Why Saudi Arabia mistrusts Iran?
What is driving the growing crisis between Saudi Arabia and Iran?
The current narrative has it that the two countries are simply competing for influence in the region, a struggle inflamed by the historical tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. A closer look, however, reveals a different story. Iran, despite the benign noises it occasionally makes, is a revolutionary state that was born out of the overthrow of its monarchy. It is fueled by an expansionist ideology and has been publicly committed from day one to overthrowing the established order in the Middle East. And at the center of that order stands the Saudi state.
The Saudis are keenly aware of this fact. They have not fallen for the claim that Iran has “hard-liners” and “moderates” and that the moderates deserve support and encouragement so that they can triumph in the end. They know Iran is ultimately ruled by a supreme leader, an autocratic cleric, and that it is his word that counts, not that of his “moderates.”
Saudi Arabia, unlike Iran, is a status quo power that has striven for over seventy-five years to be a responsible state and the custodian of a quarter of the world’s oil. While it is accused of exporting ‘Wahhabism’, an argument the Iranians are now eagerly promoting in order to disguise their own actions, many forget that the use of political Islam began as a joint US and Saudi project in the 1950s to fight the spread of communism in the region. This culminated in the joint venture to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
In those days, political Islam was seen as a benign force that would be the natural antidote to communism in the Middle East. That this project has contributed to the emergence of radical Islam is a tragic unintended consequence, or blowback, something that caught both the Saudi and US governments by surprise during 9/11. The Saudi government quickly reacted to this radicalism by working to reform its curricula and the behavior and language of its clerics, closing suspect charities, and virtually eliminating all financial flows from the kingdom to radical groups abroad, as well as waging a bloody struggle against al-Qaeda and ISIS within its own territory. Recall that the crown prince survived a suicide bombing that had him as the target.
Having said this, clearly there remains work to be done. Since the conservative religious establishment in Saudi Arabia is a major political force with extensive public support, restructuring the religious and cultural infrastructure of the country will take some time.
It is the Iranians who are the aggressive promoters of militant theocracy in the Middle East today, not the ‘Wahhabis’, and it’s not through money or madrassas but through the hard power of arms that they are achieving this objective. Also, Iran has benefited from the emergence of ISIS, an organization that has little chance of capturing any “market share” among the Shiite and hence threatens only the Sunni heartlands. This explains why the Iranians hosted and granted free passage to many al-Qaeda leaders who escaped Afghanistan after 9/11. The story of how Iran’s clients Bashar al-Assad and Nouri al-Maliki helped incubate ISIS is now well established.
Iran is championing the argument that Wahhabism is the source of terrorism specifically for the purpose of undermining the 70-year US–Saudi alliance and turning American public opinion against the kingdom. Should the US–Saudi alliance be weakened, Iran will then try, under the guise of “fighting terrorism,” to move in and bring the regional order down, replacing US hegemony with Iranian hegemony and putting Iran’s clients in power throughout the Gulf region. In such a scenario, Tehran would effectively control 50 percent of the world’s oil reserves as well as the holy cities of Islam.
Those who doubt the validity of this argument should look at what Iran has done, not what it has said in English, over the last thirty years. Despite sanctions, limited oil revenue, and severe domestic economic distress, Iran has actively funded Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq, the Assad regime in Syria, and the Houthis in Yemen—at an enormous cost to its economy and at the expense of its people’s most basic needs. While doing these things, Iran has sacrificed thousands of its fighters on the battlefields of Syria to prop up a regime that has killed over 500,000 of its own civilians. Such behavior has undoubtedly promoted terrorism.
And yet while Saudi Arabia has in the last two decades tried, on and off, to maintain civil relations with Iran, the Houthi takeover of Yemen with Iran’s acknowledged support presented the kingdom with an existential threat it could no longer ignore. Northern Yemen was at risk of becoming another South Lebanon, controlled by Iranian proxies actively threatening the kingdom’s security. The kingdom was not about to let Iran show up on its southern border. Hence, Saudi Arabia went to war to stop that from happening. Had the United States during the Cold War been presented with a similar situation, say, Mexico’s government being overthrown by a Soviet-supported militia, the US response would have been identical.
Today, Saudi Arabia is not in “competition” with Iran. Rather, it is fighting a defensive, even an existential, battle against an Iranian enemy that seeks its destruction and is trying to use the label of Wahhabism as a cover to gain American public support for achieving that objective.
Ali 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.