Key point: Saudi Arabia wants to roll back Iranian influence in the Middle East, by any means necessary.
On July 9, 2016, 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.
More substantively, Riyadh took a new approach in its confrontation with Iran by making ties with militant groups in order to roll back Iran. It seems that Saudi Arabia’s aggressive new policy involves confronting regional-domestic threats by making connections with political-military groups beyond its territory. Saudi Arabia’s new policy is now based on engaging with Iran in a series of proxy wars to undermine and rollback Tehran’s regional power. Blatantly wrestling with Iran over the region, young Saudi leaders confront the alleged Iranian threat both externally and internally.
Riyadh’s external policy to roll back Iran is based on support for jihadi-Salafi groups, challenging the region’s Tehran-backed regimes. As it heavily backed Syrian rebels, ranging from Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS to Jaysh al-Islam and the Free Syrian Army, Saudi Arabia considered the Damascus regime to be Iran’s strategic trump card. At the same time, Riyadh has been attempting to widen the Shia-Sunni chasm by supporting Sunni elements in Iraq. By influencing Syria and Iraq, Riyadh seeks to pressure Tehran to tread lightly in other parts of the region, such as Yemen. Upping the pressure on Iran’s sphere of influence and western border would do just that.
Internally, Saudi Arabia’s aggressive new policy attempts to pose threats to Iran by activating several opposition groups, including the MEK as well as ethnic militant groups in Iran’s Kurdistan and Baluchistan. This is the internal aspect of Saudi Arabia’s new roll-back policy.
With Prince Turki’s appearance at the July 9 conference of the exiled MEK, and his call for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic, Riyadh took a major step in its new roll-back policy. Founded in 1965, the MEK was a militant opposition group during the shah’s reign, with an eclectic ideology combining Marxism and Islamism. It also carried out a number of attacks against U.S. soldiers stationed in Iran, and years later it was put on the U.S. State Department’s terrorist list. In the aftermath of the revolution, the MEK was brushed aside by the revolutionary regime, and has been listed as a terrorist organization by Tehran since the 1980s. It had fought against Iran during Saddam Hussein’s invasion, and later helped Saddam suppress an uprising by Iraqi Shia and Kurds. At the MEK meeting in Paris, Faisal lambasted the Islamic Republic, and particularly its founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, for its “exporting” of the Islamic Revolution. It is a major manifestation of Riyadh’s new roll-back policy, prompting the Saudi leaders to drop the ambiguity and pursue the policy of regime change in Iran with greater transparency.
Such a tectonic shift in Saudi policy was followed by another controversial meeting in Paris, between Maryam Rajavi, the head of the MEK, and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. The PLO-MEK connections were not a nuanced issue. Before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, MEK guerrillas trained in “Fatahland” military bases in southern Lebanon to challenge the Pahlavi regime in Tehran. Interestingly, both groups fought on the side of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. However, Abbas’s meeting was immediately seen as in line with Saudi Arabia’s offensive policies in the region. As a major funder of the Palestinian Authority, Riyadh had facilitated the meeting. It was a symbolic insult to Iran. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has helped Palestinian resistance groups more than any other Arab country. Iranian officials harshly criticized the meeding. Hossein Sheikholeslam, an adviser to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, said that the MEK is supported by the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and called Abbas a “puppet of America.” He went further, calling Abbas a CIA agent and claiming that “Mahmoud Abbas has had secret ties with terrorist groups and Israelis, and now these relations are being disclosed.”
Saudi leaders also stepped up their campaign against Iran by supporting ethnic militant groups in Iran. In the wake of growing hostility between Tehran and Riyadh, Mustafa Hijri, the secretary-general of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, announced that his party would send its peshmerga and political cadres to Iranian Kurdistan. Tehran soon responded by claiming that regional countries, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, were behind the resurgence of Kurdish activity. Tel Aviv’s connections with the Kurds have had a long history. Israelis have been training Kurdish peshmerga since the Iraqi Kurdish insurgency, led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani, in 1961. In the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, the KDPI, whose headquarters have been based in Iraqi Kurdistan, received financial backing from Tel Aviv. Hinting that the Iranian Kurds need Israeli support, Mustafa Hijri said, “We [Israel and the Kurds] have common enemies.”