The Saudi-Iranian Cold War

When the term “Cold War” is used, the past decades of the American-Soviet rivalry and struggle for influence usually come to mind. The American-Soviet Cold War was the most renowned global fight for influence, but there are also regional “Cold Wars” which aim to avoid direct conflict, spread influence, and assert regional control. The ideological conflict between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran is one of such conflicts. It is shaping political climates and forcing superpowers to take sides. The two countries have come to be the powerhouses of the Middle East and their conflict is molding the foreign policies of powerful countries like the United States and Russia, as well as severely impacting the stability and politics of neighboring states. The struggle is proving detrimental for peace in the region in a classic showdown of realpolitik which has given birth to much of the problems the Middle East is facing.


Westerners are quick to attribute the reason for conflict to religious differences between Sunni and Shia, and while religious ideology has and definitely continues to play a part, the initial roots are much deeper. Iran and Saudi Arabia had no major problems with their respective counterparts during the reign of Reza Shah, a US-backed Iranian monarch. Both governments enjoyed American support, and their religious disputes were almost insignificant. The Shah was attempting to reform Iran into a modern secular society, disregarding religious values, and ruling with an iron fist to keep power. Saudi Arabia, being the hegemon of the region, was focused on preserving the stability and status quo of its surrounding neighbors. With the Shah in power, their aims were not disputed.

It all changed in 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian people overthrew the Shah in the so called “Islamic Revolution” installing a theocracy ruled by the laws of Shia-Islams school of thought and by the clergy. This is where Saudi Arabia’s concern emerged. Their fear was not related to religious differences as much as it was related to political instability and fear of revolution spreading to their own kingdom. Regardless, the Saudis had no intention of upsetting the status quo, and thus, reverted to diplomacy in hopes to achieve a mutual understanding with the new Shia-theocracy. King Khalid sent Ayatollah Khomeini a congratulatory message, stating his desire to further cooperation and trust. From the Saudi’s point of view, the different branch of Islam posed no problem. Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranians had different plans in mind. The people and leadership were tired of being Western puppets and bargain chips, longing for the glory days of their former empires. The “Islamic Revolution” gave Iran and Khomeini the perfect means to undermine Saudi hegemony and expand their own influence and national interest. Iran’s goals were far from cooperative, they projected on dividing the region, and expanding their religious and economic influence on Arab states.


Iran got to work quickly. The 1980s saw the new Islamic Republic expand its influence and try to export its revolutionary ideas to neighboring Gulf and Levantine countries. Khomeini’s government had begun funding rebel Shia groups all around the Arabian Peninsula with the goal of undermining Saudi control and status. A 1980 CIA report titled “Iran: Exporting the Revolution” expressed concern for the growing Iranian activity and spread of propaganda in the region. According to the CIA, the Iranians were heavily critical of the West and the Saudi’s involvement with the United States. Khomeini and President Bani-Sadr claimed the religious ideology of the Saudis was corrupt and the region suffered from Islamic insufficiency. This resonated well with the Arab society of the time which was experimented with and tossed around by Western powers in an attempt to erode their cultural values. Iran claimed it was the legitimate Islamic policy to follow. In the 1980s, Teheran increased its activity in the region, funding groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, instigating unrest among the Iraqi Shias and forming close ties with Gulf countries right on the Saudi borders. Teheran’s activity prompted Riyadh to undertake their own steps in order to fight back and halt the shrinking effect Iranian activity was having on their influence.

The Saudi Kingdom saw in Saddam Hussein a promising tool to counter Khomeini. Hussein was also one of the Sunni dictators who grew concerned with the growing propaganda Khomeini and his regime were spreading. In September of 1980, Iraqi forces penetrate into Iranian territory sparking a war that would almost last a decade. While initially successful, the Iraqi army was eventually gridlocked in a stalemate, and later on was losing ground. The Saudi’s were quick to intervene by boosting Iraq’s capabilities with arms and funding. As a result, the Iranians were not able to venture into Iraq and Saddam was able to retain his position thanks to Saudi backing. The kingdom was successful in delivering an indirect blow to Iran which suffered heavy losses in men and weaponry. For eight years, Iraq had become a battlefield not only between Baghdad and Teheran but Riyadh and Teheran as well. The war would pave way for several more proxy conflicts which continue to carry on to present day.


In the aspect of proxy conflicts between Teheran and Riyadh, Syria and Yemen are respective counterparts. While both regional powers are involved in their respective areas of struggle, they do so without coming in direct contact with one another. In Syria, Iran has deployed several servicemen and military personnel to aid Bashar Al-Assad’s Alawite government (an off branch of Shia Islam) to re-assert control. The Saudis, on the other hand, have not directly deployed their troops, but heavily fund Syrian rebels and ISIS, in an attempt to overthrow Al-Assad’s non-Sunni regime, and impose their own influence. In Yemen, the roles are reversed. While Iran continues to fund the Houthi Rebels, instigating a civil war, Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition and is conducting a direct military campaign against the Houthis. In both cases, the conflicts are at a stalemate, similarly to Iraq in the 1980s. The actions of the two mirror those of the Soviet-American Cold War throughout the later half of the 20th century. Both countries are careful to avoid direct confrontation with one another, much like the Russians and the Americans, but they do not hold back on exhaustion of resources in order to maintain their influence quota and even grow it.


The region is certainly not seeing any benefit from the clash between the two. As a result of Saudi-Iranian involvement, global powers such as the United States and Russia are increasing their activity. The downside to American-Russian involvement is that it’s simply another cold conflict for global influence, with no true intention of stabilizing the region but instead, keeping one another in check. The two superpowers are fueling the efforts of Teheran and Riyadh in an effort to weaken their opponent. As a result, it will only lead to a prolonged struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with no sight of deterrence anytime soon. The proxy wars between King Salman’s regime and Ayatollah Khamenei’s theocracy are proving devastating for Syria and Yemen. The two battle torn states are in miserable economic and social conditions, with thousands dead, millions displaced, and billions in material damage. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran has the financial means of stepping in and rebuilding the war-torn states, thus, simply paving way for further deadly conflicts in the near future, and possibly a cold war which could last decades with no concrete victor, massive political damage to the region, and ever-lasting instability.

By: Rex Nazarko
Image Credit: Mohammed Al-Shaikh/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


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