Monday, 20 February 2012



W. Andrew Terrill



Saudi Arabia and Iran have often behaved as seri­ous rivals for influence in the Middle East, especially the Gulf area, since at least Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolu­tion and the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. While both nations define themselves as Islamic, the differences between their foreign policies could hardly be more dramatic. In most respects, Saudi Arabia is a regional status quo power, while Iran often seeks revolutionary change throughout the Gulf area and the widerMiddle East with varying degrees of intensity. Saudi Arabia also has strong ties with Western nations, while Iran views the United States as its most dangerous enemy. Per­haps the most important difference between the two nations is that Saudi Arabia is a conservative Sunni Muslim Arab state, while Iran is a Shi’ite state with senior politicians who often view their country as the defender and natural leader of Shi’ites throughout the region. The rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran has been reflected in the politics of a number of regional states where these two powers exercise influence.

The 2011 wave of pro-democracy and anti-regime protests, now known as the Arab Spring, introduced new concerns for both Saudi Arabia and Iran to con­sider within the framework of their regional priorities. Neither government’s vital interests were involved in the outcome of the struggle in Tunisia where the Arab Spring began, but both leaderships became especially interested in these events once the unrest spread to Egypt. While Saudi Arabia watched the ouster of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak with horror, the Iranian leadership saw some potential opportunities. Riyadh’s decision in late May to grant Egypt $4 billion in loans and grants quickly became a powerful incen­in light of Egypt’s declining tourism revenues and the interruption of Western private investment in the Egyptian economy. Both nations are continuing their efforts to improve relations with post-Mubarak Egypt, although Saudi Arabia’s financial resources give it an advantage in the struggle for influence.

Iran seeks to expand its power in the Gulf, which is a key area of competition between the two states. Saudi Arabia and to varying extents other Gulf Arab states often seek to contain Iran’s quest for dominance. In the struggle for Gulf influence, Saudi Arabia has consistently maintained a vastly higher level of politi­cal clout with local states than IranIran currently can­not hope to overshadow Saudi regional influence in the Gulf, but it does seek to influence Gulf Arab states and is especially interested in pressuring them to min­imize or eliminate their military links to the West. In recent years, Sunni-Shi’ite tension in the Gulf seems to have been rising for a number of reasons. Such prob­lems reached a high point with the March 2011 Saudi-led military intervention in Bahrain. Consequently, it is increasingly likely that the rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran will intensify in the near future. In this environment, U.S.intelligence officials and policy­makers will correspondingly need to be aware of the possibility that Saudi Arabia may overestimate Ira­nian involvement in any regional crisis and at times conflate Shi’ite assertiveness with Iranian activism on the basis of their own form of worst-case analysis and very little evidence.

Iran’s closest Arab ally has been Syria, and Teh­ran has been watching the 2011 popular unrest in Syria with considerable alarm. Syrian leaders some­times believe that their country is or could become the junior partner in the relationship with Iran, and Damascus has disagreed with Tehran on a variety of important issues within an overall context of coop­eration and friendly ties. The Syrian relationship with Riyadh is different. As a monarchy, Saudi Arabiahas maintained a long tradition of distrust towards Syria, which defines itself as a republican and sometimes a revolutionary regime. While the Saudis have been willing to work withDamascus on occasion, they do not have much in common with the Syrian govern­ment beyond Arabism. More recently, both Saudi Arabia and Iran have needed to consider how Syrian unrest impacts upon their interests. Tehran clearly has the most to lose, and it is mostly standing by its Syr­ian ally. The previous Saudi détente with Damascus was significant, butRiyadh never viewed the Assad regime as an ally and could be expected to take some pleasure in seeing Tehran lose its most important Arab partner should this regime fall. On the negative side, Riyadh almost certainly would not view the turmoil in Syria as an unqualified Saudi victory even if the Assad regime was overthrown and replaced by an anti-Irani­an government. The Saudi leadership remains ultra-conservative and, correspondingly, takes a dim view of both revolutionary upheaval and Arab democracy, although Riyadh would almost certainly seek to main­tain a high level of influence with any post-Ba’athist government. If Syrian President Assad is overthrown, the United States may seek to work with Saudi Arabia and other friendly states to make certain that Syrian financial and military ties to Iran do not survive the transition.

In a major bid to enhance its regional influence, Tehran has attempted to portray itself as the leading power supporting Palestinian rights and opposing Is­rael through a variety of means, including supplying weapons and funding to Palestinian militants. Saudi Arabia has made numerous efforts to help the Pales­tinians and to use its financial resources and political influence on their behalf, but it has also served as the chief sponsor of an Arab League peace plan that is of interest to some Israeli leaders. Riyadh maintains nor­mal political relations with both of the major Pales­tinian political parties, Fatah and Hamas, the latter of which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States. Saudi influence with Hamas has de­clined steadily in recent years and been almost totally displaced by that of Iran. Elsewhere in the Levant, large numbers of Lebanon’s Shi’ites consider Iran to be an important ally that has extended considerable support to the Lebanese in resisting what they define as Israeli aggression. In this environment, the United States will almost certainly wish to continue to pursue the Middle East Peace Process for both its intrinsic val­ue and in order to undermineIran’s efforts to enhance its role in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

The future of Iraq is a central concern for both Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States. The planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq will also complicate the Saudi-Iranian rivalry in the region. The departure of U.S. troops may radically change the ways in which regional states help their Iraqi support­ers. After the United States withdraws the remainder of its military forces from Iraq, it will be difficult for Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Gulfmonarchies to remain passive should Iran continue to arm Iraqi Shi’ite militias. One of the most troubling ways in which Iran exerts its influence in Iraq is through vari­ous Shi’ite militia organizations that engage in terror­ism and strikes against U.S. troops and other targets insideIraq. These pro-Iranian militias are sometimes called Special Groups. Iran has considerable influence with them and provides weapons and training to some of these forces through the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ al-Quds Force.

Finally, U.S. diplomats and military leaders deal­ing with Iraq must be prepared for Iranian attempts to take advantage of serious disagreements between Baghdad and Riyadh afterWashington withdraws its troops from Iraq. To contain Iran while supporting stability and democracy, the United States must be prepared to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iraq and limit Iranian efforts to insert itself into such a pro­cess. Since key Saudi concerns may involve Iraqi gov­ernment actions in Sunni Arab areas, the United States will have to be aware of issues in those areas, and be prepared to support measures to increase Sunni Arab willingness to participate in the political system along with a Shi’ite and Kurdish willingness to share power.


The Saudi-Iranian rivalry is a central feature in the Middle Eastern security landscape that reaches into both the Gulf region and the Arab-Israeli theater. It is therefore a reality that will touch upon the interests of the United States in a number of situations. In many instances, Saudi opposition to Iran will serve U.S. in­terests, but this will not occur under all circumstanc­es. Saudi Arabia remains a deeply anti-revolutionary state, with values and priorities that sometimes over­lap with those of Washington on matters of strategic interest, and often conflict over matters of reform and democracy for other Middle Eastern states. Ad­ditionally, Middle East regional politics do not con­sist of rigid blocs that can be viewed as a miniature cold war, even in cases where sectarian differences are involved. With these parameters in mind, this mono­graph makes the following recommendations.

1. The United States must understand that the differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran will be reflected elsewhere in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and LebanonIn this regard, it is possible that the United States will not be the most influential ex­ternal power interacting with the Iraqi government. Nevertheless, the U.S. leadership may have to decide what kind of Saudi Arabian behavior it is willing to accept in Iraq if Riyadh chooses to support Iraq’s Sun­ni Arab population against a Shi’ite-dominated gov­ernment in Baghdad. In the future, it is possible that Saudi Arabia will consider a policy of ignoring the ef­forts of potentially increasing numbers of its citizens to infiltrate Iraq and fight beside Iraq’s Sunni Arabs if a bloody intercommunal conflict breaks out. Riyadh will be given increased freedom to do this by theU.S. military withdrawal, which would end the possibility for Saudi infiltrators to strike atU.S. targets in Iraq. Such intervention may be an inevitable response to in­tercommunal warfare, but cannot end well for either the United States or Saudi Arabia since a new crop of radicals will be generated to bedevil civilized nations throughout the world, possibly for decades to come. Therefore, the United States must seek to deescalate conflict among Iraqi communities before such a sce­nario can play out.

2. U.S. intelligence officials and policymakers must also be aware of the possibility thatSaudi Ara­bia may overestimate Iranian involvement in any regional crisis and may conflateShi’ite assertive­ness with Iranian activism on the basis of very little evidence. Such concerns may reflect an honest Saudi appraisal based on their own assumptions or worst-case planning, but these cannot be accepted without a skeptical examination of the evidence. In many cases, Arab Shi’ite leaders will work closely with the Irani­ans, but not always. This problem of overestimating Iranian influence appears to be present to some extent in Saudi evaluations of both the Houthi rebellion in northern Yemen and the situation in Bahrain immedi­ately prior to the March 2011 Saudi-led military inter­vention. Iran has shown an interest in the conflicts inBahrain and Yemen, but there is a lack of conclusive evidence of Iranian involvement beyond the levels of propaganda and diplomacy. While Iran could become more involved in each of these conflicts, it appears to be a secondary player at the current time.

3. The United States needs to recognize that Sau­di Arabia will seek to support conservative regimes in the Gulf, such as Bahrain, and that this Saudi support may come regardless of other governments’ willingness to engage in human rights abuse, espe­cially against Shi’ites. The United States should dis­tance itself from such policies by continuing to call for reform. While Saudi Arabia is a friend and partner to the United StatesU.S. leaders cannot remain uncon­cerned about repression based on sectarianism. Such repression is an open invitation to radicalization and the expansion of Iranian influence. It also inflames the situation in Iraq.

4. U.S. military training for GCC states, includ­ing Saudi Arabia, must have a strong human rights component. This should include both training pro­vided in the GCC countries, and military educa­tion and training provided in the United States. The importance of this training must be stressed for both moral and practical reasons. It should be presented to U.S. allies as a valuable tool that will allow them to reduce the potency of Iranian propaganda and at­tempts at subversion. Repression against Shi’ites can honestly be portrayed as playing into Iranian hands. Also, when dealing with foreign military officers, U.S. trainers and educators should avoid accusatory ap­proaches and indicate that respect for human rights is simply good strategic planning.

5. The U.S. civilian and military leadership must be aware of the fact that Saudi influence is not al­ways an effective counterweight to Iranian activism in many instances, including those where U.S.-Sau­di interests overlap. While Saudi Arabia usually at­ tempts to influence its neighbors by using money and diplomacy, Iran is much more willing to fund radical militias in states that have weak central governments and a large Shi’ite community, including pro-Iranian elements. The foremost model of this policy, serving to advance Iranian interests, is Hezbollah in Lebanon, a strong and reliable Iranian ally. This policy is also apparent in the creation of the Special Groups in Iraq. In both cases, the establishment of militias has helped pro-Iranian elements not only operate as open allies of Tehran, but also to become influential players within the national government. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is the most important and influential political organiza­tion with its members and allies currently dominating the government. In Iraq the pro-Iranian groups have not achieved this level of power, but Tehran is clearly seeking to empower them towards that goal. Tehran will also be willing to put a great deal more effort and resources into an attempt to dominate Iraq since Baghdad’s concerns and ambitions directly touch upon Iranian core interests in a way that activities in Lebanon almost never do. These efforts will have to be countered by the United States in conjunction with its regional partners.

6. The United States must remain aware that local powers such as Saudi Arabia are sometimes viewed as overbearing by even their closest allies. The United States may, at times, have a stake in provid­ing a friendly counterweight to Saudi Arabia for states seeking to emphasize their independent streak. This effort will sometimes be tricky, and U.S. policy will have to be adjusted on a case-by-case basis. In general, the small Gulf States view Saudi Arabiaas one of their most important allies, but believe that they will have more freedom of action on a variety of important is­sues if they have more than one important ally.

 7. The United States leadership must also under­stand that many countries concerned about Iran are nevertheless reluctant to confront such a powerful regional state. U.S. officials sometimes complain that Saudi and other Gulf officials are unwilling to say the same things in public as they do in private about such issues as the Iranian nuclear weapons program and Iranian sponsorship of terrorism. This may be true, but Riyadh and the smaller capitals have a vested in­terest in not returning to the 1980s pattern of relations, which involved virulent propaganda, constant acts of subversion, and serious efforts to disrupt and cause casualties at the Hajj. The United States will therefore have to understand when a firm stand is possible for these states and when it is problematic.

8. The U.S. military should be prepared for pos­sible new relations with a post-Assad government in Syria so long as that government does not seek to threaten IsraelIf PresidentAssad is overthrown, the United States may seek to work with Saudi Arabia and other friendly states to make certain that Syrian ties to Iran do not survive the transition. This effort may require the development of low level military ties including military education and training so long as Damascus appears to be interested in peace and democracy. In this regard, it might be remembered that Sadat’s Egypt formed an important civilian and military relationship with the United States prior to its peace treaty with Israel. These ties helped to pave the way to that treaty, but they could not go beyond a certain point until the peace treaty became a reality.

9. The United States military should consider the need to continue working with the Bahraini military for the time being to help prevent Bahrain from be­coming a total Saudi satellite, so long as the United States makes progress in pushing for improvements to the Bahraini human rights situation. The U.S. abil­ity to moderate repression and encourage reform will be diminished, or even ended, if the United States withdraws its forces, and no other nation is capable of performing even a limited role in pressuring the Bahraini government to show moderation in its gov­ernance. Training opportunities for Bahraini military personnel should, whenever possible, stress human rights issues. Military leaders within the Bahraini military with known human rights problems in their background should not be allowed to participate in U.S.-sponsored military education and training pro­grams.

10. The United States should strongly encourage Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, to support large-scale anti-poverty programs for Bahraini Shi’ites who currently have solid reasons for giving up on the political system and turning to Iran for help. The deplorable living conditions of many Shi’ites are a re­minder of what this community believes is unrelent­ing discrimination against them by a Sunni minority. Strong jobs and anti-poverty programs could help im­prove relations between the communities and ease the process of reconciliation and national dialogue. Since Bahrain’s total population is less than one million citi­zens, targeted economic aid could go a long way in easing suffering there.

11. The United States must use what influence it has to encourage Iraq to treat Sunni Arabs fairly, and thereby prevent intercommunal warfare that would almost certainly involve supporting roles for Iran and Saudi ArabiaThe fragmented political mosaic of Iraq is a perfect context for these differences to play themselves out if Iraqi political leaders fail to act with wisdom and tolerance. The United States will have to work closely with Saudi Arabia on Iraqpolicy. Saudi Arabia is, nevertheless, an imperfect partner for U.S. efforts to promote stability in Iraq, and the United States must not be distracted from efforts to mediate and resolve differences at an early stage, while recog­nizing the rights and claims of all parties to any Iraqi internal conflicts.

12. The United States should continue to pursue the Middle East Peace Process for both its intrinsic value and to moderate tendencies within states such as Saudi Arabia, while seeking to undermine Iran’s efforts to enhance its role in Lebanon and the Pal­estinian territories. The Iranians prosper when they are able to portray themselves as the champions of Palestinian and Lebanese forces opposing what they maintain is an aggressive Israel. They are diminished when they are seen as seeking to disrupt a viable peace process.

13. The U.S. Army should keep the U.S. Con­gress particularly well informed about the value of its training mission for Lebanon, and any problems that mission faces because of the Mikati government and its Hezbollah allies, but it should not assume that military cooperation with Lebanon is no longer possible. Lebanon has special problems with sectari­anism that make its military different from a West­ern military. Lebanese government requirements for the military to take significant action in the interests of only one sect or political trend could lead to the collapse of the military as an institution. It will only become an effective instrument for repression if it is thoroughly purged, which probably cannot happen without inciting civil unrest. The severing of U.S. ties to the Lebanese military could demoralize Western-oriented officers within that organization while rais­ing the importance of the Hezbollah militia forces to the Lebanese defense. These forces will continue to be well-armed and equipped by Iran.

14. The U.S. diplomats and military leaders deal­ing with Iraq must be prepared for Iranian attempts to take advantage of serious disagreements between Saudi Arabia and Iraq afterWashington withdraws its troops from that country. To contain Iran while supporting stability and democracy, the United States must be prepared to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and limit Iranian efforts to insert itself into such a process. Since key Saudi concerns may involve Iraqi government actions in Sunni Arab areas, the United States will have to be aware of issues in those areas, and it will have to be prepared to support mea­sures to increase Sunni Arab willingness to participate in the political system along with a Shi’ite and Kurd­ish willingness to share power.

15. The United States should remain aware of po­litical changes that might occur in Iran in the hope that meaningful dialogue on security issues may be­come possible at some point. The failure of the Green Revolution in 2009 was a serious disappointment to many Americans and other supporters of liberal, dem­ocratic government. Nevertheless, the last chapter may not have been written in this story. The examples of EgyptTunisia, and Libya are already of consider­able concern to Tehran. In these times of revolutionary upheaval, the United Statesmust continue to point out the hypocrisy and opportunism of the Iranian regime on issues such as Syrian repression.