Visitors congregating outside of the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, Islamic Republic of Iran, in August 2005. The shrine is one of the most important religious sites in Iran.
When discussing the instability of the Middle East during his 2016 State of the Union address, President Obama provided a seriously flawed assessment of the situation, claiming that the region is “going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” President Obama alluded to a major socio-political cleavage in the Middle East: the Sunni-Shia divide. If one looks to the actions of Iran and Saudi Arabia, or to the rhetoric of ISIS, certain instances in the Middle East ostensibly fit this picture. Despite the supposed empirical evidence to the contrary, the Sunni-Shia framework offers a poor explanation of Saudi-Iranian relations. By subscribing to this paradigm, we perpetuate the view that the entire Middle East can be understood through the unsolvable hatred between two religious groups; a dangerously prejudiced and a logically and empirically problematic method of thinking about the region.
The most common Western interpretation of the Iranian-Saudi Cold War is of a purely sectarian, Sunni-Shia conflict. It is an oversimplification that mistakes the forest for the trees, ignoring the intricacies of a region comprising more than 70 different sects of Islam and overlooking key aspects of international relations theory in favor of a lazy, bigoted, and deeply flawed explanation. The best way to understand the Saudi-Iranian conflict is to look toward the behaviours of other states engaged in cold wars. In fact, many actions of Saudi Arabia and Iran closely follow the model that the United States and the Soviet Union abided by during the Cold War. The root of these sour relationships is the desire for security: when a state feels threatened, it does what it can to mitigate the danger. While the Saudi-Iranian conflict may appear inevitable given the longstanding religious tension, reality and history suggest it is, in fact, another case of states striving for national security.
Flaws Of The Sunni-Shia Argument
Sunni’s and Shia’s have existed as distinct sects for some 1400 years, with little tension between the two until increasingly divisive rhetoric helped spark the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Modern perceptions of the Middle East are dominated by this discourse which, as noted scholar Edward Said states, is “orientalist.” Western leaders have viewed the region through this lens for decades, analyzing the Middle East under the belief that the region is uniquely sectarian and prone to conflict. Furthermore, the orientalist lens argues that democratization is impossible and that peace will always succumb to the chaotic violence of groups like the Islamic State. The product of these prejudices is the “othering” of Middle Easterners, a point of view so deeply embedded in Western discourse that it colors the interpretation of a conflict that has exhibited itself repeatedly across the globe over the last century.
Rejecting the belief that the Sunni-Shia divide is the primary driver of Saudi-Iranian animosity is not only supported in theory, but also by the facts: the largest Sunni country is Indonesia, which holds 13.1% of the world’s Muslim population, while Iran holds the largest Shia population in the world. According to those who believe that the driving force behind the increasingly violent sectarianism we see in the Middle East is the Sunni-Shia divide, Indonesia should take a leading role in the conflict. Indonesia, in reality, plays no part in the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Accusations of a millennia old conflict and intractable socio-political cleavages are clouded by orientalist thought and unsupported by evidence, offering a poor explanation for the current state of Saudi-Iranian relations.
Realism, Proxies, And McCarthyism
In 2006, international relations scholar John Mearsheimer published an influential article titled China’s Unpeaceful Rise, in which he discusses the need for states to seek security when a new rival emerges. According to scholars like Mearsheimer, the quest for security often leads to destructive conflicts. In addition to utilizing Mearsheimer’s argument, recognizing the parallels with a similar situation offers a far more accurate explanation for animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran shares many aspects to that of another conflict, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Much like how the United States perceived the Soviet Union as a threat to its position in the international system, Saudi Arabia views Iran in the same way. A common aspect in these types of relationships is for the competing powers to utilize proxies in lieu of entering violence directly, shifting many of the costs of waging war onto other actors.
During the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, numerous proxies, on both sides, were maintained by the two global powers. The Soviet Union facilitated proxies in South America, Africa, and Asia, while the United States countered this with proxies of its own. In certain circumstances, these proxies would form satellite states, such as South or North Vietnam. By establishing these groups, the United States and the Soviet Union could increase their ability to project force and influence across the globe, helping one side to gain the upper hand over another.
Likewise, Saudi Arabia and Iran have involved themselves in numerous conflicts across the region, funding their own proxies and attempting to establish proxy states of their own. Perhaps the best (but not only) example of this “cold war” is in Yemen. The conflict in Yemen is centered on a Shia rebel group called the Houthis, supported by Iran, and the long established government, supported by Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, not wanting an Iranian proxy on its border, is in the midst of a deadly air campaign, laying waste to the country. Iran, seeing an opportunity to establish a staging area on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep, has ramped up its support for the Houthis. It is becoming increasingly clear that the pressure to secure their positions have forced Iran and Saudi Arabia into situations paralleling those of the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War.
According to Business Insider, Saudi Arabia is the Middle East’s third most powerful army, behind only Israel and Turkey, who play other roles in the region and are thus uninvolved in the geo-political contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The United States frequently sells cutting-edge military hardware to Saudi Arabia, who posses the most up to date military in the region aside from Israel. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is one of the wealthiest states in the Middle East, using its vast oil revenue to purchase arms from the West and to fund its large military. All in all, Saudi Arabia has positioned itself into a place of relative security within the region.
If Saudi Arabia plays the role of the accepted power in the Middle East, then Iran would play that of the new upstart. In the aftermath of the 1979 Revolution, the West imposed sanctions on Iran, preventing arms sales, forcing Iran to develop its own armament industry, which is closely tied to their paramilitary force the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Additionally, the recent nuclear deal signed by the United States and Iran has freed upwards of 100 billion US Dollars, as well as granted new avenues for securing wealth in the form of foreign direct investment and oil exportation deals. In essence, Iran, which was already able field a large and effective military; fund, train and supply proxies; and maintain a strong economy while under imposed sanctions, now possesses the capability to improve its position. Naturally, this presents a threat to the position of Saudi Arabia, which has enjoyed strong alliances with other Gulf states and a favorable balance of power for many years. A stronger Iran throws a wrench into Saudi Arabia’s previous assessments of the region, and has forced them to consolidate and cement their power, causing an arms race, heated rhetoric, and dangerous political maneuvering.
Understanding that the balance of power in the Middle East has been altered due to a strengthening Iran, Saudi Arabia has also moved to secure its position in the Sunni community. It is important to reiterate that Saudi Arabia views other Sunni countries in the region as strategic allies against Iran, rather than allies against the perceived immorality of the Iranians. One such example of this change in action was the execution of the powerful Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Al-Nimr was an influential figure of the anti-government protests in the east of Saudi Arabia in 2011. By killing such an important figure, Saudi Arabia demonstrated both its opposition to Iran and its value as the Sunni standard-bearer to its regional allies, increasing its credibility as the anti-Iranian lynchpin of the Middle East. In turn, Iranians replied to the death of al-Nimr by staging a mass protest, ultimately culminating in the destruction of the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
To some, this might be further evidence of the unsolvable hatred between these two groups, but how different is it from the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, or from the McCarthyist witch hunts of the 1950s? In reality, there is nothing special or unique about the behavior of Saudi Arabia and Iran; it is simply another case of states striving for security. To think that the Middle East has been destabilized solely due to intractable religious tension is to adopt unsubstantiated notions of the inherently chaotic nature of the region. In other words, by accepting the contemporary discourse on the Middle East, policymakers, pundits, and even figures like President Obama are feeding easily debunked and xenophobic lies.
Policy makers would benefit from understanding that the Middle East operates the same way as the rest of the world: Saudi Arabia does not see Iran as a Shia threat, but simply as a threat to its secure position in the Middle East. Rather than as initiator, sectarian rhetoric is used to generate popular support. In order to solve a problem, we must first recognize it. Increasing economic interdependence and working toward common goals, such as regional stability, is the best way to refocus the concerns of the Saudi and Iranian security machines away from sectarianism and toward a state of mutual security. Perpetrating horribly flawed methodologies will only amplify, intensify, and exacerbate the violence.
Adam Goldstein is a senior at American University on the combined Bachelors/Masters track majoring in Comparative Politics.