Iran versus Saudi Arabia—how far will it go?by Gregory Treverton / January 23, 2014 / Leave a comment
Saudi special forces take part in a military parade in 2010 © MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images
Are we seeing an intensifying “cold war” between Saudi Arabia and Iran? If so, what will it look like? And how do the warriors match up to each other? In all the murk of mutual accusations, there are signs that the tension is rising fast. When the Iranian embassy in Beirut was bombed in November, the al Qaeda-affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility; in December, Lebanon arrested its leader, Majid bin Muhammad al-Majid, a figure on Saudi Arabia’s “most wanted” list. Still, it is hard to imagine that Iran won’t see the hand of Saudi Arabia in the attack. Indeed, Hasan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Iran’s ally in Lebanon, promptly attributed the bombing to a group tied to Saudi Arabia.
In looking at the possibility of a hotter “cold war” between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a useful starting point would be the original one, between the United States and Soviet Union. The Cold War pitted nuclear-armed global superpowers against each other. The new tension is between regional powers, neither of which rank in the top dozen most powerful nations in the world, and one of which, Saudi Arabia, historically has sheltered beneath the US security umbrella.
A second contrast is that this cold war is rooted in sectarian, not ideological, conflict. Saudi Arabia sees itself as the bastion of Sunni Islam and is host to the most important Sunni religious sites in Mecca and Medina. As the region’s autocrats have been toppled, through the US invasion of Iraq and the “Arab Spring,” conflict between Sunni and Shia has come to the fore. This is most visible now in Syria, where the conflict has become a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad is made up primarily of Alawites—an offshoot of the Shia branch of Islam—who make up about an eighth of the population. It confronts a very divided but mostly Sunni opposition.
So long as the autocrats ruled, however brutally, Saudi Arabia could buy off Muslim fundamentalists opposed to it, and do so in the name of Muslim fundamentalism—in its case Wahhabism. No more. Now the sectarian lines are all too stark. Iran, the Shia theocracy, has sent its own troops and weapons, and its Lebanese Shia…