The decision by Saudi Arabia to sever diplomatic relations with Iran following the burning of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran is an escalation in an enmity of long standing between these two countries. The dynamics underlying it cast light on a number of key trend lines in the Middle East.
The first, apparent for a half decade now, is the ongoing decline of confidence on the part of Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent other Gulf countries in the power of their traditional patron – the United States of America. The new Saudi proactiveness, first apparent in the intervention by “Peninsula Shield” Gulf forces in Bahrain in 2011 to quell a nascent Shi’a rebellion there, derives from the strong sense that Washington no longer sees Riyadh’s interests as in line with its own.
The abandonment by the US of long-standing ally Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 confirmed for the Saudis the sense that the current US administration is operating in the Middle East according to a set of perceptions quite alien to its own, and quite likely to end in disaster.
The concluding of the deal on Iran’s nuclear program on July 14 set the seal on this Saudi perception.
The US, in Saudi eyes, is seeking a rapprochement with a dangerous and expansionist Iran. This desire for rapprochement is based, in Riyadh’s view, on a quite mistaken US perception that Iran is available for transformation into a reasonable regional actor, in return for the satisfying of some of its ambitions.
With the US unavailable, since it is unwilling to act to restrain Iranian ambitions, Riyadh has sought to do so itself. The Saudi intervention against the Iran-supported Houthis in Yemen and the Saudi assistance to Syrian rebels fighting the Iranian client – the Assad regime – in Syria are indications of this approach.
As to Iraq, Riyadh is deeply concerned at growing Iranian influence, but US backing for the Shi’a-dominated Baghdad government and low Saudi influence among the Sunni population mean that the Saudis have no strong client.
Similarly, Saudi support for the military coup in Egypt in July 2013, contrary to the US position, reflected Riyadh’s concerns regarding the proliferation of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region (a threat that has since declined in prominence).
So the current breakdown in relations is the latest episode in an ongoing region-wide confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which derives from Riyadh’s sense that the choice facing it was to organize proactively against Tehran or watch it come to dominate the Middle East.
This sense derives in the first instance from the vacuum left by American desire to withdraw from active involvement in the region.
Saudi Arabia is not alone in its perceptions. Bahrain, which is most concerned about the Iranian threat because of its majority Shi’a population, has also severed diplomatic relations with Tehran. Kuwait has withdrawn its ambassador. The United Arab Emirates, Tehran’s main Gulf trading partner, has downgraded its relations, replacing its ambassador with an embassy official in charge. Qatar may well follow suit. Further afield, Sudan, too, has severed diplomatic relations in “solidarity” with Riyadh.
The second related element underlying the Saudi- Iranian confrontation is the growth to prominence of sectarian markers as organizing factors in regional politics.
Sectarian differences are not new. What is new is the collapse and effective eclipse of three regional states formerly ruled harshly by military regimes – Syria, Iraq and Yemen. In all three states, political-military organizations seeking to represent particular sectarian or ethnic elements among the disparate populations of these spaces are the main factors making war over the ruins of the states.
In all three states, Iran and Saudi Arabia are supporting opposing sides, and in all three areas, the support runs along sectarian lines – Saudi support for the Sunni Arab insurgency in Syria, Iranian support for the Alawi-dominated Assad regime, and so on. So Saudi-Iranian state rivalry has collided with and been intensified by a much larger process. This is the reshaping of large swathes of the region along sectarian lines and the awakening of long-suppressed or eclipsed identities.
But for Saudi Arabia, the growth of popular Islamist and jihadi movements among Sunni Arab populations is a matter for concern as well as manipulation.
Organizations such as Islamic State, al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood challenge the legitimacy of the Saudi state. States such as Qatar and Turkey are competitors for the leadership of the Sunnis.
In seeking to make of itself the champion of a perceived Sunni defense against Iran-led Shi’a encroachment, Riyadh is also glancing over its shoulder at its own population and Sunni Arab populations elsewhere. It needs to demonstrate its own strength also, so as not to be credibly depicted as an unfit defender of Sunni interests by these movements or by rival Sunni states.
It is notable that Saudi King Salman has proved more willing to align with Sunni Islamist forces than was his predecessor, King Abdullah, who regarded them as enemies. This fact has underlain, for example, Saudi proxies’ involvement in the Jaish al-Fatah rebel coalition in Syria, alongside al-Qaida and other Salafi jihadi forces.
So the Saudi decision to execute Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, which triggered the current crisis, and the subsequent breaking of diplomatic relations with Iran are not only a simple product of Sunni-Shi’a rivalries. They are also informed by intra-Sunni concerns.
Lastly, the partial but notable rallying of Gulf states (and Sudan) behind the Saudis is testimony to the lopsidedness of the sectarian battle and the Iran-Saudi contest in the region. Iran possesses abilities in the fields of asymmetric warfare and subversion far beyond those of Riyadh. It is in the process of seeking to make an alliance with a powerful global player looking to wield influence in the Middle East (Moscow).
But Tehran also has a built-in structural weakness. As its activities in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and among the Palestinians show, Iran is not able to build lasting and deep alliances with forces outside of the Shi’a and associated minorities. And the Shi’a are a minority in the region, too few in numbers to form a basis for regional hegemony. The majority Sunni Arab world remains suspicious and cautious regarding Tehran’s designs on it.
The result of this is that Iranian interference in each case until now has led not to Iranian victory and the reconstitution of the area as an Iranian ally. Rather, Iranian interference leads to ongoing instability and conflict, with the Iranian client neither defeated nor fully victorious. Iran creates chaos. But it has not begun to rebuild a new order out of this chaos.
So welcome to the Middle East circa 2016 – state collapse, political Islam as the dominant language, an ambitious Iran at the head of a Shi’a/minorities alliance, and Saudi Arabia seeking to mobilize Sunni resistance to Iranian plans, in competition with sundry other Sunni actors. All taking place against a backdrop of American absence and Russian attempts to build a presence.
The Saudi decision this week to sever diplomatic relations with Tehran represents an escalation within this grave reality rather than a radical departure.