TEHRAN, Iran — When two rivals constantly make contradictory strategic decisions, they are bound to eventually end up in a direct confrontation. Iran and Saudi Arabia are no exception. Since 2005, both countries have made conflicting strategic decisions. For a long time, the fluidity and magnitude of the conflicts in the Middle East delayed the emergence of any direct Iranian-Saudi confrontation. However, with the emergence of the Arab Spring, the geopolitical atmosphere of the Middle East changed and the strategic conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia became deeper and more intense. While new fields of conflict emerged, the strategic conflict between Tehran and Riyadh took on obvious ideological dimensions. The two countries have gradually become two opposite poles in a spectrum of conflicts.
Over the past several years, Saudi Arabia has had to deal with an increasing number of strategic challenges. It has lost some of its allies, and it has proven incapable of managing bottom-up changes that have been taking place. Therefore, it launched a counter-revolution to contain the Arab Spring, while at the same time it pursued a policy of change when it came to its rivals. Syria has been the centerpiece of this approach, with the aim of weakening the Islamic Republic’s regional role. In competition with Riyadh, Tehran has meanwhile been supporting bottom-up change in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen with the objective of undermining the regional forces opposed to the axis between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.
In this atmosphere of conflicting strategies, conflicting ideologies have started to play a role as well. Through emphasis on the contradictory nature of various religious and sectarian identities, Saudi Arabia has sought to push minorities, including Shiite Muslims, into a corner. This addition of an ideological dimension to an existing strategic conflict has been problematic. It has resulted in Shiites confronting various authorities, including the Saudi government. Indeed, it was because of these developments that Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Yemen’s Houthi movement was once again revived. At the start of the Arab Spring, however, this problem was not a strategic priority for Saudi Arabia. At that time, Riyadh was more concerned with limiting Iran’s regional influence and presenting Iran as a sectarian phenomenon. Saudi Arabia had some success with this approach, but it had to deal with increasing challenges at the same time.
On the regional level, the confrontation between Iran and its allies with Saudi Arabia has engulfed all of the Middle East. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain have been the main scenes of this clash of strategies. For a while, the existence of these battlegrounds prevented the emergence of any direct confrontation between Tehran and Riyadh. Moreover, while the strategic and ideological clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia continued, two new variables were introduced in the past year in regional equations.
The first variable is the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which showed that the international community changed its approach toward the Islamic Republic. Although this change does not mean that the international community is in agreement with Iran’s regional policies, it nonetheless foresees a future for the Middle East in which Iran plays a role as a regional power. The United States and the European Union's insistence on Iran being present at the Syria peace talks in Vienna is a sign that the predicted future is approaching. The other variable is Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which changed the balance of the conflict in favor of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Both of these variables clashed with Riyadh’s regional policies. Moreover, in addition, political and on-the-ground developments in 2015 did not proceed as expected by Riyadh. Iran’s participation in the Syria peace talks, the Syrian army’s advancement against Saudi-supported forces and the restarting of Yemen peace talks in Geneva in accordance with the balance of power on the ground were all developments that were not welcomed by Riyadh.
As far as Iran is concerned, however, the strategic atmosphere of the region changed for the better. The JCPOA unfettered Iran’s economic and political potentials. In the prevalent regional zero-sum game, political and battlefield developments in Syria and Yemen, as well as the advancement of Iraqi forces against the Islamic State, were viewed as gains for Iran and losses for its regional rivals. Therefore, the political developments in the region, when it comes to strategic and ideological conflicts, have resulted in relative satisfaction on Tehran’s part and dissatisfaction on Riyadh’s part. The latter has been the case to the extent that one can even talk of Riyadh’s strategic desperation in the said areas of conflict. This desperation becomes evident if one considers the way Saudi Arabia reacted to the JCPOA and its dissatisfaction with the Syria and Yemen peace talks held in Vienna and Geneva, respectively.
In an atmosphere of strategic rivalry, the challenged party has two options: compromise or orchestrate a crisis in order to change the undesired environment. Compromise occurs when the challenged player loses its ability to continue the rivalry and also when the subject and the area of conflict do not pose a threat to its existence. Saudi Arabia, however, does not fit into either of these scenarios; it has a good potential for continuing its rivalry with Iran — and even expanding it. More important, losing this strategic battle can have security and existential implications for the Saudi regime. Therefore, it is predictable that changing the atmosphere of its strategic competition with Iran is a priority for the Saudi regime.
During the past two years, there have been numerous international attempts to put the geostrategic conflicts in the Middle East back within a political framework. The Yemen and Syria peace talks are examples of such efforts, and also of how the latter has somewhat muted the sectarian aspects of regional rivalries. Desectarianizing the conflict is beneficial for Iran and Shiite communities in the region, because it helps them come out of the ideological-strategic isolation that they have been pushed into by Saudi Arabia. Indeed, developments since the emergence of the Arab Spring have demonstrated that sectarian ideological conflicts have made Iran and its allies vulnerable. Therefore, intensification of this aspect of the conflict and dragging Iran into it has the potential of changing the strategic atmosphere of the region. In such circumstances, the execution of peaceful Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr predictably led to the start of a crisis, and in spite of attempts at controlling it, a cut in diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Unlike Riyadh, which is strategically desperate and wants the regional atmosphere to change, Tehran is satisfied with the current trend in the region. Iranian strategists have decided to use their regional and international relations to defuse the pressures coming from Riyadh. Indeed, unlike for Saudi Arabia, continuation of the status quo is a desired strategy for Iran. This is why there was a consensus among the ruling Iranian political elite in opposing the attack on the Saudi Embassy. From a strategic point of view, the embassy attack was indeed a stupid and juvenile reaction that forced Iran into a setting predesigned by Saudi Arabia. This is why the Iranian administration strongly rejected it. Saudi Arabia, however, broke diplomatic relations with Iran as a result.
For now, the crisis over the embassy attack has subsided and it has not had any major strategic consequences. However, we are likely to witness similar developments in the future. Saudi Arabia is discontent with the regional situation and has a substantial potential to wreak havoc, as has been showcased in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The crisis over the execution of Nimr and the shutting down of the Saudi Embassy shows that Riyadh is willing to use strategic surprises in order to change the atmosphere of the region.
Under these circumstances, certain media personalities who have connections to the Saudi monarch’s inner circle have discussed the possibility of Saudi Arabia going to war with Iran. In this vein, we should be ready for more surprises. Although Iran has been relatively successful in controlling the crisis that emerged following the embassy attack, it might not be possible to manage the next crisis. Considering the current situation, the major powers, and especially those who have the ability to affect the decision-making process in Riyadh, have an important role to play. Giving the Saudi strategists a free hand in dealing with al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, Yemen and Syria has proven to be disastrous. Is another great disaster on the way, or will Riyadh be contained?