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.
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.”
Saudi Arabia siding with the KDPI was, however, a new turn. Frustrated of preventing the rise of Shia in Iraq, Riyadh officials have recently expressed their willingness to establish an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq. In an unprecedented joint meeting with Israeli diplomat Dore Gold, General Anwar Majid Eshki declared this new turn. An independent Kurdish Republic adjacent to Iran would endanger Iran’s national integrity and deliver a heavy blow for its allies in Damascus and Baghdad. The spillover of the growing threat of Kurdish secessionism has also amplified, with Saudi Arabia backing Iranian Kurdish militants. Despite Saudi Arabia’s denial of any patronage, Iranian officials harshly warned Riyadh. “The Saudi consulate in Erbil has set up a training base there and established two offices near our borders,” former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezai told Iranian state television in July. Indeed, a number of Saudi media outlets, like Al Arabiya, have covered KDPI terrorist activities to an unprecedented extent.
Just like leaders in Riyadh, the KDPI were among the major Iranian opponents of a nuclear settlement between Iran and the P5+1. In the wake of the nuclear talks, Hijri visited Washington, where he met with conservative congressmen and think-tank analysts to oppose a deal with Iran. In an interview with GlobalPost, Hijri argued that “If sanctions are lifted, Iran will get resources to continue support for terrorists and dictatorships that sponsor terrorists such as [Syria’s] Bashar al Assad. They will get more resources to make more turbulence in the Middle East.” These comments echoed the Saudis’ and Israelis fears’.
Urged by Riyadh, the KDPI embarked on a new campaign, calling for the overthrow of the regime of Tehran and the disintegration of the Iranian state. In June, Hijri wrote an article in the Jerusalem Post, calling on the international community to work with Iran’s ethnic minorities to achieve presumptive regional peace and stability. He also declared that the KDPI had joined with other minorities of Arab, Azeri, Baloch and Turkmen organizations to form the so-called “Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran.” Lastly, he concluded that “we believe there is a strategic convergence between the interests of nations inside Iran and the region’s main actors [i.e., Saudi Arabia and Israel] that can bring a new order to the Middle East in which we can find a basis for enduring security and lasting peace.” Claiming that Iran is “vulnerable,” Hijri declared that the KDPI had changed its goal from autonomy within a federal Iran to regime change since, according to Hijri, “the Islamic Republic should cease to exist, otherwise the middle East will never be peace [sic].” It suited Saudi Arabia’s new offensive policy and harsh language against Iran.
Tehran officials accused Riyadh of support for the KDPI. Since mid-June, more skirmishes between KDPI peshmerga and the IRGC have broken out, heralding the beginning of a new era in regional competition between Riyadh and Tehran.
Besides, Riyadh has been accused of supporting militant Baluchi groups, particularly Jundallah, in southeastern Iran. Waging violent struggles against the central regime of Iran, the Salafi-jihadi Jundallah has been financially backed by Saudis, according to Admiral Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran. Along with MEK and ethnic militant groups, Riyadh has also supported several exiled Iranian figures who are working under the guise of human rights. They have advocated any steps, even all-out war with Iran, to overthrow the regime in Tehran.
Amid a bloody confrontation with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s establishment of a new front of both external and internal proxies ushers in its roll-back policy. Nevertheless, for Saudi Arabia to employ Wahhabi, Salafi proxies would be a totally strategic misstep. Despite its imitation of Iran’s foreign policy by investing in militant proxies, Saudi Arabia’s newfound aggression toward Iran may collapse and therefore not achieve its desired results. Why?
First, Iran’s policy in making connections with political, militant groups in the region is rooted in its historical insecurity. Iran’s lack of natural defensive borders, combined with the fact that it is the only country in the region that is both Shia and Persian-speaking, have cursed the country with its “strategic loneliness.” Coined first by Mohiaddin Mesbahi, director of Middle East Studies at Florida International University, the term suggests that “Iran by design and by default has been strategically ‘lonely’ and deprived of meaningful alliances.” Iran’s strategic loneliness reaffirms the country’s historical problems with defending its frontiers. The very logic of geography and history show that Iran’s final deterrence capabilities are heavily predicated on its ability to project power externally. From this perspective, building strategic connections with Shia militant groups has been a strategic tool for Iran to compensate for its historical strategic loneliness. For more than three decades, these ties have been the centerpiece of Iran’s strategy to achieve its national security aspirations and to contain foreign threats.
On the contrary way, Saudi Arabia has not suffered from long-term strategic loneliness. The country has not been the target major foreign invasions. Since the dawn of Islam, the country and its sacred cities of Mecca and Medina have been at the center of the Islamic world—a fact that has given the country a symbolic security. Indeed, history, culture and geography have protected the country from regional threats. This means building networks with militant groups beyond its borders lacks roots in Saudi Arabia history and geography.
More substantially, building and maintaining connections with militant groups is heavily predicated on a revolutionary ideology to urge external guerillas. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran has been a revisionist state, challenging the dominant order of the region with its ideology. Framed around the nodal point of “independence,” Iran’s anticolonial ideology has generated a centripetal dynamic in the region, making the country a sanctuary for a host of militants that challenged conservative regional powers.
Conversely, Riyadh has been a leading conservative regime in the region. Since the late 1960s, Riyadh’s leaders, especially King Faisal, gradually shaped the country’s policy of exporting Wahhabism. Until now, the ideology of Wahhabism has captured the minds of militant rebels in the Muslim world ranging from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Heavily financed by Saudi Arabia’s petrodollars, Wahhabi mosques and imams abroad, including in western Europe, preach a radical narrative of Islam, planting the seeds of Islamic fundamentalism around the globe. Nonetheless, Wahhabi and jihadi-Salafist groups never see Riyadh as their ideological hub in the same way that Iran’s proxies see Tehran. This is mainly due to the significance given to “independence” in their discourse. While independence and liberation from Western values and presence in Islamic countries has been at the center of jihadism, its patron’s strong connections with the United States and the West have devalued Saudi Arabia’s prestige among its proxies. That is why these groups, from ISIS, Nusra and Jaysh al-Islam to MEK and KDPI, consider Saudi Arabia as merely a financial bank for waging their terrorist struggles. This means that the country lacks strong soft power in comparison to its mortal enemy, Iran.
The lack of soft power among its proxies would also pose threats to Saudi Arabia’s national security. Iran’s strategic allies, Shia proxies from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, have not endangered Iran regime. Conversely, Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi, Salafi-jihadi groups, like Al Qaeda and ISIS, have competed with Riyadh’s claim of leading the Sunni world. With this historical background in mind, it would not be surprising if other Saudi proxies could target the country. In an interview with Fars News Agency on July 10, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, former deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, said that he had previously told the Saudis that “it is impossible to use terrorists as a tool to make the region insecure and at the same time expect calm within the kingdom.”
In the coming months, Saudi Arabia’s aggressive new policy towards Iran will escalate. Riyadh will keep using any possible means to put pressure on Iran. Its aggressive policy will eventually cause irreversible losses both in the region and in the kingdom itself. As history has shown, this this policy will backfire in long run—as it did for Saddam Hussein. The Baath regime of Baghdad invested heavily in Iranian opposition groups and ethnic, secessionist militant groups. The final result was the end of the Iraqi regime. Fires are raging in the Middle East, a region wherein “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
Arash Reisinezhad is a research fellow at the Middle East Center and an adjunct professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations, School of International and Public Affairs, Florida International University.
Image: Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman. Flickr/Ash Carter