiite branches of Islam. Rather, such interpretation is an integral part of an imperial divide-and-rule policy that most recently flourished during the first decade of the 2000s. The US-led “regime change” in Iraq in 2003 and the dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist state paved the way for Iran’s rise in power, which peaked in the mid-2000s at a time when the US occupation found itself entrenched in a “quagmire”. Since then, Iranian policy has arguably been marked by a degree of hubris, especially in Iraq and Syria.

Yet, there is sectarian dimension to this rivalry – with (a) 1979 and (b) 2003 being the watershed moments. (a) Despite the pan-Islamic nature of Ayatollah Khomeini’s “export of the revolution” discourse, it has had a sectarian appeal.2  Not only that it reserved Iran – a predominately Shia country within a predominantly Sunni Islamic-majority world – the central place within a newly to be established pan-Islamic Middle East, its concomitant political message was clearly directed at Iran’s neighbouring Arab Sunni rulers dubbed illegitimate and acting as pawns of malign external forces (imperialism and Zionism), provoking Shia uprisings there. As such, it was perceived by the Arab monarchies’ ruling élites as implicit calls for “regime change.” Today, the IRI still engages in such rhetoric, although at a weaker level than compared to the revolutionary period, which GCC states view as threatening. More recently, at the 2016 IISS Manama Dialogue, Bahrain’s foreign minister insisted that dialogue with Iran would necessitate trust, which would lack given the persistence of the IRI’s velâyat-e faqih state doctrine that would bound the loyalty of the region’s Shia to Tehran rather than their respective home countries.3 Indeed, the IRI tries to exploit the situation of Shias in the GCC, a move facilitated by the latter’s discrimination in some GCC states.

(b) The sectarian architecture of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq introduced by the US occupation created the conditions for the establishment of a Shia-dominated central government in Baghdad, supported by both Washington and Tehran, much to the distaste of the KSA. In Iraq, Riyadh has long failed to exert political influence there; it was only by January 2016 that it re-opened its embassy in Baghdad after a 25-year hiatus.

Iran’s Conventional View of Saudi Arabia: From Denigration to Demonization

It is fair to say that in both pre- and post-revolutionary Iran, a sense of civilizational superiority characterized the Iranian view held towards KSA. Generally speaking, the Arabian Peninsula’s petro-monarchies are seen in Tehran as superficial entities created by colonial powers as part of their imperialist divide-et-impera regional policies, which are not bound to survive long without their external supporters. In this vein, the KSA is viewed as either facilitating or being part and parcel of ‘imperialist–Zionist designs’ for the region. Iranian officials have continuously used derogatory language for those Arab leaders. Most recently, the IRI’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei called KSA leaders “worthless, incompetent and mean” and “dairy cows” of the US, adding that “they will surely witness destruction, downfall, disaster and decline.”4

More recently, IS(IL) has been deemed by various factions of the IRI’s political élite as a creation of the KSA and/or the US, aimed at containing the rise of ‘Iranian–Shia’ power in Iraq and the Levant. Most recently, following the June 7, 2017 twin terrorist attacks in Tehran, Iranian officials have put the blame on the KSA that, according to them, acted via IS(IL) or the MKO (or MeK). The KSA has in recent years publically expressed support for this foreign-based militant Iranian opposition sect, confirming the IRI’s fears that the KSA is ready to support its most hated nemesis.5  Meanwhile Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani labeled the US as an “international Daesh”, while Deputy Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Mostafa Izadi claimed Iran had evidence of US support for IS(IL).6

Since the JCPOA, both Tehran (that found itself in a process of rapprochement with the the West) and Riyadh (that sought to defend its standing as the West’s prime partner in the wider Gulf region as well as to safeguard the latter’s support against Iranian regional power) engaged in a spat over who is the ‘West’s darling’ in the region. This competition has been best illustrated in the 2016 op-ed spats between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif and his Saudi counterpart Adel Al-Jubeir in the pages of US élite newspapers, systematically trying to portray the other as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism in general and gravest threat to US interests in particular.7

Irreconcilable Geopolitical Aspirations (1): Leader of the Islamic World

Iran’s claim since the 1980s to constitute the nucleus – Umm al‐Qura, literally “the mother of all cities” – of the entire Islamic world, as reflected in the Supreme Leader’s title “Commander of the Faithful” (Amir‐ol‐mo’menin) or “Commander of the Affairs of the Muslims of the World” (Vali Amr‐e  Moslemin‐e Jahân), colludes with the similar claim put forward by KSA, whose King since 1986 has been granted the title “Custodian of the Tow Holy Mosques” (Khâdim al-arameyn ash-Sharifeyn), to be the leader of the Islamic world. This competition plays out on a number of levels, ranging from regional geopolitical alignments, their respective media engaging in sectarian propaganda, up to the Hajj pilgrimage.

Irreconcilable Geopolitical Aspirations (2): The Wider Gulf Region’s Premier Power

The Persian Gulf region is highly militarized, counting Iran, the GCC and the US (with its Navy’s Fifth Fleet stationed in Bahrain) as its chief military powers. Over the last few years, the UK and France have also established military bases there. Meanwhile, it is widely held that Iran and the US enjoy the greatest military prowess in the Gulf.

The security situation in the Gulf, where 40% of world oil exports pass through the Iranian-controlled Strait of Hormuz, remains highly volatile. While the GCC countries on the southern shore have assembled a huge military arsenal worth hundreds of billions of US dollars, Iran on the waterways’ northern shore, subjected to a Western arms embargo practically since its 1979 revolution, has developed its own military-industrial complex with an expanding ballistic missile arsenal. In reaction to the latter, the GCC plans to purchase a missile defence system,8  thus continuing the cycle of militarization instead of engaging in common-security efforts. Yet, the recent KSA/UAE-led confrontation on Qatar has surfaced deep contradictions within the GCC, making the latter’s survival in the current form an unlikely scenario. The crisis over Qatar has thus played into Iran’s hands.  

As the seemingly perennial dispute over the designation of the waterway separating Iran and the Arabian Peninsula illustrates, much of Tehran’s political élite sees the Persian Gulf as a region with Iran as its natural hegemon, thus calling on Western powers to abandon their military presence there. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has seen itself encircled by US military bases, occasionally exacerbated by threats of war, above all during the Bush/Cheney administration and its “regime change” agenda.

Yet, an arrangement between the littoral states of the Gulf might be feasible as an Iranian journalist working for state media writes:

The presence of Western powers such as the United Kingdom and the United States in and around the Persian Gulf has not led to a stable security order in the area. In fact, in past and present, their presence has been a source of conflict, aggression, and regional turmoil. A viable security order in the Persian Gulf region cannot be imposed from the outside and certainly not through perpetually feeding an arms race. It will only come about organically from within, established as a mutually beneficial pact by the littoral states and other immediate stakeholders.9

Iranian Foreign-policy Schools of Thought’s Accounts of Saudi Arabia: Defensive vs. Offensive Realism

The geostrategic views held on KSA vary starkly according to various Iranian foreign-policy schools of thought, ranging from confrontation to accommodation.

When it comes to Iran’s regional policies, distinction has been made between Defensive and Offensive Realism.10  On the one hand, Iranian behaviour towards reaching the nuclear deal has been informed by a foreign-policy school of thought that can be labelled ‘Defensive Realism.’ Here, Iran pursued the primary goal of establishing good relations with the West based on a win–win rationale in the conduct of foreign policy. This policy of engagement with Western great-powers is directed by the Rouhani administration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) which was granted the authority to deal with the nuclear dossier during the negotiations and which is headed by Iran’s former ambassador to the UN, Javad Zarif.

On the other hand, Iran’s policies in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and in post-uprising Syria are informed by another foreign-policy school of thought that can be labeled ‘Offensive Realism.’ In Iraq, Iran has shown no interest in reversing the sectarian (and highly corrupt) system set up by Washington and sustained by Tehran, which favours the Shia majority over the Sunni minority. It continues to favour a Shia-led central government in Baghdad that exerts control over the country’s central and oil-rich, Shia-dominated southern regions. Tehran’s policies have thus deepened the de facto fragmentation of Iraq into three parts: the effectively autonomous northern part (Kurdish Regional Government), the Sunni areas where IS(IL) could expand, and the above-mentioned Shia regions. Tehran operates with Shia militias, which it has set up or which it supports, that have engaged – as have their Sunni counterparts – in numerous massacres, further alienating the Sunnis, many of whom started to consider IS(IL) as the only effective force that could re-establish their interests in the face of Iranian domination. Moreover, Iran also pursues a policy of economic development in those Shia regions of Iraq.11

On the KSA, both schools differ. Defensive Realists, on the one hand, highlight the importance of the KSA due to its role in global energy markets and its much more advanced standing in an international system that they see is still dominated by the West. Hence, they argue for the necessity of good relations with Riyadh, which can strengthen their overall objective of re-integrate into that international system. Offensive Realists, on the other hand, view the KSA more as a challenger for the IRI’s regional status which needs to be confronted on the basis of a zero-sum game rationale.

Despite its Defensive Realist credentials, the Rouhani administration has failed to realize the objective of improved ties with the KSA. While the latter’s rather uncompromising attitude has not facilitated any Iranian–Saudi détente, the Rouhani administration itself has failed to meaningfully engage with its GCC neighbours, despite such declarations at its beginning. Again, after his re-election on May 19, 2017, administration officials have stressed the priority to mend regional geopolitical tensions. Yet, the escalating tensions between the IRI and the KSA in late May/early June 2017 (Trump’s Riyadh visit and the Tehran attacks) have again, at least for the time being, shelved the prospect of an Iranian regional initiative towards détente.12

New Configurations in post-ISIS West Asia: The Saudi–Iraqi Rapprochement

Over the summer and into the fall, a new set of developments emerged that will impact the future course of Iranian–Saudi rivalry, above all the Qatar blockade, the territorial defat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq; and Saudi–Iraqi rapprochement; the Qatar blockade; and the prospect of a new war between Israel and Hezbollah.

In June, a blockade was imposed on Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain, kicking off the most serious crisis of the GCC to date. Although some have suggested the campaign against Qatar, primarily driven by the UAE in concert with Saudi-Arabia and prepared weeks in advance, was mainly due to its reluctance to fully align with Riyadh’s anti-Iran posture (as one of the demands put forward against Doha was to cut its ties with Tehran), the crisis’ underlying causes arguably lie elsewhere: in particular, in Qatar’s differing geopolitical preferences during and its support of the “Arab Spring”, putting it at odds with those of Saudi Arabia; and in general, in its decidedly independent foreign policy, embracing multi-alignment as is the case with other successful city-states. The intra-GCC discord has put a question mark over the very future of the Council, thereby potentially boosting Iran’s hand in the geopolitical rivalry across the Persian Gulf.

At least one month before the outbreak of the Qatar crisis, an e-mail leak revealed that Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the heir to the Saudi throne, told two former US officials that he “wants out” of the two-year war in Yemen that he himself had initially spearheaded but whose lack of success has become a liability for the Kingdom. Moreover, MbS also asked Iraq to mediate between the KSA and the IRI, while saying he was “okay” with Washington engaging with Tehran.13 This has been widely interpreted as MbS being far more pragmatic than Saudi official rhetoric might have otherwise suggested.

By July and August, the territorial (and not necessarily the ideological) defeat of the self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria exacerbated concerns over the nature of Iran’s expanding influence under such circumstances,14  leading some prominent observers to expect an escalation in the Saudi–Iranian rivalry.15 Iran has been seen to engage in efforts to carve out an “arc of influence” consisting of land corridors across Iraq and Syria into Lebanon.16  Earlier in the year, it has been reported that Iran was engaging in population swaps in lands freed from Sunni or IS control, repopulating them with Shia Muslims.17  On September 22, President Rouhani’s address at the UN General Assembly appeared to address these concerns, stating “Iran does not seek to restore its ancient empire, impose its official religion on others, or export its revolution through the force of arms. We are so confident in the depth of our culture, the truth of our face, and tenacity and longevity of our revolution that we will never seek to export any of them in the way neocolonialists do with the heavy boots of soldiers.”18  Yet, given the fact that other power centres other than the presidency and the foreign ministry run Iran’s regional policies, it has to be doubted whether Iran’s neighbours have seen much credibility in his appeasing statements.

Moqtada al-Sadr Goes Saudi Arabia: A Watershed Moment in Iraqi Shia Geopolitical Orientation

Yet, the most important development over the past months is the deepening rapprochement between Baghdad and Riyadh, which has already altered the geopolitical configuration according to which Iran has been the undisputedly dominant foreign force in Iraq. On July 30, for the first time since 2006, Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Sadrist movement, officially visited Saudi Arabia for three days, meeting Saudi Arabia’s new Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah. Prior to that, Saudi and Iraqi senior officials exchanged visits in an effort to boost bilateral ties. Perhaps most importantly, Saudi Foreign Minister al-Jubeir visited Baghdad in February, marking the highest Saudi official visit since 2004. In contrast to his earlier stances, Sadr this time around chose not to address Saudi domestic politics, above all its treatment of Shias, as well as regional policies, but instead to focus on Iraqi national issues alone. This was interpreted as Sadr, who has a broad popular base in Iraq, pursuing a non-sectarian stance in Iraqi politics, thereby trying to alleviate the sectarian tensions that threaten to tear up the country. Although Shia circles from Iran to Lebanon have criticized Sadr’s new stance,19  the latter’s move needs to be seen against growing Iraqi Shia frustration over Iranian dominance in post-Sadddam Hussein Iraq.

For both Riyadh and Sadr, the recent Saudi–Iraqi rapprochement provides benefits. On one hand, Saudi Arabia undertook a foray into some Shia quarters so far mainly under Iranian influence. Part of this new strategy has been the opening of a new Saudi consulate in the Iraqi Shia stronghold of Najaf.20  Beyond an additional $10 million from Riyadh to be paid to Baghdad to help with Iraq’s reconstruction,21  Sadr after his visit ordered his followers to remove anti-Saudi posters all across his country.22  On the other, Sadr effectively sent a signal to Tehran that he disposes of wider geopolitical options. In the same vein, two weeks later, Sadr travelled to the UAE where he met Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy commander of the UAE armed forces.23  Thus, some Iraqi Shia circles seem to be interested in diversifying their foreign relations (when it comes to support as well as resources) in order to counterbalance Iranian dominance in their country. In other words, the Saudi rapprochement with the Sadrists also prompts a rethinking of sectarianism in the region and its explanatory power for analyzing regional geopolitics, for thus far the idea has been dominant that the region’s Shias exercise almost exclusive loyalty to Iran. The same phenomenon applies to Sunni ties with Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi–Iraqi rapprochement is also in line with stepped-up efforts by Riyadh to diversify its foreign relations in order to reduce its geopolitical dependency from Washington as well as to adjust to new geopolitical realities in its region where Russia has developed into an important player as the Syrian case has demonstrated. Thus, King Salman’s October 4–7 visit to Moscow, the first Saudi monarch to do so officially, must be seen in this vein. Saudi Arabia tries to establish a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ with Russia over Syria, who has been a de facto victor of the Syrian battleground and whose influence in Syria, for Riyadh, is preferable to that of Iran.24  This comes against the backdrop of emerging differences between Russia and Iran over post-IS Syria, which had been buried under their joint campaign in favour of the Bashar al-Assad regime.25

Saudi–Iraqi Rapprochement at its Peak: Saudi Arabia–Iraq Coordination Council

The Saudi–Iraqi rapprochement reached its peak in the wake of President Donald Trump’s October 13th “decertification” of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the Iran nuclear deal) and his announcement of a new Iran strategy.26  Washington has in fact put its weight behind this rapprochement, as part of his own new strategy to contain Iranian power in the region. On his recent Middle East tour, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson helped convene the inaugural meeting of the Saudi Arabia–Iraq Coordination Council on the 22nd of October in Riyadh with the attendance of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi who has also entertained good ties with Tehran. This new joint ministerial-level Saudi–Iraqi body officially aims to coordinate the fight against IS and to rebuild parts of Iraq destroyed by war. According to Tillerson, the Council would contribute to reforms geared towards building Iraq’s private sector and attract foreign investment. Enhanced Saudi investments, above all in Iraq’s agricultural and petrochemical sectors, are envisaged. Over that weekend, for the first time after 27 years (i.e. after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990), Saudi companies took part in an international business fair held in the Iraqi capital and commercial flights between the two were resumed.27  In August, both countries said they planned to open the Arar land border crossing for trade, which was closed in 1990.

Following this trilateral meeting, Tillerson and his Saudi counterpart Al-Jubeir made a joint press conference where the Saudi desire to rebuild its ties with Iraq as well as their common anti-Iran agenda were highlighted. “The natural tendency of the two countries and people”, Al-Jubeir said, “is to be very close to each other as they have been for centuries. It was interrupted for a number of decades. We’re trying now to make up for lost ground.” Meanwhile Tillerson stated: “Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home. The foreign fighters in Iraq need to go home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control.” According to a US senior official, the reference was made to the Qods Force, the IRGC’s foreign arm, as well as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that receive funding and training from Iran. The PMF was formed in 2014 when tens of thousands of Iraqis mobilized after IS had seized a third of their country’s territory, and it later became part of Iraq’s official security apparatus.

The Trump administration’s intention to designate Iran’s IRGC as a terrorist organization plays into this context. At the same press conference, Tillerson also said: “Both of our countries believe that those who conduct business with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, any of their entities – European companies or other companies around the globe – really do so at great risk.”28  Hence, not only will Iran’s, and for most parts the IRGC’s, military and political standing in Iraq be challenged but also its economic clout with the Saudis entering the field. It has to be seen in how far such a potential terrorist designation of the IRGC will affect the latter’s operations in Iraq and the Baghdad governments dealings with it against the backdrop of assertive US and Saudi positions.

In an apparent sign of frustration over this new Saudi–Iraqi rapprochement, Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif tweeted on the same day: “Exactly what country is it that Iraqis who rose up to defend their homes against ISIS return to? Shameful US FP [foreign policy], dictated by [Saudi] petrodollars.”29  The day after Trump’s announcement of a new Iran strategy, he had responded by tweeting: “Today, Iranians – boys, girls, men, women – are ALL IRGC; standing firm with those who defend us & the region against aggression & terror.”30  This, together with President Rouhani’s similar statement, in fact, is a sign that despite differing preferences among Iran’s above-discussed foreign policy schools of thought, there is indeed a great degree of unity.

Although the Saudi–Iraqi rapprochement will fall short of eradicating Iranian influence from Iraq, it can indeed be a positive development for Iraq itself which can now diversify its economic and political relations away from Iranian dominance. But despite Saudi and US efforts to align Iraq into their emerging containment policy towards Iran, this cannot be taken for granted as Iran entertains a network of power and influence in the country established since the 2003 US-led invasion.

These regional dynamics although all important in and of themselves, will not result in either Riyadh or Tehran taking the upper-hand in their continuing regional rivalry. While Iran seems be the beneficiary of the Qatar blockade and post-IS Iraq and Syria, Riyadh has signaled a pragmatic turn, forging closer ties with both Iraq and Russia in order to challenge Iran’s standing in post-IS West Asia. In the latter theatre of conflict, Iranian and Russian differences have now come to the fore in the wake of the territorial defeat of IS and the ensuing reconstruction of Syria.31  Moreover, while the potential breakdown of the JCPOA will be detrimental to Iranian interests, a new war pitting Israel against Hezbollah (who last year openly admitted it is financed by Tehran) would result in unpredictable ramifications for the entire region.  

The Iranian–Saudi hegemonic rivalry is unlikely to vanish over night, for its driving forces, especially their irreconcilably geopolitical aspirations, continue to exist. Only when the costs should raise to a level that either side might see as threatening its regional or domestic standing, might there be a noticeable reduction of tensions.

Bibliographic data

Fathollah-Nejad, Ali. “The Iranian–Saudi Hegemonic Rivalry.” October 2017.

SPECIAL INITIATIVE Iran Matters, Best Analysis and Facts on Iranian affairs from Harvard's Belfer Center, Blog Post, Oct. 25, 2017

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