THE SAUDI-IRANIAN RIVALRY AND THE FUTURE OF MIDDLE EAST SECURITY
STRATEGIC STUDIES INSTITUTE - December 2011
The 2011 wave of pro-democracy and anti-regime protests, now known as the Arab Spring, introduced new concerns for both
Saudi Arabia and to consider within the framework of their regional priorities. Neither government’s vital interests were involved in the outcome of the struggle in Iran Tunisia where the Arab Spring began, but both leaderships became especially interested in these events once the unrest spread to . While Egypt Saudi Arabia watched the ouster of ’s Egypt President with horror, the Iranian leadership saw some potential opportunities. Hosni Mubarak Riyadh’s decision in late May to grant Egypt $4 billion in loans and grants quickly became a powerful incenin light of ’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 Egypt, although ’s financial resources give it an advantage in the struggle for influence. Saudi Arabia
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.
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. Saudi Arabia 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 . Saudi influence with Hamas has declined steadily in recent years and been almost totally displaced by that of United States . Elsewhere in the Levant, large numbers of Iran Lebanon’s Shi’ites consider 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 Iran United States will almost certainly wish to continue to pursue the Middle East Peace Process for both its intrinsic value and in order to undermine Iran’s efforts to enhance its role in and the Palestinian territories. Lebanon
The future of
Iraq is a central concern for both Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as the . The planned withdrawal of United States U.S. troops from will also complicate the Saudi-Iranian rivalry in the region. The departure of Iraq troops may radically change the ways in which regional states help their Iraqi supporters. After the U.S. 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 continue to arm Iraqi Shi’ite militias. One of the most troubling ways in which Iran 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 inside . These pro-Iranian militias are sometimes called Special Groups. Iraq 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. Iran
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 after withdraws its troops from Washington . To contain Iraq Iran while supporting stability and democracy, the United States must be prepared to mediate between Saudi Arabia and 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 Iraq 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 United States 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
in a number of situations. In many instances, Saudi opposition to United States Iran will serve interests, but this will not occur under all circumstances. U.S. Saudi Arabia remains a deeply anti-revolutionary state, with values and priorities that sometimes overlap with those of on matters of strategic interest, and often conflict over matters of reform and democracy for other Middle Eastern states. Additionally, Washington 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 . In this regard, it is possible that the Lebanon will not be the most influential external power interacting with the Iraqi government. Nevertheless, the United States 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 . In the future, it is possible that Baghdad Saudi Arabia will consider a policy of ignoring the efforts of potentially increasing numbers of its citizens to infiltrate Iraq and fight beside ’s Sunni Arabs if a bloody intercommunal conflict breaks out. Iraq Riyadh will be given increased freedom to do this by the U.S. military withdrawal, which would end the possibility for Saudi infiltrators to strike at U.S. targets in . Such intervention may be an inevitable response to intercommunal warfare, but cannot end well for either the Iraq United States or since a new crop of radicals will be generated to bedevil civilized nations throughout the world, possibly for decades to come. Therefore, the Saudi Arabia must seek to deescalate conflict among Iraqi communities before such a scenario can play out. United States
U.S. intelligence officials and policymakers must also be aware of the possibility that may overestimate Iranian involvement in any regional crisis and may conflate Saudi Arabia Shi’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 immediately prior to the March 2011 Saudi-led military intervention. Bahrain Iran has shown an interest in the conflicts in Bahrain and , but there is a lack of conclusive evidence of Iranian involvement beyond the levels of propaganda and diplomacy. While Yemen could become more involved in each of these conflicts, it appears to be a secondary player at the current time. Iran
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
should distance itself from such policies by continuing to call for reform. While United States Saudi Arabia is a friend and partner to the United States, 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 U.S. . 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
allies as a valuable tool that will allow them to reduce the potency of Iranian propaganda and attempts at subversion. Repression against U.S. 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
, a strong and reliable Iranian ally. This policy is also apparent in the creation of the Special Groups in Lebanon . In both cases, the establishment of militias has helped pro-Iranian elements not only operate as open allies of Iraq , but also to become influential players within the national government. In Tehran , Hezbollah is the most important and influential political organization with its members and allies currently dominating the government. In Lebanon Iraq the pro-Iranian groups have not achieved this level of power, but is clearly seeking to empower them towards that goal. Tehran 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 almost never do. These efforts will have to be countered by the Lebanon in conjunction with its regional partners. United States
United States must remain aware that local powers such as are sometimes viewed as overbearing by even their closest allies. The Saudi Arabia United States may, at times, have a stake in providing a friendly counterweight to for states seeking to emphasize their independent streak. This effort will sometimes be tricky, and Saudi Arabia policy will have to be adjusted on a case-by-case basis. In general, the small U.S. Gulf States view as 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. Saudi Arabia
United States leadership must also understand that many countries concerned about are nevertheless reluctant to confront such a powerful regional state. Iran 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 U.S. 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 Riyadh will therefore have to understand when a firm stand is possible for these states and when it is problematic. United States
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 . If Israel President is overthrown, the Assad United States may seek to work with Saudi Arabia and other friendly states to make certain that Syrian ties to do not survive the transition. This effort may require the development of low level military ties including military education and training so long as Iran appears to be interested in peace and democracy. In this regard, it might be remembered that Damascus Sadat’s Egypt formed an important civilian and military relationship with the United States prior to its peace treaty with . 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. Israel
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 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. United States
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 ’s total population is less than one million citizens, targeted economic aid could go a long way in easing suffering there. Bahrain
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 . The fragmented political mosaic of Saudi Arabia is a perfect context for these differences to play themselves out if Iraqi political leaders fail to act with wisdom and tolerance. The Iraq United States will have to work closely with Saudi Arabia on policy. Iraq Saudi Arabia is, nevertheless, an imperfect partner for U.S. efforts to promote stability in Iraq, and the 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. United States
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
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 Lebanon 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 U.S. . Iran
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 after withdraws its troops from that country. To contain Washington Iran while supporting stability and democracy, the United States must be prepared to mediate between Saudi Arabia and , 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 Iraq 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 United States Shi’ite and Kurdish willingness to share power.
United States should remain aware of political changes that might occur in 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 Iran Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya are already of considerable concern to . In these times of revolutionary upheaval, the Tehran must continue to point out the hypocrisy and opportunism of the Iranian regime on issues such as Syrian repression. United States