Saudi Arabia and Iran’s Cold War: An Insight into the rivalry over the Middle East.

By Dhruv Shah 


Saudi Arabia and Iran’s long-standing tension was recently brought to the forefront of global politics, when two of Saudi Arabia’s oil fields were attacked by drones. To Saudi Arabia, the attacks represented an act of aggression by Iran; be it directly or indirectly. As mounting evidence is presented of Iran’s culpability in the attack, and as Saudi Arabia pushes for drastic international action; it is more important than ever to consider the turbulent history informing Saudi Arabia and Iran’s relationship. 

 Underlying this rivalry is a power struggle for growing regional influence between the Middle East’s two most influential actors. Iran and Saudi Arabia’s enflamed aggression has not translated into direct war but instead both states have avoided each other militarily; they have increasingly begun to take opposite sides in many regional conflicts – resulting in a cold war. This article will aim to explain the underlying rivalry between the states, which has led to vying for control of domestic politics within the Middle East.

Whilst many analysts have cited that Saudi Arabia and Iran’s animosity is the result of sectarianism: more specifically Sunni and Shia differences, this article takes the viewpoint that the sectarian lens is too simplified. It is hard to contend that both states are fighting over sectarian differences when for much of history, Sunni and Shia Muslims lived together in harmony. Furthermore, during the Lebanese civil war, Sunny and Shia Muslims fought side by side against Christians. Instead sectarianism has been used by either side to achieve the goal of regional hegemony. One leading factor which has particularly contributed to their rivalry is the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Prior to this, both states had good relations with each other; both countries being governed by a Western backed monarch. Both states were constituted in Nixon’s doctrine, “twin pillar” policy in the Middle East – a doctrine which emphasized the stability Saudi Arabia and Iran would present to the Middle East. This doctrine can also help explain how a cold war between these two key states has contributed to an unstable Middle East.

In the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, the Shah of Iran was ousted, and Iran was transformed rapidly from a secular state to an Islamic Republic. This had major repercussions for the Saudi-Iran relationship. Firstly, Iran’s leader Hassan Rouhani argued that Iran was the unofficial leader of the Muslim world; a claim which challenged the legitimacy of Saudi Arabia, a state which considered itself the leader of the Muslim world as it contained two of the holiest sites to Muslims – Mecca and Medina. Secondly, Iran’s revolution called for the overthrow of monarchies and secular governments; much to the alarm of many neighbouring states like Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait. This represented the ultimate threat for a monarchy such as Saudi Arabia who feared that Iran’s Islamic revolution would be exported to their own borders and be their eventual demise. As such Saudi Arabia made it essential to check any growing Iranian presence within the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia and Iran’s growing cold war has only been further exacerbated by an unstable Middle East. One important structural factor which can partly explain the turmoil in the region is the number of weak states. The number of weak states in a region is important as generally weak institutions facilitate a breakdown in state authority enabling outsiders to enter and take advantage to further their own policy goals. The strategic rivalry is heating up as both states have increasingly intervened in weak neighbouring states. In fact, Iran in many ways is winning the struggle and this itself drives Saudi Arabia to further aim to check Iran’s power. Two extremely prominent examples which highlight this point, are Yemen and Syria. 

Yemen’s poorly governed, fractious state, bordering Saudi Arabia has turned into a bloody civil war. Yemeni government forces, backed by Saudi airstrikes are conflicting with Houthi rebels, backed by Iranian troops. While it is unknown the extent to which Iran has intervened, a recent NYT report claimed that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard were smuggling significant numbers of weapons to the rebels. Houthi rebels are accordingly gaining more territory, and this is significant to the power relations within the region. If the rebels succeed in overthrowing the government and becoming legitimised, then Iran will gain another ally which will only bolster their influence further at the expense of their rival, Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Yemen is geographically important to Saudi Arabia; situated on their southern border.Yemen is strategic, acting as a buffer state, enabling it to prevent Iranian influence from directly reaching their state borders.

Another prominent example of intervention in week states which has been plastered across the news, is Syria. Syria’s devastating eight-year conflict began because of strong domestic opposition against the authoritarian government of Assad. However, this conflict has transformed into an international dispute, as external actors, the likes of Russia, the US, Iran and even Saudi Arabia all jostle for influence. At the heart of this struggle is a battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran has provided unwavering support for Assad despite international pressure. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia sees this as an opportunity to undermine Iranian influence within the region by backing US forces who oppose Assad. But, recent events such as US withdrawal of their troops along with growing Russian influence – key allies of Iran – have shown that Saudi Arabia has failed at diluting Iranian influence within Syria. Iran’s presence across Syria is deeply rooted and includes a widening network of military bases

Until now, Iran and Saudi Arabia have continually fought a cold war, however, recent attacks to Saudi infrastructure have added a new dimension to the conflict. The attacks have highlighted Saudi Arabia’s weakness in security despite spending billions on defence. What is more troubling, is that if Iran is indeed behind the attacks, directly or indirectly through Houthi rebels, this will mark the first time in this conflict that Saudi Arabia has attacked tangibly on its own soil. 

 As Iran and Saudi Arabia square off across the Gulf, this could incite a much broader conflict. For many Western states and the US, the Gulf is a vital shipping point containing many naval and civilian ships. In the event of a conflict, the Gulf may become a diplomatic mess if the Strait of Hormuz – an important chokepoint – is shut. Iran has already flexed their muscle in the Gulf by seizing a British tanker. Moreover, any form of peace in the Middle East seems more distant than ever. For a long time, the US and its allies have increasingly seen Iran as a destabilising power within the Middle East. Harsh sanctions by the US followed by a withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord, has contributed to Iran continually lashing out militarily with proxies and an outright rejection by Iran to engage in diplomatic talks with the US. Plagued with civil wars, along with a cold war between the regions two most influential regional actors, the future of the Middle East seems turbulent. 

Image sourced through Wikimedia, open domain.

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