Shadow Government

How America Contributed to the Saudi-Iran Flare-Up

Did the Obama administration spur the latest spat between Riyadh and Tehran?


The flare-up between Saudi Arabia and Iran involves far more than another outburst of Shiite-Sunni rivalry, which dates back to the seventh century Battle of Karbala, though no doubt that ancient feud fuels resentment on both sides of this basic Muslim divide. Those who argue that it is no longer relevant are hard put to explain, for example, Sunni violence against Shiites in Pakistan, or long-standing tensions between Sunni and Shiite Arabs in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Nevertheless, it is the competition for leadership in the Middle East in general, and in the Gulf in particular, that is driving Tehran and Riyadh to the brink of war.

Religion has not been the primary factor behind Iran’s long-standing efforts to achieve hegemony in the Gulf. It was the forces of the secular Shah who in 1971 seized the islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs from Sharjah just as the United Arab Emirates was being formed. The Shah’s troops also supported the Sultan of Oman’s ultimately successful effort to put down the 14-year Dhofar rebellion in 1975; that rebellion had initially been supported by Saudi Arabia.

The fall of the Shah and the emergence of a new clerical regime in Iran in no way curtailed Tehran’s ambitions. Iran continued to claim Bahrain as its 14th province. It became Hafez al Assad’s leading regional ally, and was the post-1979 residence of Hasan Mahdi al-Shirazi, the Iraqi-born but ethnically Persian cleric who had declared the Assad family’s Alawi sect to be a branch of Shiite Islam. Most significantly, Iran became a major sponsor of regional and international terrorism. It was an early and consistent supporter of Hezbollah in Lebanon; among its assassination targets were Saudi diplomats. This latter practice was revived once more when Iran sponsored an attempt on the life of Adel al-Jubeir, then the Saudi Ambassador to Washington in 2011.

During the Iran-Iraq War, Tehran responded to Saudi financial support for Baghdad by threatening the kingdom — as well as Kuwait, which was also financing the Iraqi operation — and by having its aircraft violate Saudi airspace. The two countries broke off relations after an incident during the 1987 Hajj, when Saudi security units fired on Iranian demonstrators and killed several hundred of them. In response to a Saudi ban on Hajj rituals, Iranian demonstrators ransacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran, much as they have done in the past few days.

Memories are very long in the Gulf, and in many ways, the current crisis between Iran the Saudi-led Sunni Gulf states is a continuation of the decades-old feuding between Tehran and not only Riyadh, but Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates as well. Saudi and Emirati police were dispatched to Bahrain in 2011 in response to violent demonstrations by Shiite activists, whom the Bahraini government alleged were supported by Iran. The Saudis and Iranians have taken opposite sides in two ongoing civil wars. In Syria, Iran backs the Assad regime and the Saudis support the primarily Sunni rebels. In Yemen, Iran backs the Shiite Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, and five other Sunni states have conducted military operations in support the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Clashes during the 2015 Hajj, in which Iranian pilgrims were killed recalled the troubles of 1987. And the elevation of Adel al-Jubeir to the post of foreign minister in 2014, meant that the target of an Iranian sponsored murder attempt was now an even more important figure in Saudi policy circles.

The latest Saudi-Iranian clash, which was prompted by the execution of the outspoken Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr on terrorism charges, is therefore but another episode in the long-standing political and religious rivalry between the two states. That Kuwait, Bahrain, and Sudan should join the Saudis in breaking off diplomatic relations with Tehran, while the Emirates have downgraded their relations with Iran, likewise is no great surprise, given their own history of tensions with their powerful northern neighbor. The fact that this latest row could yet explode into hostilities is due, however, not just to history, or to religion, but to the abject failure of the Obama administration’s Middle Eastern policies.

The Saudis and their allies watched with dismay as Washington’s withdrawal from Iraq created a vacuum that Iran has since filled through its Iraqi Shiite clients, whose anti-Sunni policies provided the impetus for the emergence of the Islamic State. Riyadh was deeply concerned by the administration’s slavish pursuit not only of a nuclear deal with Tehran but of a new relationship with Iran that seemed to promise that country’s re-emergence as the regional hegemon. That concern has most recently been reinforced by the Obama administration’s unwillingness not only not to do anything about Iran’s ballistic missile tests in October 2015 — in blatant violation of U.N. Security Council resolution — but to not even respond to Tehran’s firing of rockets within a mile of U.S. Navy ships.

Washington’s sustained pursuit of normalization with Iran despite repeated rejection by the Ayatollahs, and the reality both that the United States is once again a major oil exporter, and that the price of oil has remained low has clearly convinced the Gulf Arabs in general, and the increasingly financially pressed Saudis in particular, that they are on their own, at least as long as the current administration remains in office. With the civil wars in Iran and Syria not abating, and the Iranians and Saudi-led coalition continuing to back opposing sides, there appears no end in sight to the latest explosion of tensions to rock the Middle East, John Kerry’s efforts at mediation notwithstanding.

The most that can be hoped for, at least until a new President is ensconced in the White House, is that Iran and Saudi Arabia will step back from the brink. Whether that hope can be realized is highly problematical, because the White House will not be changing residents for another year. That is more than enough time for terrible things to happen in the world’s most volatile region.


Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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