Vahid Salemi / AP

Saudi-Iran spat a battle over regional influence, not religious rivalry

Analysis: Implications of a widening rift between Riyadh and Tehran could be far-reaching for the Middle East

The escalating diplomatic spat between Saudi Arabia and Iran is threatening to further destabilize the war-weary Middle East, a region where many local conflicts are fueled by the rivalry between the two regional heavyweights. But although those conflicts often assume a sectarian dimension, with Saudi Arabia presenting itself as the leader of the world’s Sunni Muslims and Iran claiming the mantle of global guardian of Shia Islam, their conflict is rooted in strategic rather than religious rivalry.

The diplomatic crisis was triggered by Saudi Arabia’s execution last weekend of a prominent Shia cleric and political activist Nimr al-Nimr, which saw a wave of protest that included the storming of Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran. That development prompted Riyadh to break off diplomatic ties with Iran for the first time since 1988, and similar action by Saudi allies Sudan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Those developments sounded alarms in world capitals over the prospective damage to efforts to find political solutions to the wars in Syria and Yemen.

Despite its sectarian hue, however, the conflict is at its core a strategic battle for regional influence. After all, many centuries passed between the battles of the foundational schism between Sunni and Shia Islam and the current geopolitical rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia that began in 1979.

That was the year the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran was overthrown and replaced by a Shia clerical regime headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who proclaimed his regime a revolutionary challenge to the regional political order — claiming to represent Islam in the political sphere, and directly challenging Saudi Arabia’s regional status. Riyadh financed Saddam Hussein’s ruinous eight-year war against Iran in the hope of destroying the Iranian regime, but the two sides eventually achieved a modus vivendi in the 1990s. But their strategic rivalry was rekindled across the region by the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, with Iran-backed Shia political parties dominating the elected governments that replaced Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government.

The strategic competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia escalated in political struggles in Lebanon, and then after the eruption of the Arab Spring rebellions, in increasingly violent clashes in Bahrain, Syria and then Yemen. The nuclear deal negotiated between Iran and world powers and the attendant rapprochement between Iran and the U.S. created unease in the Kingdom, which has traditionally counted on Washington’s backing in its strategic contest with Iran.

Proxy contests between Iran and Saudi Arabia have often followed a sectarian, Sunni vs. Shia trend — at least on the surface — but not always. The 2011 Saudi intervention in Bahrain helped the Sunni-minority leadership crush a popular Shia-led protest movement. But in Syria, where Iran has supplied weapons and even soldiers to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the terms are less obviously religious: While the armed rebellion may be led by Saudi-backed Sunni groups, many of its political dimensions are more diverse and complex, while the regime being backed by Iran is neither Shia nor religious, but an avowedly secular regime rooted in the religiously heterodox Alawite minority.

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia leads a military intervention by a Sunni Arab coalition against the Shia Houthi rebels, who Riyadh accuses of being agents of Iran.

Despite the temptation of some media outlets to cast this as a timeless religious conflict, such assumptions should be avoided, say many analysts. “The idea of an unending, primordial conflict between Sunnis and [Shias] explains little about the ebbs and flows of regional politics,” wrote Marc Lynch, director of the Project on Middle East Political Science at George Washington University, on Monday. “This is not a resurgence of a 1,400-year-old conflict. Sectarianism today is intense, but that is because of politics.”

A number of analysts have suggested that the execution of Nimr was a provocation designed to escalate tensions and rally support. Trita Parsi, of the National Iranian American Council, even suggested that the goal of such an escalation would be to force the U.S. back onside with its longstanding ally, Saudi Arabia, and limit rapprochement with Iran.

According to Lynch, “There seems little question that this was an intentional escalation by the Saudi leadership, which could not have been surprised by the regional and international backlash.” He summarized Riyadh’s calculations as such: “the new sectarian escalation is driven by Riyadh’s curious, and dangerous, mixture of perceived threat and opportunity, strength and weakness.” On the one hand, he argued, “Saudi Arabia is uniquely strong within Arab politics at the moment,” as evidenced by its strengthened partnerships with fellow Sunni powers that have joined Riyadh in the Yemen campaign and a new, “Islamic” anti-ISIL coalition that was announced last month.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia “clearly feels vulnerable as well,” Lynch said, both domestically and regionally. In the backdrop of its proxy wars against Iran, the historic nuclear deal brokered by Western powers to curtail Iran’s nuclear program has shaken Saudi confidence in Washington, its traditional ally against Tehran. Saudi Arabia and Israel, key U.S. allies in the region, have protested the deal, arguing it will make it easier for Iran to develop a bomb — though most analysts say their objection stems more from existential fears the deal will lead to a wider rapprochement with their virulent enemy.

“Its floundering wars in Syria and Yemen, the rise of the Islamic State and the Iran nuclear deal have left it feeling profoundly vulnerable,” Lynch wrote. “This combination of strength and vulnerability has made for erratic foreign policy — especially with an aggressive new leadership eager to make its mark.”

Many regional observers had expected Saudi-Iran tensions to boil over sooner or later.

The question, now, is whether this escalation can be tamped down by urgent diplomacy. If not, the implications of a widening rift between Riyadh and Tehran could be far-reaching for the Middle East. Already, there are signs the crisis could disrupt the fragile peace in Yemen. On Saturday, the same day Nimr’s execution was announced, Saudi Arabia formally declared an end to the ceasefire in Yemen, citing Houthi “violations” of its terms.

But the timing is particularly unfortunate for Syria: Saudi Arabia and Iran only recently agreed to sit at the same table in Vienna to kick-start the stalled peace process — for the first time in Syria’s nearly five-year war. Western officials moderating those talks have raised the alarm about the burgeoning tensions, with Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon telling Foreign Policy that the UN would work to keep “this crisis as separated as possible from harming the planned Syrian political process.”

Saudi officials on Tuesday said the diplomatic crisis would not affect the Kingdom’s peace efforts in Syria or Yemen, although the statement also blamed Iran’s positions for the lack of progress in those efforts. The real impact of the latest diplomatic spat remains to be seen, but many around the region and internationally continue to brace for the worst. 

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