The Saudi-Iranian Geosectarian Struggle

While the Muslim world is plagued with the scourge of religiously inspired armed nonstate actors, geosectarianism is another equally lethal challenge that is brewing in its core. In fact, the Sunni-Shia struggle on a geopolitical scale is actually aiding jihadism and vice versa, especially as Iran is on a path toward international rehabilitation in the wake of the July nuclear deal. Saudi Arabia and Iran, as leaders of these two rival camps, must come to terms with one another if Muslims are to successfully counter violent extremism.



Saudi Arabia and Iran have been at odds since the founding of the Islamic republic in Tehran after the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Pahlavi monarchy. Throughout the 1980s, this struggle manifested itself in the form of the Iran-Iraq war, which left a million dead and billions of dollars in economic devastation. The goal behind which the war was launched by Iraq (backed by the Khaleeji states in the Gulf), however, was not realized as Baghdad’s 1990 decision to invade Kuwait created the conditions for Iran to expand its geopolitical footprint.

The 1991 Gulf War followed by 12 years of sanctions severely weakened Iraq to where it lost its status as a buffer state to prevent Iran from projecting power into the wider Arab world. For Iran, by the time the U.S. effected regime-change in Baghdad in the spring of 2003, Iraq transformed from a threat to an ally. Conversely, for Saudi Arabia, the rise of a Shia-dominated post-Baathist republic seriously undermined the regional balance of power and Riyadh openly criticized its long-time ally Washington of facilitating this critical shift.

There were limits to how far Saudi Arabia could back the Sunni insurgency in Iraq without upsetting the U.S. More importantly, Saudi Arabia discovered that backing Sunni insurgents could not reverse the rise of the Shia, but instead would aid the growing Iraqi node of the al-Qaida network, which eventually became the Islamic State of Iraq (predecessor to ISIS). Jihadists benefiting from Saudi Arabia’s need to counter Iran and its Shia allies has become a full-blown strategic dilemma for the kingdom, something Riyadh is unable to resolve.

On the eve of the Arab Spring, the view from the Iranian window could not have been better. U.S. forces were on their way out of Iraq, leaving Iran to consolidate its gains in the form of Nouri al-Maliki’s second term as Iraq’s prime minister in late December 2010. Syria had long been a key Arab ally of Iran, which facilitated Hezbollah’s move to engineer the ouster of the pro-Saudi Lebanese government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri in mid-January 2011. At the time, it appeared as though Iran’s dream of having a contiguous sphere of influence on its western flank extending to the Mediterranean had been realized.

Furthermore, Iran was elated to see the outbreak of the Arab Spring, which triggered the meltdown of autocratic regimes in the Arab world, thus creating more space for Iran to expand its sphere of influence. Iran had its eyes set on Bahrain, where a Shia-led public uprising in March 2011 threatened to topple the pro-Saudi Sunni minority monarchical regime. Bahrain had always been a bridge too far across the Persian Gulf for Iran, and this uprising could create the space for Iran to play on the Arabian Peninsula. However, Saudi Arabia, which realized it could not rely on the United States to defend Saudi national security interests, made the unprecedented move of sending ground forces beyond its border and forcefully quell the civil agitation in Bahrain, a Persian Gulf island nation just a stone’s throw away from Saudi Arabia’s energy fields where the largest concentration of the Shia minority lives.

Iran did not have the intelligence presence in Bahrain to help the Shia majority succeed in toppling the al-Khalifa royal family. Far more importantly, Iran could not focus on the Arabian Peninsula given that the Arab Spring had spread to Syria, threatening Tehran’s ally in Damascus — the Assad regime. That civil uprising quickly turned into an armed insurrection in great part due to the government’s brutality in its efforts to contain the unrest. By late 2011, Iran was extremely worried that Bashar Assad could be toppled in the wake of what was now a full-blown civil war supported by a good chunk of the country’s majority Sunni community.

From Iran’s point of view, it was ironic that when Syria was a stable ally, Iraq was an implacable foe; now Iraq was firmly in the Iranian camp, but Syria was at risk of becoming an enemy state. The loss of Syria would pose a security threat for Iran, disconnecting it from its premier proxy, Hezbollah, and its nascent gains in the Shia-dominated Iraqi polity would be threatened by a Sunni minority, which would have the advantage of strategic depth in a Sunni-dominated Syria.

Although Saudi Arabia was generally worried about the Arab uprisings, it saw the rebellion in Syria as a godsend — a unique opportunity to punch a critical hole in the Iranian sphere of influence. Saudis and their allies quickly backed Syrian rebels, adding to what was already a sectarian conflict, and Salafists began to dominate the rebel forces. However, it was not long before jihadists of various stripes (Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra and others) dominated the rebel landscape. This was a key turning point for Iran; it shaped American perceptions to such a point that the Obama administration in August 2013 at the last moment backed away from military action against the Assad regime despite Damascus’ verified use of chemical weapons.

Not only did the U.S. anger Saudi Arabia, but adding insult to injury was the Obama administration’s decision to open talks with the Iranian government of then newly elected President Hassan Rouhani. As a result, Saudi Arabia finally decided to pursue an assertive foreign policy independent of the United States. However, its efforts are not just a case of too little too late, they also underscore the lack of good options for Riyadh.

By the time Saudi Arabia decided to go its own way, Daesh had already emerged as a major threat. This allowed Iran to shape American perceptions about shared interests between Washington and Tehran with regard to the threat from transnational jihadism. There was also the problem that the more Saudi Arabia confronted Iran, the more it empowered jihadists, allowing groups like Daesh to exploit the geosectarian battlespace. In other words, the Saudi kingdom cannot successfully confront the ethnic and sectarian Other when it is also at war with the Self.

And here the problems within the Self are not limited to jihadists, but also other more mainstream nonstate actors like the Muslim Brotherhood. The most damaging part of the struggle with the Self is the disagreements within the regional Sunni camp where Saudi Arabia is not on the same page with Qatar and, much more significantly, with Turkey.

Turkey is promoting a democratic model and prefers that Brotherhood-style Islamists come to power. However, democracy and participatory Islamists represent a challenge for Saudi Arabia. Riyadh also has no political model to offer as a way forward to stabilize the unrest given that it cannot export its own political system, a hybrid between absolute monarchy and quietist Salafism.

Yemen is the one country where Saudi Arabia did try to manage changes to the regime, engaging in unprecedented military intervention after erstwhile ally and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh sided with the Houthi movement. Saudi Arabia’s move has failed to achieve its objectives of restoring Saleh’s successor to power and has further undermined its ability to manage its southern neighbor’s failed state. What is worse is that fighting the Houthis is creating more space for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to expand its tentacles at a time when Saudi Arabia is already struggling against Daesh activity within the kingdom.

Here it is important to note how Daesh, through its recent attacks against Shia mosques in the kingdom as well as in Kuwait, is insidiously exploiting Saudi Arabia’s geosectarian strategy to advance its jihadist cause. Daesh is shaping the perception that Riyadh and jihadists are on the same page when it comes to fighting Shia. But Saudi Arabia cannot afford to alienate Arab Shias and push them into the welcoming arms of Iran; therefore it must protect them. Doing so, however, not only provides Saudi Shias leverage against the regime, but also pits the government against fellow Salafists. To stop Daesh attacks on the Shia, Saudi authorities have to crack down on Salafists who are enabling Daesh to operate in the kingdom. Daesh seek a rupture between the kingdom and its Salafist establishment, which is why it is important to understand that although Daesh are targeting Shias, they are using them as tools to go after the real prize: Saudi Arabia.

Iran understands this logic. While it sees Daesh as a threat, it is also aware that the transnational jihadist movement is more of a threat to Saudi Arabia and it is happy to see Riyadh caught in this complex nexus involving geosectarianism and jihadism. Saudi Arabia, cognizant that it’s caught between Daesh and Iran, is frustrated that it has no good options. Now that the nuclear deal has gone through, Saudis’ sense of vulnerability has been exacerbated.

What this means is that Saudi Arabia has no choice but to continue to fight on both fronts and try and avoid the two wars from reinforcing one another. Conversely, Iran is brimming with confidence and is gearing up to use the expected influx of billions of dollars of oil cash to support the Assad regime. Saudi Arabia sees Syria as the one place where the probability of undermining Iranian influence is greatest.

Given these diametrically opposed imperatives, the Saudi-Iranian struggle is likely to exponentially increase, with Syria as the epicenter of geosectarianism and jihadism for the foreseeable future.

TIM Summer 2015 CoverThis article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2015 print issue of The Islamic Monthly.

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  • About the autor
    Kamran Bokhari

    Kamran Bokhari teaches the geopolitics of the Middle East & South Asia at the University of Ottawa and is a Fellow with Program on Extremism at George Washington University's Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. He tweets at @KamranBokhari

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    • Puppet states and mistake of diplomacy allow Saudi regionalism fight there battles as
      “Prophet” agitated Iran. Sanctions no longer cruel allot better: anyhow EU gain contracts to benefit geopolitics those saying otherwise. African nations have more oil then “Gulf region” reason Gabon and Indonesia left Opec. Selfish decide pump oil without informing other nations greed of animosity never religion many reading looking at. Saudi Arabia has excluded Yemen due governmental and Shia majority no Islam! Iran is cultured society whom diversity economic benefit them not conformed Gulf states!

    • jake

      “backed away from military action against the Assad regime despite Damascus’ verified use of chemical weapons.” Please provide the source you claim for this “verification”. I have been unable to do so.