The Blood Feud That Drives the Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran's struggle for power is tearing apart the Arab world, even as diplomats frantically try to negotiate a truce.


Convincing the foreign ministers of two countries that are not ostensibly at war to sit down at the same table should be a straightforward affair. But when it comes to arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran — two regional powers that have been hurling accusations at each other all year and fighting through proxies across the region — it was considerably more complicated. It took a phone call from President Barack Obama to the Saudi king, a trip to Riyadh by Secretary of State John Kerry, and a last-minute diplomatic dance to confirm that Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir would indeed attend the Oct. 30 Syria talks in Vienna.

High-level meetings between Iranian and Saudi officials are so rare that Obama and Kerry’s efforts are probably the most important achievement of the Syria talks so far — and it doesn’t come too soon. But the challenge for Kerry will be keeping the Saudis and the Iranians at the table, not just for this second round of Vienna talks on Nov. 14 but for the duration of the negotiations on Syria. Although the two countries have indicated they will be in Vienna, the level of representation is still to be determined. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will not be present at the upcoming round of talks.

The Saudi-Iranian rivalry has driven much of the dynamics in the Middle East for decades, but this undercurrent of events in the region has now exploded to the foreground for all to see. From the Mediterranean to the Arabian Peninsula, the Saudis and the Iranians are engaged in an open fight to the death through proxies.

Rarely in their decades-long rivalry has the tension between Riyadh and Tehran reached such fever pitch, fanning devastating sectarian flames across the region. In Syria, they back opposing armed factions; in Yemen, the Saudis are now eight months into a bombing campaign of Houthi rebels, which they accuse Iran of supporting. In Bahrain, a country with a large Shiite population, the authorities said they foiled an attack by a group with links to Iran. In Lebanon, a tug of war between the Shiite militant group and political party Hezbollah and political parties allied to Saudi Arabia has led to a political stalemate.

A Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is not a silver bullet for the Syrian conflict. But as one senior U.S. administration official told me: “To begin easing the various conflicts in the region, one of the single biggest things you can do is to start a dialogue between Riyadh and Tehran that could bring down the tensions [between them].”

The regional struggle for control will probably get worse, however, at least in the short term, as the Saudis and Iranians push their proxies to gain as much ground as possible while diplomacy gets underway. Much is at stake: The outcome of the Syrian conflict will determine a new regional order in the Middle East, and neither Riyadh nor Tehran is yet willing to concede the struggle to their rival.

The cost of confrontation is mounting for both. The Iranians see the battle in Syria as an existential one, necessary to preserve their reach into Shiite communities across Iraq and into Lebanon, their foothold on the Mediterranean. But the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been losing some of its top officers in the battles to shore up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the conflict is stirring a debate in Iran.

“[Iran] may be looking for ways not to continue to make this massive investment in [the Syrian] conflict going forward, if they can secure some of their interests in a political settlement,” the senior administration official who is privy to the talks told me after the first meeting in Vienna.

Meanwhile, the Saudis are pouring weapons into Syria to help their proxies and ensure they maintain leverage in the Vienna talks. Some of that leverage could be used to get the Iranians to make concessions elsewhere, such as in Yemen, where the Saudis have even higher priorities.

It’s not unheard of for Saudi and Iranian officials to be in the same room, but it has been rare for years and little usually comes of it. Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s then-foreign minister, met his Iranian counterpart, Zarif, in September 2014 in New York, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. The meeting was cordial, and Zarif hailed a new chapter between the countries — but relations soon worsened, as the Saudis were angered by the nuclear deal. More recently, Tehran was infuriated by the hajj stampede in Mecca in September, in which more than 400 Iranians were killed.

So when Jubeir and Zarif sat down at opposite ends of the table in Vienna two weeks ago, they first started by airing their grievances. Zarif brought up the 15 Saudis who were part of the 9/11 attacks. Jubeir, meanwhile, has a personal beef with Iran — Iranian officials were accused of trying to kill him in Washington, D.C., in 2011.

“There was no shouting, but it wasn’t warm,” said the administration official. “There were incendiary charges from both sides.”

Now that the air has been cleared, they may be able to move on to issues of more substance.

Meanwhile, in the background, there have been numerous efforts to start back-channels, or “Track II” negotiations, between Riyadh and Tehran. So far, most attempts have been met with a Saudi refusal — but it hasn’t stopped various Western governments, foundations, and think tanks from trying.

Track II is never a substitute for direct diplomacy, but sustained, quiet dialogue between experts or figures connected to officialdom can help to find possible areas of compromise, away from the public posturing of senior officials. Some of the findings are then relayed back to the governments concerned, to inform their approach.

Randa Slim, the director of a Track II dialogue initiative at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, first gathered current and former officials and experts from the Middle East in 2012 for a dialogue focused on Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. She told me that “many of the principles’’ agreed on during these discussions have found their way into the Vienna communiqué on Syria.

Getting the right people into the room is a challenge, said one expert, who is in the beginning phases of starting a dialogue between officials from Saudi Arabia and Iran. “Part of the problem is that there are few senior Saudi decision-makers. And the Iranians who matter, the IRGC folks, aren’t accessible,” he told me.

The sessions organized by Slim continue, and they stand out because unlike most “Track II” dialogues, which include only former officials and experts, these include advisors and aides to current officials. Both Saudis and Iranians have attended all the sessions and will attend the eighth gathering next month.

Needless to say, participants in such meetings attend because they already understand the value of dialogue — they represent a certain mindset in their respective country that does not necessarily represent the prevailing view in their government. But the participation of Jubeir and Zarif in the first round of Vienna talks indicates that both sides have been empowered by their bosses to at least sit at the table together.

“[Iran and Saudi Arabia] both understand that they are competitors, but at the same time they are both seeking ways not to be enemies,” said Slim. “So the question is how we can evolve toward some kind of managed competition,”

Tehran and Riyadh have accomplished this before, so it’s not impossible to envision it happening again. Iran’s Rivalry With Saudi Arabia Between the Gulf Wars, by Henner Furtig, director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, serves as a useful reminder of both the history and the context of the unfolding relationship.

Furtig actually starts his book by exploring Saudi-Iranian ties before it all went wrong in 1979, when the founder of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, returned to Iran. Before the revolution, the two regional powers saw a common enemy in Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism and Saddam Hussein’s Baathist nationalism. They were twin pillars in the Nixon Doctrine, which outlined U.S. strategy for countering communism in the region. Relations were not tension-free: The Iranian shah irritated the Saudi king by claiming he wanted Iran to become the leading power in the Gulf region and advancing territorial claims in the Gulf. But relations were mostly cordial, and the two powers conceded a number of zones of influence to each other.

In 1962, the shah even offered then-Crown Prince Faisal military assistance when the Egyptians invaded Yemen. The crown prince thanked the shah for his “generous offer,” but declined what he viewed as Iranian interference in Arab affairs. When the shah visited Saudi Arabia in 1968, after a new border agreement had been reached, he described the king as amir al-mumineen, or “commander of the faithful,” a respectful honorific at a time when Saudi kings had not yet adopted the title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

King Fahd only adopted that title in 1986 to burnish the royal family’s credentials as defenders of the faith, a year before Saudi forces and Iranian pilgrims brandishing pictures of Khomeini clashed in Mecca during the hajj. The Iranian supreme leader repeatedly questioned the ability of the House of Saud, an ally of the West, to protect Mecca and Medina and often called for a joint Islamic committee to take over that responsibility.

Until 1979, the secular ambitions of the shah and the Saudi royal family’s pan-Islamism were not vying for the same political terrain. It was the Iranian revolution’s injection of religion as a political tool that undid the relationship, awoke dormant Sunni-Shiite rivalries, and unleashed sectarian tensions that have reached a fever pitch today.

But even more recently, the two countries have been able to establish a modus vivendi. In 1995, Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani dispatched his ambassador to Germany, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, to meet then-Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, who would become king a decade later. Four long evenings of talks in Jeddah resulted in a security agreement between the two countries which, despite its ups and downs, lasted until the election of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.

“I believe we can find a way today again; we have the experience,” Mousavian told me on the phone from Princeton, where he is now a research scholar.

That’s a very tall order in the near future. But while the talks in Vienna are squarely focused on finding a solution to the devastating war in Syria, it’s becoming clear that the Middle East is in desperate need of a regional modus vivendi.

“By linking Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq,” Slim said, “you enlarge the pie by which you can find the magic formula [for a solution], where both will have to lose some and win some. You create more space for compromise.”

For now, both Iran and Saudi Arabia are still sticking to maximalist positions, and the magic formula is elusive. But a détente between Riyadh and Tehran represents the new holy grail of Middle East politics.

Photo credit: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Kim Ghattas is a BBC correspondent covering international affairs and a senior visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is the author of "The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart of American Power." Twitter: @BBCKimGhattas

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