Saudi Arabia Wants to Roll Back Iran

Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman. Flickr/Ash Carter

Containment is no longer good enough.

On July 9, Prince Turki bin Faisal, former Saudi intelligence head, unprecedentedly attended a rally for the notorious Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK) and called for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran. His remarks were immediately followed on July 30 by a meeting between the head of the MEK, Maryam Rajavi, and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in Paris. Earlier before, in late March, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), which has not taken up arms against Iran for roughly twenty years, suddenly waged a vicious insurgency against Tehran, leading to bloody skirmishes between the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iranian Kurdish peshmerga in northwestern Iran. These sequential events herald a new era in confrontation between Tehran and Riyadh.

The growing escalation between Tehran and Riyadh has been sometimes mentioned in the context of a new geopolitical “Great Game.” Both countries have been engaged in a decades-long strategic contest for regional supremacy in an area stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean and Arabian seas. The two powers are backing different sides in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and finally Yemen.

In the pre-9/11 era, Saudi Arabia used to regionally contain Iran and its foreign policy of “exporting the revolution” by siding with the Baath regime of Baghdad and later with Kabul’s Taliban. Despite grave ideological differences, Riyadh’s leaders backed Saddam Hussein in the bloody eight-year war with Iran. Rooted in King Faisal’s financial support for the extension of Wahhabism in Pakistan and then backing the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979–89), the Saudis had also a key role in establishing the fundamentalist Taliban in Kabul. By the late 1990s, Saudi Arabia’s achievements in containing Iran reached their peak.

9/11 and President Bush’s ensuing global war on terror overthrew the regimes in Kabul and Baghdad. With the downfall of the Baath and Taliban, Riyadh lost its traditional strategic trump cards in containing the alleged Iranian threat. In the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the power vacuum in Iraq disentangled Iran from its direct regional threats. To contain Iran’s growing power in the region, Riyadh and its regional allies exaggerated Tehran’s imminent regional hegemony in the Middle East. Late in 2004, King Abdullah of Jordan coined a controversial phrase that still dominates the heart of Middle East geopolitics: the Shia Crescent. “If pro-Iran parties or politicians dominate the new Iraqi government,” the Washington Post paraphrased, “a new ‘crescent’ of dominant Shia movements or governments stretching from Iran into Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon could emerge to alter the traditional balance of power between the two main Islamic sects and pose new challenges to U.S. interests and allies.” For Riyadh, Iran considered the alleged Shia Crescent as a bedrock of its newfound regional power, shattering down a long-term dominant regional order and posing an existential threat for the security of the region’s Arab regimes.

The controversial Iranian nuclear program also added insult to injury. A Persian Shia power, possibly equipped with nuclear bombs, would change the region’s power arrangement at the expense of the Arab-Sunni regime, Riyadh argued. Urging the White House to “cut off the head of the snake,” Riyadh welcomed tightening U.S.-led international sanctions over Iran. Nonetheless, Saudi leaders avoided direct confrontation with hard-liners in Tehran. Despite Ahmadinejad’s harsh rhetoric against Israel and the West, Saudi Arabia remained “passive,” heavily relying on U.S. policy.

The emergence of the Arab Spring set a benchmark for a final transformation in Saudi Arabia’s regional policy. The Tahrir Revolution and President Obama’s implicit support for the Egyptian revolutionaries deprived Riyadh of one of its old allies in Cairo. The destabilizing waves of the Arab Spring also reached Bahrain, urging the Shia majority there to challenge the Saudi-backed monarchy. Although the Saudi-backed military brutally crushed the peaceful movement there, the legitimacy of the authoritarian monarchy was substantially diminished. In the course of suppressing the Bahraini movement, Saudi leaders framed the revolutionaries as an Iranian fifth column to delegitimize Bahrainis’ rightful demands to stop sociopolitical and economic discrimination.

Saudi Arabia’s reaction, however, did not limit its anti-Iran campaign just to intensify its long-standing language of “Iranophobia.” In light of a hesitant Obama administration, the rise of Iran brought about the ascendency of a major shift in Saudi Arabia’s regional policy towards Iran, from containment to rollback.

The outbreak of the anti-Assad insurgency in Syria gave a unique opportunity for Riyadh and its allies to tie down Iran along the east coast of the Mediterranean. With direct support of Riyadh, as well as Doha and Ankara, Syria became engulfed in a bloody civil war. At the same time, Saudi Arabia, as the leader of the Sunni camp, struggled to build a Sunni coalition with Egypt and Turkey to counterbalance the alleged Shia threat in Yemen. The Saudi army began conducting military operations against Houthi rebels in Yemen, using brute force to confront alleged Iranian threat. The final outcome was Riyadh painting its regional confrontation with Iran with the same brush of sectarianism.

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