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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Impending Clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia

Filed under: Iran, Saudi Arabia, The Middle East

Iran recently marked 35 years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought to power Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The cleric’s radical religious teachings, which are based on government in the hands of mullahs and a foreign policy of exporting the Islamic Revolution, still define Iranian policy today.

Khomeini set the tone for Iranian-Saudi relations in the first decade of the Islamic Republic, challenging the legitimacy of the Saudi regime to serve as the protector of the Muslim holy sites in Mecca and Medina. In 1987, Khomeini declared that Mecca was in the hands of a “band of heretics” and characterized the Saudis as “vile and ungodly Wahhabis.” For the current Iranian leadership, Khomeini’s remarks remain authoritative and frame the way Iran views Saudi Arabia.

In a meeting held a few weeks ago with the commanders of the Air Force, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reiterated his loyalty to Khomeini’s ideas and repeatedly stressed the pillars of the Islamic Revolution – namely, the independence of the Islamic regime and the constant battle against foreign forces who seek to impose their hegemony in Islamic territory and intervene in it. In an implicit reference to the Arab Spring, Khamenei said that jihad is an essential component of any revolution against a tyrannical regime, and without it the revolution will fail.

Khamenei’s words, as well as those of other senior officials who made similar remarks recently, outline the ideological boundaries of the “charm offensive” that accompanied the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad finished his second term. Khamenei’s remarks indicated that whatever understandings might be reached between Iran and the West on the nuclear file, Iran has no intention of retreating from its efforts to establish its hegemony in the Middle East.

Sunni vs. Shiite

Iran’s drive for regional hegemony probably affects no other country more than Saudi Arabia. There are multiple points of friction, beyond the struggle over the future of Syria, that make Saudi Arabia one of Iran’s principle targets in the period ahead. The first point, which is fundamental to the Iranian hatred of Saudi Arabia, is the widespread Shiite belief that the Saudis destroyed the shrines of the early generation of Muslim leaders who are buried in Medina, including the tomb of Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad and the matriarch of all the imams of Shiite Islam. The Iranians were convinced that, given this history, Saudi clerics were now calling for the destruction of the shrine of Zeinab, the daughter of Muhammad, who is buried outside of Damascus.

The second point of friction is that the escalation of sectarian conflicts between Iran and Saudi Arabia has led to outright clashes between their proxy forces. In fact, along Iran’s eastern border, there have been anti-Shiite jihadist groups stationed in Pakistan who have kidnapped Iranian soldiers.

Another point of contention is the fact that Iran is prepared to assert its military power against its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia. Iran has repeatedly showcased the achievements of its military industry, which produces satellites, fighter jets, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, submarines, destroyers, short and long range missiles, radar systems, and tanks. Iran invests a great deal of effort in developing offensive capabilities, and the statements of its senior officers show that the Iranian army is building the capability to attack American targets in the Persian Gulf. These capabilities can be translated into a modern version of the attack on Pearl Harbor, escalating conflict in the region when Iran feels strong enough militarily to deter the United States from any retaliation aimed at toppling the regime.

In early January, Frederic Hof, a former adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, disclosed during a congressional hearing that he heard from the Iranians that they viewed Saudi Arabia as their primary enemy, and not the United States or even Israel.  Hof’s words reverberated in Middle Eastern news outlets.

Ignoring Iran’s “Charm Offensive”

Saudi Arabia, Iran’s historical rival, sees in Tehran’s recurrent messages further evidence of Iran’s strategic and tangible danger to the entire region, regardless of Rouhani’s “charm offensive.” In Riyadh’s eyes, Iran remains the most serious security challenge to the stability and territorial integrity of the Saudi kingdom. The two countries aim to stand at the head of the two major poles of the Islamic world. Iran represents Shiite Islam, and Saudi Arabia, in its role as guardian of the Islamic holy places in Mecca and Medina, seeks to portray itself as a leader of Sunni Islam.

Saudi Arabia became more concerned with Iran’s military and political ambitions after Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003 and the subsequent U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Iraq, which was headed by a tyrannical Sunni minority regime, played a vital role for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states as a balancing factor in the Shiite-Sunni power struggle. Iraq’s military power prevented Iran’s ambitions from raising alarms in Saudi Arabia.

In the absence of a regional balancing factor, the threats emanating from Tehran have a much stronger echo in Riyadh. In Saudi Arabia’s view, Iranian policy reflects a growing self-confidence in Tehran’s ability to realize its stated objective to become a regional power and use military power to achieve regional hegemony.

The warning signs for this are accumulating with direct threats in the form of claims to sovereignty over Bahrain, which Tehran claims is Iranian territory that was taken away illegally. Iran encourages the Shiite population in the Gulf countries and eastern Saudi Arabia (in the oil-rich region) to subvert the ruling Sunni regimes. In addition, Iran’s rapid military buildup, coupled with the maneuvers it holds in the Persian Gulf, underlie the threat that Iran may block the Strait of Hormuz to oil tanker traffic.

Nuclear Rivalry

Iran’s nuclear program is seen in this context as a complete change in the rules of the game. The Saudis do not oppose Iran’s right to establish a nuclear infrastructure for peaceful purposes, but it appears as though they do not trust Iran’s promises. Therefore, Saudi Arabia is preparing to purchase an atomic bomb “off the shelf” from Pakistan in order to create deterrence against Iran. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, visited Pakistan on February 17, 2014, for discussions on ways to enhance military cooperation between the countries. It is not inconceivable that the Saudi interest in purchasing an atomic bomb was also included in the agenda. Iran’s determination to persist with its nuclear program and the Saudi determination to acquire a nuclear shield may drag the Middle East into a nuclear arms race.

Israel takes up a central place in Iranian rhetoric; however, Israel is not the first target on Iran’s list. Even if Iran gets nuclear weapons, they will probably not be used to attack Israel. What is more likely is that Iran’s nuclear weapons will provide an umbrella of protection that would allow Iran to continue its rapid military buildup and belligerent foreign policy. Such a foreign policy will be expressed in the destabilization of countries in the Arabian Peninsula, in efforts to change the map of the region on the pretext of compliance with calls from the Shiite communities in these countries, and in the creation of an Iranian-led regional alliance in the Fertile Crescent. These developments, if they do materialize, especially in the wake of American isolationist tendencies, may create an existential military threat for Israel on its eastern front.