Saudi-Iranian Conflict in an Age of Sectarianization

President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) constitutes a watershed event. It shows that his administration is determined to use the reimposition of sanctions—and the application of new ones—to advance nothing less than regime change in Iran. For this purpose, Washington has embraced an emerging alliance of Middle Eastern states that views the actions of Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria as dire security threats. At the vanguard of this alliance stands Saudi Arabia. Its conflict with Iran is not merely about colliding strategic interests; rather, it is fueled by the tethering of Sunni and Shia religious doctrines to ruling institutions.

Tehran’s influence is likely only to grow with the seeming drift toward war.

This linkage is mirrored in a region-wide process of “sectarianization” by which leaders and movements are manipulating sectarian fears to gain domestic and regional advantage. Not all Arab Gulf states are abetting this dangerous process; indeed, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman are trying to resist it. But as the ongoing bid by the White House to push Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to mend fences with Qatar suggests, the tactical allure of invoking the “Sunni-Shia” divide seems irresistible. Washington may indeed be adding fuel to a fire that may burn the hands of many of its allies, new and old, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

With prospects for a regional conflict growing, Western European leaders would do well to take bold steps to defuse the situation. Ironically, the administration’s effort to kill the JCPOA may provide the impetus for European leaders to resist Washington’s policy of conflict intensification. Closer to home, leaders—especially in Congress—must also recognize that encouraging a Sunni-Shia war, or a direct Saudi-Iranian clash, is not likely to enhance the security of the United States or its allies in the Middle East. To be sure, Washington’s concerns about Iranian policies may be legitimate, but Tehran’s influence is likely only to grow with the seeming drift toward war.

The Doctrinal Roots of Saudi-Iranian Conflict

That neither Saudi Arabian nor Iranian leaders are looking to heal their widening breach is not surprising. As a recent report by the International Crisis Group notes, Tehran believes that it faces a relentless bid by Saudi-financed Sunni jihadists to threaten it from within and without. From Iran’s perspective, its projection of power in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria is defensive in nature.

Saudi Arabian leaders present a mirror image of Iran’s fears and motivations. From Riyadh’s vantage point, Shia allies of Iran in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Eastern Saudi Arabia pose an acute threat. This concern has deepened with the ascendancy of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who believes that the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement jeopardizes Saudi security interests. Moreover, he holds that political and strategic advances scored by Iran and its allies in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria pose a near existential threat. MBS’s assertion in March 2018 that Khamenei “wants…to create his own project in the Middle East very much like Hitler who wanted to expand” signals his determination to sabotage any advocates of negotiation and accommodation with Iran.

Such strong language also suggests that the drivers of Saudi-Iranian conflict are far deeper than a struggle over the regional balance of power. Animating this contest is a long history of sectarian competition whose deep roots have found their expression in two modern—if rival—states. In fact, this competition blossomed with the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. Until then, Saudi Arabia’s assertion that it was the “defender of the faithful” remained uncontested. The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini challenged this claim, and in the process planted the roots for a clash between two theocratic states, both of whose ruling institutions are tethered to religious doctrines.

This dilemma has been obvious in Saudi Arabia, where the royal family has long depended on a Wahhabi clerical establishment that has preached an intolerant attitude toward the Shia. It therefore becomes difficult for Saudi leaders to advance an inclusive vision of Saudi nationalism that transcends religious divisions, since this could easily antagonize the clerical establishment.

Tehran’s believes that Assad’s defeat would produce an ideological victory for Sunni jihadist forces and the Arab countries funding them.

By contrast, Iran’s political system draws on multiple notions of authority, including Shia religious and modern democratic practices that give ethnic groups space to articulate interests in an elected parliament. However, the Iranian constitution affirms that the political system is ultimately based on Shia ideology, thus according the Supreme Leader and the clerical establishment a central role in the state. It also elevates the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which may make Iran’s Sunni minority feel that they are not fully empowered. At any rate, Iran’s rulers see Sunnis as a suspect group whose religion and cultural traditions must be kept at a safe distance from the Shia heart of the state.

Still, the linking of governance to sectarian ideologies has not precluded efforts by Saudi and Iranian leaders to foster domestic detente with minorities or to reach beyond the sectarian Saudi Arabia-Iran divide. But over the last decade, and even more so since the rise of the so-called Islamic State in 2015, a region-wide process of sectarianization has effectively shut the door to rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran.

Sectarianizing the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry

Sectarian divides have become a constant problem in the modern Middle East, used by states to undermine rivals and by non-state actors to leverage the support of powerful governments. But there is little proof for Saudi Arabia’s accusation that Iran has fomented Shia unrest in its eastern province and in Bahrain. Nevertheless, Saudi leaders have used claims of interference to justify opposition to Iran. Yemen’s Houthi movement encapsulates the other side of this sectarianization process. Houthis are Zaydi Shia whose religious practices have little in common with those of the Iranian Twelver Shia creed; yet, they have emphasized themes and symbols associated with the Islamic Republic of Iran to gain Tehran’s backing in the Houthis’ escalating war with Saudi Arabia.

Such opportunistic behavior can easily boomerang by further alienating Shia and Sunni minorities, or by opening the door to proxy conflicts from which there is no easy exit. Given these risks, it is not surprising that even after the creation of a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad in 2003, Saudi and Iranian leaders tried to avoid playing the sectarian card. Thus, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Riyadh in 2007, where he and the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz pledged their government’s resolve to reduce Sunni-Shia conflict. This promise ran headlong into the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring, when protests by Shia in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia set the stage for Riyadh’s military intervention in Bahrain. Tehran denounced the intervention as “heinous and unjustifiable.” But overall, Iran’s response was muted, probably because—as one report notes—Tehran apparently wanted to avoid giving Sunni leaders an excuse to further repress Shia minorities. Efforts to tamp down sectarianism were again on display at the 2012 Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) conference, when the Saudi king sat next to Ahmadinejad—an act widely interpreted as a goodwill gesture.

The Syria and Yemen Battlefronts

Since the 2012 OIC meeting, three developments have virtually obliterated any repeat of such gestures: the expansion in 2014 of IS into Syria and its establishment of a new “caliphate”; the transformation of Syria’s civil war into a partly sectarian battle between Shia and Sunni forces; and the emergence of Mohammed bin Salman as the effective leader of Saudi Arabia.

It would be inadvisable to see these events as merely a channel for a regional power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran’s intervention in Syria was precipitated by Tehran’s perception that Assad’s defeat would produce a strategic and ideological victory for Sunni jihadist forces and those Arab countries supposedly and intermittently funding them—namely Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. This perception shaped Iran’s response, which was to mobilize along sectarian lines. Thus, Iran sent its Revolutionary Guards into Syria and amplified these forces by backing Hezbollah’s fighters and Shia mercenaries from Pakistan and Afghanistan. At first, these forces were not successful. Indeed, Russia’s ensuing intervention in September 2015 saved the day for Iran and for Assad when President Vladimir Putin added fire power; at that point, Iran began to make progress on the battlefield and forge a more coherent strategy for its growing involvement in Syria.

The renewal of US sanctions on Iran could be the coup de grace for the reformist agenda in Iran.

But if Iran’s actions in Syria were largely improvised, they confirmed Saudi Arabia’s perception that Tehran was following through on a long-standing plan for Shia domination of the region. The death of King Abdullah in 2015 and MBS’s subsequent power grab put a Saudi leader in charge who saw confrontation with Tehran as his country’s number one priority. Using his authority as defense minister, MBS launched a military campaign in Yemen after Houthi rebels forced President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi into exile. Saudi Arabia also played a crucial role in subverting the integration of the Houthis into a post-conflict political arrangement when Riyadh pressured the United Nations to remove its representative in Yemen, Jamal Benomar. On another front, Riyadh pressed Kuwaiti leaders to narrow the space for political competition and to go after Shia activists who were viewed as potential threats to Saudi Arabia. The formation of the Saudi-UAE-Bahrain alliance in 2017, its imposition of a blockade on Qatar, and the ensuing efforts of the Saudis to entice the Egyptians and Israelis to back this alliance all signaled a reordering of the region’s politics, one that fused sectarianization to a policy of Saudi- and UAE-backed autocracy promotion.

Trump Administration Throws Gasoline on a Raging Fire

Enter the Trump Administration, which has decided to scrap the Iran nuclear deal—a decision that Israel and the Saudis, with their Arab allies, have applauded. Riyadh will be less keen to accede to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s efforts to end the cold war that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt started with Qatar in June 2017. But if Riyadh will not bend on this issue, it continues to work with the Trump Administration by signaling its readiness to engage with Israel and by exploring prospects for sending troops to Syria.

As the prospect for regional war grows, Iran’s hardliners will benefit. The outbreak of protests in many rural areas, which gripped Iran in January and February 2018, will not change this equation. Although Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has tried to leverage the protests to sustain some residue of his reformist agenda, regional events have eclipsed him. The renewal of US sanctions on Iran could be the coup de grace for that reformist agenda—and for any hopes of avoiding a Saudi-Iranian clash. In fact, the White House’s move to abandon the Iran nuclear deal could be a prelude to a wider regional conflagration. Judging by Pompeo’s recent Middle East trip, the administration is doing little to prevent—and perhaps much to instigate—such a collision.

Indeed, the White House is now taking steps whose folly could exceed that of the George W. Bush Administration’s 2003 decision to invade Iraq. Washington and its Middle Eastern allies have reason to fear Iran’s efforts to sink a deeper military and economic foothold in Syria. But apart from its human and economic costs, fostering a region-wide war, in strategic terms, will undermine US leverage and even reward Tehran. One can only hope that Washington’s European allies will encourage all parties to de-escalate. There are some hopeful signs: French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, has reached out to Rouhani, and in the US Congress there are growing concerns on both sides of the aisle regarding the risks of the White House’s Middle East policy. But the clock keeps ticking, and it may take a miracle to stop it from reaching the witching hour.

Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC