In the past week the strained relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran ruptured. The break in diplomatic ties was set in motion by Saudi Arabia’s execution of prominent Shi’a cleric Nimr al-Nimr, a critic of the Saudi regime charged with inciting protests among the Kingdom’s Shi’a community. The execution was met with angry protests in Tehran, resulting in the storming of the Saudi embassy. Saudi Arabia responded by severing diplomatic relations with Iran.
Although the diplomatic break could have ramifications for the regional power struggles in Syria and Yemen it is neither unique nor unexpected.
Ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran were disrupted as recently as 1988 when, under somewhat similar circumstances, Iranian demonstrators stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Relations were restored in 1991 but the issues underlying the feud were not addressed.
Just as then, the recent diplomatic spat is a symptom of the fundamental differences between the opposing powers. These differences are ostensibly religious, but essentially represent a classic power struggle. This reality has led to the conflict being labelled the ‘Middle Eastern cold war’ – a reference to the U.S.-Soviet Cold War in which ideology and identity politics were also used to justify the pursuit of power.
Whereas political and economic ideas were central to the original Cold War, Islam is the key ideological battleground of the Middle Eastern cold war. Like then, the Middle Eastern cold war is not merely about the ideas themselves, but rather represents a struggle for power, influence and hegemony. In this respect Riyadh and Tehran have exploited the schism between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, using it to justify their actions and mobilise people in support of their respective political causes. As a result Islam has become deeply politicised.
But this phenomenon is not new, in fact in many ways it represents an extension of the domestic political arrangements in both Saudi Arabia and Iran.
On the one hand Saudi Arabia is a Sunni monarchy whose leadership draws political legitimacy from the Wahhabi branch of Islam. This is the result of 18th century tribal wars in which a tribal leader, Muhammad ibn Saud, formed an alliance with a religious preacher and scholar, Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab, who advocated a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. The alliance gave Saud’s quest for power a spiritual dimension, enabling him to mobilise and motivate supporters, expand his influence and ultimately establish the first Saudi state.
The Saudi leadership retain this same politico-religious union today, with the descendants of Abdul-Wahhab providing the moral-religious authority for the al Saud’s authoritarian rule, and the al Saud’s preserving and promoting the role of Wahhabism. On a superficial level this can be seen in the official title of the Saudi King: the ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’.
Before 1979 Iran was ruled by the secular Pahlavi dynasty headed by the Shah. Under the Shah relations between Riyadh and Tehran were cordial with official and collaboration on issues of Islamic leadership, such as on the establishment of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
However, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 removed the Shah and established the Islamic Republic of Iran as a revolutionary Shi’a theocracy.
The leader of the revolution and first Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, advocated the export of his country’s revolution and the fundamental principles it enshrined. Although all subsequent attempts at replicating the Islamic Revolution in the region failed, these developments deeply worried Saudi Arabia, whose elite sensed a threat to their leadership of the Islamic world.
Riyadh responded by exporting it’s own politically charged Islamic ideology, Wahhabism, which was intimately connected to the al Saud power base. Throughout the 1980s the Saudis used their enormous petro-dollar reserves to fund charities that disseminated Wahhabi principles across the Islamic world.
Since then, the rivalry between the two has periodically erupted into violence, although always through proxies and never directly. Saudi Arabia, for example, supported and encouraged Saddam Hussein to invade Iran in 1980, figuring the new regime in Tehran would be easily toppled. Instead the Iraqis met stiff resistance from ideologically driven fighters and the war dragged on for eight years. This resulted in a severe deterioration in relations between the Saudis and Iran, so much so that diplomatic ties were severed in 1988.
Despite this, relations improved throughout the 1990s as a result of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Saddam’s offensive caused unease in Saudi Arabia, whose leaders became concerned about his potential regional ambitions. Iran also held deep animosity for Saddam, stemming from the 1980 invasion. Therefore Iraq served as a common enemy for the two regional heavy weights, a factor that diverted attention from their own fraught relationship throughout the 1990s.
When the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, it also removed this common adversary, bringing the rivalry back into focus. The power vacuum left by the removal of Saddam allowed militant groups with sectarian ideologies to gain a foothold in the region. Violence flared between Sunni groups, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq, and Shi’a groups, such as the Iranian-backed Badr Brigade, sparking a civil war that exhibited ominous sectarian overtones.
Despite the lawlessness inside Iraq the conflict remained largely contained within that country’s borders, due mostly to the efforts of the strong security structures of regional authoritarian regimes.
However the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ protests weakened some of these regimes, allowing cracks in the state veneer, which militant groups exploited. The weakening of the state has been most evident in Syria, where enduring conflict has obliterated government structures in much of the country, allowing militants to proliferate and opening the door to foreign interference.
As in the past, Iran and Saudi Arabia have jumped at the opportunity to engage in proxy wars. Both countries have funnelled weapons, logistical support and political capital, as well as billions of dollars, into the conflict in Syria, as well as other regional hot zones.
As long as relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran continue their current trajectory the prospects for peace in the Middle East are slim.