Saudi Arabia Wants to Roll Back Iran

September 4, 2016 Topic: Politics Region: Middle East Tags: IranSaudi ArabiaForeign PolicyContainmentStrategy

Saudi Arabia Wants to Roll Back Iran

Containment is no longer good enough.

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