Why Saudi Arabia should fear Iran
One may see the Iranian threat as real or illusory, depending on what track one predicts the Islamic Republic will take going forward
Commentators who analyze the anxious Saudi reaction to the recent Iranian charm offensive and Iran’s subsequent rapprochement with the U.S. tend to downplay Saudi concerns as overblown and see Saudi Arabia’s problem with Iran as little more than a competitive tussle for regional leadership and influence. Some have gone so far as to argue that recent events should bring both Iran and Saudi Arabia to their senses so that they can move away from “childish” competition and toward “mature” cooperation.
While such an optimistic outcome would be delightful, a more cynical analysis of these developments might conclude that, if anything, the Saudis should be even more nervous than they are because Iran’s recent diplomatic success may have actually increased the risk of an Islamic Republic–based existential threat to the Sunni Arab ruling order in the Gulf.
One may see the Iranian threat as real or illusory, depending on what track one predicts the Islamic Republic will take going forward. Many argue that the Iran of today is tired and that its people are fundamentally pro-American who desperately want to rejoin the international community and who have no patience for anything that might hinder Iran from achieving that goal. The Iranian people want to enjoy life, have iPhones, travel, etc., and they are sick and tired of conflict, sacrifice, and revolutionary Islam.
Consequently, the argument continues, the Iranian regime has no choice but to respond to its people’s yearning, get off its revolutionary high horse, and start delivering growth and prosperity.
The inevitable conclusion, in light of this argument, is that the Iran of the future will strive to reintegrate into the global community of nations, focus inward on its own economic development, and ultimately prove to be a force of stability and progress in the region. That argument, of course, presupposes that the current regime retains the option of realistically meeting such high expectations. This, unfortunately, is hardly the case.
The Iran of today, by any standard of measurement, is a country on the brink of economic collapse. Iran was never able to fully rebuild its infrastructure after the decade-long Iran–Iraq War because it continued to suffer under punitive sanctions for many years afterward. Iran’s economy today is a command economy mixed with crony capitalism; simultaneously, it has the classic symptoms of a resource curse. With inflation over 50 percent and an increasingly unaffordable social safety net - critical to keep the masses quiet -Iran’s situation is a desperate one. Lifting sanctions is hardly going to solve these problems in the near future. In fact, if anything, it may exacerbate the government’s problems by heightening its people’s expectations too quickly. After all, people won’t have the “great Satan” to blame for their problems anymore. Should the regime try to pursue a classical IMF approach to economic reform, it would have to relinquish the huge infrastructure of patronage upon which the regime’s core support is built. This would be a revolutionary step with massive political risk. Iran is hardly a candidate for a successful perestroika, and the mullahs do not have to be very bright to appreciate what perestroika did to Mr. Gorbachev and his government.
If all of this were not enough, Iran’s output of oil and gas is expected to shrink drastically and fall below its own domestic consumption requirements before 2020. This is the result of the gradual exhaustion of (and damage to) the country’s oil reserves made worse by Iran’s sanctions driven inability to source the necessary parts and financing for critical maintenance and repairs.
On top of that, Iran is locked into a dangerous demographic collapse, the likes of which demographers have never before seen in any country. Today, Iran has a fertility rate of just 1.9, versus a TFR of nearly 7.0 only two decades ago. The economic, social, and political consequences of such a huge drop would be nothing short of apocalyptic for any nation, let alone one with diminishing natural resources and an unproductive statist economy. Iran’s leaders are acutely aware of and very nervous about the dangers associated with this issue and have publicly warned about it on numerous occasions.
In any event, cynics would argue - irrespective of these stark economic and demographic facts - that the mullahs are hardly about to change their spots and suddenly focus on turning their country into a new Korea. This Iranian regime dances to a different tune. It is, after all, one that has been willing to bleed its economy dry for decades in order to fund a power projection capability all the way from Lebanon to Iraq to Syria, sacrificing its men and its desperately scarce foreign exchange in order to do so. This is the regime that has undertaken a decades-long and enormously expensive ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program while its people continue to want for basic goods, medicine, and services.
Looking to the Gulf
Painfully for the Iranians all of this has been taking place while their Arab Gulf neighbors continue to drown in oil and gas wealth, buy and build the biggest and the best of everything, and yet still struggle to spend the hundreds of billions of dollars gushing into their coffers every year. As Arabs happily flaunt their wealth, Iranians look on with resentment and envy combined with a toxic sense of racial and cultural superiority. They feel, and have always felt, instinctively entitled to lead the “Persian” Gulf and to control its wealth.
Proponents of this view also look anxiously at the DNA of the Islamic Republic and its ruling class. They see ambitious theocrats soaked in a historic Shiite narrative of pain and suffering, having struggled for decades to overthrow the Western-backed Pahlavi monarchy only to immediately face a hostile West (eagerly egged on by the Sunni rulers of Arabia) pushing the Iranian people toward counter-revolution and regime change. They blame Westerners and Gulf Arabs for nudging (and financing) Saddam to declare war on Iran - a war that cost Iran hundreds of thousands of its youth and destroyed its economy and infrastructure. Not to mention the decades of sanctions that followed, which have bled the country dry. On top of that, Iranian leaders see themselves as facing ongoing “Wahhabi-led terrorism” against their allies: The Shiite of Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain, and the Alawite regime of Syria. They also deeply resent ongoing Sunni rule of what they claim are disenfranchised Shiite minorities in Arabia, which condition they blame on a Saudi state built on a Wahhabi ideology that not only fuels Sunni hatred of the Shiite and Iran but that also urges America, as it has for years, “to cut the head off the Iranian snake.”
Visitors to Tehran in recent years have consistently noted a deep, visceral Iranian ruling class hatred of Gulf Arab leaders in general, and of the royal Saudi Wahhabi establishment in particular. The mullahs see destroying that establishment as essential, not only to settle historical scores but also to achieve Iranian Islamic leadership and realize their Persian imperial dreams in the Gulf—by way of which they will also acquire the wealth desperately needed for their regime’s own survival.
The surest and most reliable way for the Islamic Republic of Iran to get this wealth, settle scores, and satisfy its sectarian and nationalistic imperial impulses (and survive as a regime) is to grab Arabian Gulf oil and destroy the ruling Sunni GCC order. Standing between Iran and its goal, its dream, is nothing but America - but only an America willing to fight Iran, if necessary. As that will to fight clearly weakens under Mr. Obama, and as the Iranians improve their relations with the West and drive a wedge into the U.S.–GCC alliance, their opportunity - and with it their hunger - for “their” empire will only increase.
Visitors to Tehran in recent years have consistently noted a deep, visceral Iranian ruling class hatred of Gulf Arab leaders in general, and of the royal Saudi Wahhabi establishment in particularAli al-Shihabi
Iran today faces an adversary that is militarily very weak and exposed. The GCC’s expensive militaries are unfortunately still more show than substance, and its armies continue to face considerable training and leadership challenges. Pampered officers and troops have never fought a real war and have none of the passion and ideological fervor that Ibn Saud’s Ikhwan had in uniting Arabia. Also, these militaries still rely heavily on foreign labor to maintain and sometimes even operate their high-tech equipment.
Iran, however, is a strong hardened military power by any standard. It has a large, motivated, experienced army and considerable expertise in asymmetrical warfare and local weapons production, and it retains a strong political will to sacrifice its troops for a cause. This strength is supported by a vast network of allies and agents in Arab Shiite communities, starting with Hezbollah in Lebanon and including the Alawites and their allies in Syria, the newly empowered Iraqi Shiite, and the underprivileged among the Gulf Arab Shiite. The Iranians have a lot of cards to play with here. Iran does not need to physically conquer the Gulf with its armies to achieve its objectives. The mullahs have mastered the game of proxy control under the guise of local Shiite communities and organizations. In southern Iraq, Iran has this type of infrastructure already in place. These forces can easily cross GCC borders at the slightest provocation, in what could be packaged as a “popular” Iraqi movement of people across borders to save their distressed Shiite brethren in Arabia. In such a scenario, one certain to create massive geopolitical confusion, the U.S. will hardly allow itself to become stuck in the middle of what it will probably see as a Muslim civil war. Given the short distances involved between the Iraqi border and the heartland of Arabian oil, and given the presence of over two million possible Shiite sympathizers in this heartland, GCC leaders can only ignore such a possibility at their own peril.
For people with a somewhat less fertile imagination, such scenarios might arguably seem unnecessarily dramatic and alarmist, given the widely held axiom that “world powers” will never let things get out of hand in the Persian Gulf. Maybe they are right. Yet, what if they are wrong?
Ali al-Shihabi is a writer on Middle Eastern politics. He is a Saudi citizen who is a graduate of Harvard and Princeton and the founder of an investment bank.
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