Saudi Arabia's Coalition Could Accidentally Unleash Iran

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani's first press conference in 2017. Wikimedia Commons/Tasnim News Agency/Hamed Malekpour

History reveals that attempts to contain Tehran will achieve just the opposite.

The unfolding Qatar crisis is a microcosm of Riyadh’s vision for the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is exploiting a largely engineered threat from Iran to rally Sunni Arab states into what has been labeled an “Arab NATO” and bully those that resist. Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates are joining the coalition at the behest of Riyadh’s monarchs. Although perfidiously promoted as a task force against extremism, its primary objective is to isolate Iran and elevate Saudi Arabia’s position in the region. However, its success is doubtful, as the Saudi-led coalition is already splintering, and history reveals that attempts to contain Tehran will achieve just the opposite.

Three historical developments demonstrate why any effort to isolate Iran will fail: the durability of the Iran-Syria alliance, the strategic rather than ideological basis of Iran’s alliances and the experience of the Iran-Iraq War.

The Iran-Syria alliance has endured the test of war and time. In the early 1980s, Iraq and Iran were engrossed in a brutal conflict that Baghdad portrayed as a war against Iranian expansionism. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and the United States formed a coalition to isolate Tehran from the Hafez al-Assad regime and invite a swift victory for Baghdad. The Syria-Iran alliance never broke, even as Syria became entrenched in its own conflict in Lebanon. In his book chronicling the alliance, Jubin Goodarzi even asserted that Hafez al-Assad turned down $2 billion offered to him by the Saudis if he reopened the trans-Syrian pipeline to Iraq. Despite intense economic and military pressure, this strategy only solidified the nascent alliance between Tehran and Damascus. This alliance has remained durable and transcended significant strategic disagreements between the two countries over the last three decades.

Iran chooses its alliances and conflicts pragmatically, rather than ideologically. For example, the Islamic Republic historically ignored the plights of Shia minorities in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in favor of maintaining semi-cordial relations with Riyadh and Islamabad. Western analysts often portray Iran’s most important alliance with Syria as that of a client and patron state. In reality, it is much closer to a genuine partnership rooted in common strategic goals, despite widely diverging ideologies. Both countries see themselves as unique partners in the “resistance” against Israel. Both also portray themselves as tolerant of religious minorities and sects in a region enveloped by Salafi extremism. Most importantly, Damascus and Tehran have always viewed a strong Arab bloc and Arab detente with Israel as an existential threat. This was true when Egypt and Syria cut diplomatic relations after the Camp David Accord, and when Arab states formed an alliance against the new Islamic Republic in Iran. Thus Tehran and Damascus see themselves as partners in a fight against an Arab bloc that is increasingly dictated by a U.S.-Saudi alliance. No amount of pressure on Iran will make the cost of Tehran’s intervention in Syria too high to bear.

Iran’s experience of relative isolation during the war imposed on it by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq inspired a frenzied race to develop domestic defensive and ballistic-missile capabilities. In a 2016 interview, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif asked, “What do you expect, Iran to lie dead? You’ve covered the Iran–Iraq war, you remember missiles pouring on Iranian cities with chemical weapons. You remember that we didn’t have any to defend ourselves.” The harsh realities of the Iran-Iraq War quelled revolutionary Iran’s ambitions to export its revolution and ideology. Ever since the end of the war, Tehran has instead placed an emphasis on developing strategic alliances outside of the Middle East and developing a domestic military-industrial complex. President Trump’s calls to isolate Iran during his recent speech in Riyadh will only provoke a surge in Iranian military development.

Three contemporary developments also demonstrate why an “Arab NATO” will fail at its mission: Arab Shia communities view Saudi and Wahhabi hegemony as an existential threat, the Saudi-coalition is already fractured, and China and Russia have every reason to tilt towards Tehran.