Let’s get started on mapping the Iran-Saudi relationship. To recapitulate our method, we shall build upon the intuitive model introduced in the previous two posts (“Mindfully Mapping a Middle Eastern Morass – Saudi Arabia and Iran” & “Mapping an Interactive Network for Iran and Saudi Arabia Relations“) that conceptualizes the two countries’ behaviors as outcomes of the interplay of various influencing forces (e.g. political, economic, security-focused) at the domestic, bilateral, regional, and international levels. Drawing upon analytic commentary and event reporting in the news and academic media, we will identify the most significant forces relevant to our focal question—movement toward war or cooperation—and the direction in which these forces are driving behavior. The map will serve as a framework for continued media scanning that will support periodic updating of assessments on the likely nature and (down the road in this effort) timing of events within the Iran-Saudi relationship.

The mapping process will unfold in stages so that we can address topics in at least modest detail. This initial effort will focus on the broadest measure of the current relationship–the “stances” of the two protagonists towards each other, which is a summary of their mutual attitudes, policies, and intentions. We will then look at the various influencing factors starting with Iranian national security and diplomatic strategies at both the regional and global levels. This is truly a first pass at boiling down what are enormously complicated issues into a set of graphically-represented variables. And so the baseline judgments offered here (and in future postings) should be considered provisional and very much open to discussion.

full graph, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iran Saudi Arabia tensions
The updated graph (16 December 2015) including new nodes as explained in this article. Click to access interactive graph.

Mirrored Stances

Middle East political analysts agree that the Iran-Saudi bilateral relationship has reached an unprecedented low point, as is reflected in their use of such evocative terms as “blood feud” and “collision course” to describe the state of current ties. To be sure, the relationship has been fraught with tension and rivalry since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution relationship—reflecting, at its most basic, the two regimes’ competing claims to lead the Islamic world—and had been deteriorating since 2011 due, especially, to sharp differences over Syria. (“Rivals—Iran vs. Saudi Arabia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 20, 2011). Nevertheless, both Riyadh and Tehran had tried until recently to paper over conflicts with public displays of cordiality. (“The Blood Feud That Drives the Middle East,” Foreign Policy, November 13, 2015). But over the past year or so, both countries have progressively adopted more openly confrontational and even threatening stances toward each other on a wide array of fronts.

Towards tension

  • In retrospect, it was Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow oil prices to plummet by rejecting OPEC production cuts last year that initiated the current phase of the relationship. This policy was at least partially motivated by a desire to “put a brake on Iran’s regional ambitions” by reducing oil revenues to its already sanctions-battered economy. (“Saudi Arabia and Iran’s Uneasy Friendship,” Foreign Affairs, January 28, 2015). A late 2014 effort by Iranian President Rouhani to improve bilateral relations based on cooperation against the Islamic State (also know as ISIS*) foundered over Riyadh’s rejection of Tehran’s request to take action to allow oil prices to rise (Ibid.).
  • Riyadh’s decision to assemble a coalition to intervene in Yemen against advancing Houthi rebels supported, at least modestly, by Iran, has led to indirect confrontations with Tehran and mutual recriminations. For instance, a Saudi-led coalition warplane bombed an airfield in Sana’a in March to prevent a supply plane connected with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from landing. At about the same time, Iran dispatched a maritime convoy to attempt to run a Saudi-imposed blockade (turning away when a U.S. aircraft carrier came on the scene). Senior IRGC and military officials threatened “heavy-handed” punishment against Riyadh and “predicted” the fall of the Saudi royal family, while the Saudis have claimed direct military involvement of Iranian military and allied Hezbollah fighters in support of the Houthis. (“Iran and Saudi Arabia Are On A Collision Course, Washington Institute,” April 13, 2015; “Saudi prince alleges capture of Iranian military, Hezbollah in Yemen,” Al-Monitor, October 5, 2015).

Amidst these confrontations, threats, and insults, there have been glimmers of potential movement toward detente as well:

Towards detente

  • Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are participating in the current Vienna talks on finding a solution to the Syrian conflict. Riyadh had to be cajoled by Washington into participating in the talks once Iran had been invited, and initially, mudslinging between the two countries threatened the continuation of the effort. (“The Blood Feud…,” Foreign Policy, op. cit.). Nevertheless, the last session in November yielded “more progress than expected” in developing a framework for a ceasefire and transition, according to Washington Post diplomatic analyst David Ignatius. This suggests willingness on the part of both Iran and Saudi Arabia—the two key regional players in this conflict—at least to acquiesce to compromise. Whether the talks can overcome fundamental Saudi and Iranian differences over President’s Assad’s continuation in power remains uncertain. (“A surprise in Syria’s civil war that could be bad news for the Islamic State,” Washington Post, November 20, 2015).


Notwithstanding some potentially positive recent developments, both Saudi Arabia and Iran can be safely said to have assumed hostile—arguably very hostile—stances toward each other. The growing use of inflammatory ethnic and religiously-themed rhetoric by senior officials on both sides threatens to drive this hostility to a qualitatively different level with ominous implications for the region as well for bilateral relations. (“Iran and Syria Ramp Up…Guardian, ibid.; for background see: “The Sunni-Shia Divide,” Foreign Affairs, August 2015). Thus we will add a node to our map to represent “Ethno-sectarian Tensions” (click to access node and its information panel in the interactive network) in order to keep better tabs on this potentially explosive factor. At the same time, we will add nodes for both countries entitled “Detente Probes” as the Qatar-Zarif peace feeler may reflect an important strain of thinking on both sides of the Gulf that could gain strength under different political circumstances.

ethno sectarian tensions sc
Click to access interactive graph

Following on Helene’s proposal in her previous post to consider systemic change in our analysis, we will also examine how the Iran-Saudi bilateral relationship may work as an independent force in driving Tehran’s and Riyadh’s behavior. Given their outsized strength and assertiveness within the Middle East, the two countries can be conceived as “superpower” leaders of a bi-polar system of regional coalitions. Such a system features important internal dynamics including action-reaction cycles (especially, the “security dilemma,” to be discussed in the next section) and, the “Thucydides Trap” through which the challenge posed by a rising power to a dominant power—for Thucydides, Sparta vs. Athens but here Iran vs. Saudi Arabia—often leads to major conflict. (For a recent discussion of this topic in the US-China context, see “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” The Atlantic, September 24, 2015). Nawaf Obeid, a Harvard-based Saudi scholar has implicitly characterized the relationship in Thucydidean terms by arguing that Iran is seeking to overthrow “a balance of power [between Sunni and Shia states] that has lasted for 1400 years,” and that Saudi Arabia has “no choice but to employ unprecedented force in the name of stability.” (“Iran’s Syrian Power Grab and Saudi Arabia, Project Syndicate, November 19, 2015; “Saudi Arabia is emerging as the new Arab superpower,” Daily Telegraph, May 5, 2015). We will add a node on the map for “Bilateral Dynamics” linked to the two countries’ stances as a reminder to consider this factor in our evolving analysis.

Iran’s Strategy

Both Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s stances toward each other are connected to their broader national security and diplomatic strategies at the regional and global levels. We will focus here on Iran’s strategies, returning to discuss Saudi Arabia’s—and the linkages between them—at a later date.

Iran’s current regional strategy has been described dispassionately as seeking to “maximize Tehran’s” influence” among its neighbors. (Iranian Foreign Policy Under Rouhani, Lowy Institute, February 2015). It executes this strategy chiefly through the prosecution of “proxy conflicts” in alliance with friendly forces in the region, including the Assad regime, Hezbollah, the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, and, to a lesser extent, the Houthis in Yemen and the Shia opposition in Bahrain. Tehran’s coalition-building approach is said to be pragmatic rather than strictly confessionally-focused as Tehran has worked with more radical Sunni groups (Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood) and Christians as well as with Shia forces; moreover, among the latter are groups such as the Alawites and the Houthis that espouse heterodox religious views (“Iran Is Winning the War for Dominance of the Middle East,” Foreign Policy, April 14, 2015). In any case, Tehran, working through IRGC, has mainly provided logistical, financial, and/or advisory support to its partners, allowing it to defend its interests and extend its influence at a relatively low cost in treasure and casualties (“How Iran Dominates the Middle East,” National Interest, June 18, 2015). However, Tehran has recently involved itself more directly in military action in Iraq and in Syria, where it may currently have as many as 2000 military personnel deployed, according to reported Pentagon estimates (“Iran’s Intervention In Syria Is Bold, Unprecedented — And Possibly A Disaster,” BuzzFeed, November 16, 2015). These moves, undertaken in response to opposition gains, are raising the financial and human costs that Iran will likely incur. (“Will Iran Pursue High Cost Strategy in Syria,” Al-Monitor, November 18, 2015).

There are two broad analytic perspectives on the sources of Iran’s regional strategy and behavior, one emphasizing offensive goals, the other, defensive ones.

Hegemonic Theory: Iran’s strategic goal is to emerge as the dominant power in the Middle East and eventually the entire Islamic world, according to Israel-based analyst Jonathan Spyer. This means overthrowing Sunni dominance by creating a continuous line of pro-Iran entities stretching westward to the Mediterranean—allowing Tehran also to engage indirectly in the conflict with Israel and thus burnish its credentials as leader of Islamic Resistance—as well as by sowing instability within the Arabian peninsula (“Is It Iran’s Middle East Now?” JonathanSpyer.com November 7, 2015). Al-Jazeera analyst Sharif Nashashibi has argued that recent public remarks by an advisor to President Rouhani saying that “Iran is now an empire” and by IRGC Commander Ali Jafari praising the “ever increasing export” of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, “show Tehran’s clear intent to project its power regionally… .” (“Iran’s regional ambitions are clear and worrying,” Al-Jazeera, March 25, 2015).

Defensive Theory: Tehran is primarily seeking to preserve a shrinking domain in a hostile environment rather than trying to expand its influence (“Iran Is Hardly On The March,” Defense One, July 15,2015). According to Johns Hopkins-based political analyst Vali Nasr, Iranian leaders perceive a “sort of a concerted Sunni effort to push them out” of their spheres of influences—“the Turks to the north, the Saudis to the south, and ISIS in the middle. …” (“The Saturday Night Live Theory of US-Iran Relations,” The Atlantic, July 2, 2015). They are particularly worried about the Islamic State (aka ISIS) as a mixture of viscerally anti-Iranian Wahhabist extremists and ex-Baathists that threatens the Shia heartland in neighboring Iraq. (“Iran Is Not the Middle East’s Menacing Hegemon,” Muftah, April 27, 2015)

Ascertaining which of these two (non-mutually exclusive) interpretations of Iranian strategic behavior is more correct is important for anticipating Tehran’s future moves. For instance, a truly defensively-motivated Iranian leadership would be more likely to respond positively to incentives to pursue regional cooperation than one that is focused on achieving hegemony. But as balance of power theorists, such as Columbia University political scientist Robert Jervis, have pointed out, even a defensive strategy inevitably contains offensive elements and capabilities that rivals may see as threatening, and thus, through what is called the “security dilemma” may lead to escalating tensions and conflict even in the absence of aggressive intentions. (Robert Jervis, “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma,” World Politics, January 1978) This may be particularly the case in the Iran-Saudi relationship where factors that have been shown to dampen such a spiral elsewhere, such as mutual affinity based on compatible ideologies and cultures, are not present. (“Why Proxy Wars in the Middle East Are (Probably) Here to Stay,” Political Violence At a Glance, August 27, 2015).

At the global level, Tehran’s central strategy since the election of President Rouhani in 2013 has been to put an end to economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation through the negotiation of a nuclear deal. The Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA) concluded in July 2015 will have a wide range of political, economic, and security-related effects pertinent to Iran’s regional strategies and behavior that will play out over various time scales, as will be discussed in future posts. But one important immediate effect is Iran’s return as a legitimate player in the eyes of the West in regional and global discussions, as dramatically evidenced by Tehran’s inclusion in the Vienna talks on Syria. A key question for Iranian strategy is whether this change of status—along with other anticipated gains from the nuclear deal—will lead to a sustained moderation in Iran’s regional behaviors. This was apparently a key expectation of the Obama Administration in concluding the nuclear agreement, according to leading US foreign policy expert Leslie Gelb. (“The Real Reason Obama Did The Nuclear Deal,” Daily Beast, July 14, 2015).

At the moment, there appears to be a intense struggle among political factions within the Iranian government about the country’s strategic direction. President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, both of the regime’s pragmatic wing, are said to favor regional moderation and cooperation with the US. They believe that a more pacific environment will promote economic growth, which, in their view, is the key factor for strengthening Iranian national security. (Iranian Foreign Policy Under Rouhani, Lowy Institute, op. cit.). But Supreme Leader Khamenei, who has final say over national security issues (the structure of national security and foreign policy decision making to be the subject of a later post), has rejected further improvements in ties with the United States beyond implementation of the JCPOA and has harshly criticized US efforts to dominate the region, all in a series of public addresses given this fall. Meanwhile, the conservative-dominated intelligence and judicial sectors have begun a wave of domestic repression, including the arrest or continued detention of journalists supportive of increased international engagement, in what appears to be a calculated move to head off any further opening to US and Western influence. (“Arrests Gather Pace in Iran after Khamenei Gives Green Light for Crackdown,” International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, November 9, 2015). One commentator for The Guardian’s Tehran Bureau has argued that “without enmity towards foreign powers, the very existence of this faction [conservatives] is threatened,” and that “normalization of relations between Iran and other nations is apparently a great threat to Khamenei.” (“A New Wave of Repression is Imminent in Iran,” Guardian Tehran Bureau, November 2, 2015).


Click to access interactive graph

According to Volker Perthes, Director of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, there are two strategic choice scenarios for Iranian going forward following the completion of the nuclear deal. In one Iran seeks “a balance with its regional and international partners, works hard to keep a dialogue going and exerts a moderating influence, for example on the actors in the Syrian war.” In the other, Iran feels “empowered by the lifting of the sanctions and is strong enough to go after its interests – forcefully and, if things go badly, ruthlessly, without much consideration for its neighbors.” (as cited in “Iran, Saudi Arabia and the new Middle East,” Deutsche Welle, October 16, 2015). The relative strength of the internal balance between regime pragmatists such as Rouhani and Zarif and more conservative forces—itself affected by the impact of nuclear deal-related sanctions relief on Iran’s economy and security status—will primarily determine Iran’s future direction (Volker Perthes, “After the Iran Deal,” Project Syndicate, July 14, 2015). At the moment, the analytic consensus appears to be that the conservatives, supported by Khamenei, have the advantage—and along with it, the tougher regional strategy—but that the outcome of this struggle over the longer term is far from decided (“After the party: Hardliners in Iran are Flexing Their Muscles,” Economist, November 24, 2015).

With elections for Parliament and the Assembly of Experts (which chooses the Supreme Leader) slated for February 2016 and with nuclear sanctions relief about to unfold, we will soon examine the internal factors influencing Iranian strategy as we continue to build the map. In the meantime, we shall add nodes within the “Strategy/Diplomacy” category for “Pragmatist/Conservative Strategy Balance” and for “Strategic Capabilities”: economic and security-related resources that will influence strategic intentions and choices and will, in turn, be influenced by sanctions relief. And we will create a node for “Offensive/Defensive Motives” to facilitate monitoring of the extent to which Iran aspires toward hegemony or toward self-(and/or ally-) preservation and, in the case of the latter, the extent to which it sees “offense being the best defense”–implying the possibility of a security dilemma-rooted Iranian-Saudi spiral toward conflict.


*Editor’s note: ISIS or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham was the name taken by the corresponding actor until it changed it for the Islamic State and declared a Khilafah on 29 June 2014. See for more details Portal to the Islamic State War. Thus, the accurate name is the Islamic State.

Featured image: Destroyed house in the south of Sanaa 12-6-2015 by Ibrahem Qasim (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.