At the latest 2 June 2016 OPEC summit, Saudi Arabia and Iran failed to reach an agreement on oil production level (e.g. Terry Macalister, The Guardian, 2 June 2016). Different needs as well as tensions between the two countries are at stake. Yet, a few analysts have also underscored a slight improvement in the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran (Liam Halligan,  “Opec is very much alive as Saudis learn to tread softly“, 4 June 2016).  What should we thus expect? Should we trust that a warming of the relationships is indeed underway, or should we expect a potential stiffening of positions considering the current offensive led by Shia governments in Syria and Iraq (e.g. Alex MacDonald, “Sunni fighters say militias, not army, should liberate Fallujah and Mosul“, Middle East Eye, 5 June 2016; Reuters, “Syrian troops reach edge of Raqqa, after Russia-backed offensive“, The Australian, 6 June 2016)?

Even more than previously, our final aim – to be able to foresee and warn about the evolution of the relationships between Iran and Saudi Arabia, including by enhancing our understanding of both onset and duration of dynamics – is not only relevant but crucial for actors, which are impacted by the evolution of the relationships between the two countries, i.e. pretty much everyone if we consider the still crucial importance of oil in our modern type of development and the central position of Saudi Arabia and Iran on the oil production scene, to say nothing of other types of consequences, in terms of war and geopolitics for example.

In the previous article, Dr Fishbein made a broad review of the major factors that could, through their “confluence”, tip the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia towards intensified conflict or, on the contrary, away from it. Meanwhile, those factors also would tell us more about which country would take a likely advantage in terms of relative balance of power. We need to be able to properly incorporate Dr Fishbein’s identified factors in the model we are developing for this foresight and warning case.

We shall here focus on the balance of power and its formation. We shall use the related work by famous international relations scientist Kenneth Waltz in his seminal Theory of International Politics (1979). We shall use Waltz’s understanding of balance of power formation – the assumptions and conditions he identifies – to detail the variables and their linkages we need for our model. First we shall state precisely what is meant by balance of power formation, and look at the goals of states, as the first assumption underlying the theory. Second, we shall move to the way states attempt to reach these goals, which is also the second assumption. Finally we shall look at the conditions necessary to see the possibility for balance of power formation.

Meanwhile as we are here modeling at the systemic level of international relations, we also point out that such modeling through mapping or use of graph, allows us to realise a synthesis of various theories and approaches to international relations, when, most of the time, analysts privilege one or the other way to understand relations, while foreign policy practitioners tend to discard theory, thus depriving themselves of crucial insights to advise decision-makers.

User manual – Interactive graph (Ed.)

A detailed, step by step explanation regarding the use of graphs, their advantage, how we build the interactive graph and how to use it can be found here, in “Mapping an Interactive Network for Iran and Saudi Arabia Relations“. Each article of the Tempobs project then build upon the initial graph to develop a better, more accurate model, until we shall reach the stage of obtaining a “good enough model”, to use Helen Fein’s (1994: 32) apt criteria, for strategic foresight and warning or risk management.
Here, we thus have our initial “cluster map” (displaying the larger categories of cluster of variables, which was a convenient way to start the project, and to display it) and the developing detailed and full graph, incorporating a first set of elements related to balance of power formation, as explained below . 
Click on each image below to access the corresponding graph. The graphs are made with Gephi and translated in interactive web-based graphs by Sigma.js, and the Oxford Internet Institute Sigmajs exporter.

The “balance of power” and the goals of states

If we want to fully incorporate the “balance of power” theory into our detailed map (and not into the clustered or synthetic one, which is only a communication and presentation device), then we need to be able to translate the theory into variables (nodes) and their linkages (edges). We thus need to understand more about this theory: what are its assumptions, what does it claim to explain, achieve and foresee, what does it tell us exactly?

As is so often the case in international relations,  it is impossible to find a single accepted definition and meaning for the balance of power, as underlined by Martin Wight (e.g “The Balance of Power” 1966), Waltz (1979), and others (e.g. Evans and Newnham, Dictionary of World Politics, 1992: 25-27; Kegley and Raymond, The Global Future: A Brief Introduction to World Politics, 2014, 5th Edition, chapter 8).  We need nonetheless to make a choice as our aim is not debate but to apply scientific knowledge for practical use in terms of strategic foresight and warning. In addition, applying practically a theory may also help towards falsification or confirmation.

Here, we shall use the work on the balance of power by Waltz (1979).  According to him, out of the motivations of states and related actions, considering a set of assumptions and conditions, a system emerges, and “the expected outcome” is “the formation of the balance of power” (p.118), i.e., in a nutshell, when states ally against a stronger state or stronger alliance (ibid. pp. 125-128 – we shall detail further these dynamics in the next post).

According to Waltz, the first assumption upon which lays the balance of power theory is that states are “unitary actors who, at a minimum, seek their own preservation and at a maximum drive for universal domination” (p.118). Waltz himself states this is solely an assumption necessary for the theory and that “we can freely admit that states are in fact not unitary purposive actors” (p. 119).

Here, we shall need to introduce the possibility to see the assumption stand or not, to be able to consider future developments, notably regarding fundamental potential evolutions of the state in the future, as we are under conditions of change. In both cases, to do so, we shall, as we develop the mapping for each country, introduce as much details as necessary about internal political dynamics. By introducing these various political dynamics and processes, we shall not only allow for trends that work towards having the various actors in a country behave in a way which tends to be unitary, but also for the breaking down of such trends, as, for example, in the case of a revolution or civil war.  Note however, that even if a unitary state breaks down into contending factions vying for state power as in a civil war, each of them may then be treated as a “unitary actor” seeking to survive or to dominate. For example, “Syria” or “Libya” may hardly be treated anymore as unitary actors. However, each faction and group of factions on the Syrian or Libyan battlefield may be seen as a unitary actor which seeks to achieve goals similar to those identified for states. For instance, the Islamic State is a perfect example of a unitary actor seeking to achieve universal domination(e.g. H Lavoix, The Islamic State Psyops – Worlds War,19 January 2015, and Ultimate War, 9 February 2015).

Sub-graph 1: State as unitary actors – Balance of Power Formation between Iran and Saudi Arabia and Attribute of the variable “Iran’s goals”. Click to see on interactive graph.

The sub-graph summarises, for Iran, the various variables and linkages, for our model as stemming from Waltz’s first assumption. A similar subgraph is done for Saudi Arabia. Note that the various aims a state could have are incorporated as the attributes of the variable “Iran’s goals” (or Saudi Arabia’s goals).  When creating this sub-graph, we paid attention to incorporate it properly into our detailed model, revising, merging, or deleting previous nodes if they are better described by the nodes related to the balance of power theory, as there is no point in duplicating unnecessarily a variable.

For example, the node “Iran’s goals” merges two previous nodes: “national interest” and “intentions” because, first “Goal” and “intention” are considered here as synonyms, and second “Goal” appears as more interesting than  “national interest” as it includes the second notion, while being also less historically bound (notably to the idea of nation).

Meanwhile we also added the relationships between the revised or new nodes and variables we had previously identified.

Means to ends

Waltz then underlines that “States… try in more or less sensible ways to use the means available in order to achieve the ends in view. Those means fall into two categories: internal efforts (moves to increase economic capability, to increase military strength, to develop clever strategies) and external efforts (move to strengthen or enlarge one own’s alliance or to weaken and shrink an opposing one).” (p.119).

This approach will be extremely precious to us as it will allow for integrating the formation of the balance of power with the full mapping of both domestic and external factors. Furthermore, it does not bind us to a static, laundry-list of factors, which is dangerous when anticipating the future (we may then become bogged down into factors that blind us to novelty). On the contrary, by focusing on aims and dynamics, this approach also allows for the creativity and novelty that, at times, characterise human societies.

If we try to translate in terms of variables and dynamics what Waltz underlined, it comes that Iran or Saudi Arabia need to have first a perception of their situation, notably in terms of means, then to evaluate it according to what they expect to achieve. From there they will define the “efforts” to endeavour to achieve their goals. Let us limit ourselves for now to the factors underlined by Waltz, which already exist in our graph and that we only need to rename to better fit our now improved understanding. To these we shall also add a broader factor that will potentially cover other “internal efforts” we may identify as we shall work on the domestic situation. For each of these factors we need to have both the existing situation and the efforts undertaken.

Assumption 2
Sub-graph 2: State’s means to reach its ends – Balance of Power Formation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Click to see on interactive graph.

We should ideally also take into account that no factor should be evaluated without also considering the others. This would be silo thinking. Yet, overcoming silos is indeed a capacity that may be developed or not, and not a given equally shared among countries and agencies. For now, we shall keep this challenge in mind to be solved later.

The situation – and to link with our previous integration of Axelrod’s idea of the “shadow of the future” (see “Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Shadow of the Future“) will impact each country’s perception of threats to survival (the one grounded in what we called conditions).

Perceptions threats C
Iran’s efforts to implement its goal impacts “Iran’s perception of threat to survival (conditions)” – Balance of Power Formation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Click to see on interactive graph.

In the meantime, each effort undertaken by a country to move close to its goal will influence the other’s country perception of threat to survival (the one grounded in deeds). For example, when Iran supports Bashar al Assad in Syria, which is a mix between military and “diplomatic” – in as much as it is linked to alliances – efforts, as is coming back to the fore lately in the media (see The Red (Team) Analysis Weekly 26 May 2016), then we may surmise without taking much risk to be incorrect that it immediately has an impact on Saudi Arabia’s perception of potential hegemonic Iranian aims and thus on their perception of Iran as a threat to their survival. This takes place independently from Iran real’s intention as far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, through a series of biases that it would be too long to explain here (see for reference, Heuer Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, 1999).

Perceptions threats D
Saudi Arabia’s efforts to implement its goal impacts “Iran’s perception of threat to survival (deeds)” – Balance of Power Formation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Click to see on interactive graph.

We see here how different theories of international relations could start to constructively feed into each other for a better foresight and warning.

Meanwhile, we deleted the nodes “Iran or Saudi Arabia Security” as they had become superfluous, and were actually only placeholders to remind us to deal with the issue (it is covered partly by the goals of the countries, partly by the nodes detailed in this part).

Conditions necessary for balance of power formation

Waltz then stresses the conditions that are necessary to see balance of power formation: one needs at least “two states which coexist in a self-help system”, which is the case internationally. Is it also correct for our regional focus?

Waltz underlines that, in a self-help system, (the current state of anarchy, however grounded in norms if we use Hedley Bull’s understanding of the international order, The Anarchical Society, 1977), we must not have a “superior agent”, who “may come to the aid of states that may be weakening”, or who can have the power “to deny to any of them [the states analysed and part of the system] the use of whatever instruments they think will serve their purpose”. (ibid.)

These two conditions are particularly interesting in the case of the contemporary Middle East, notably for Iran and Saudi Arabia. According to Waltz’s theory, and we shall come back to the structural consequences with the next post, during the Cold War, the bipolarity of the world (organised around the two poles constituted by the U.S. on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other), allowed for balance of power formation. Then, with the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the world found itself with a single superpower, the U.S., a time when balance of power formation would not be operative anymore.

Currently, the probable loss of hegemony of the U.S., globally as well as regionally, would tend to make the conditions to see a balance of power operating again in the region possible. We may wonder in which way Saudi’s wishes to see the U.S. intervening earlier in Syria, for example (e.g. Amena Bakr and Warren Strobel, “Saudi Arabia warns of shift away from U.S. over Syria, Iran,Reuters, 22 Oct 2013; CFR Backgrounder, “U.S.-Saudi Relations“, CFR21 April 2016) were not also efforts at seeing the U.S. continuing to play its role of superpower. Indeed, as their allies, not having the U.S. anymore cast in this role, reintroduces uncertainties and the need to balance power. Awareness of this new situation seems indeed to now prevail in Saudi Arabia: according to a senior diplomat in Riyadh, “They [The Saudis] understand the old international order is dead and they have to take responsibility” (Angus McDowall, “Saudi Arabia expands its anti-Iran strategy beyond the Middle East”, Reuters, 5 June 2016) .

This implies that we must integrate in our mapping the possible emergence or disappearance of such “superior agents”: indeed, the U.S. may, considering specific conditions, recover its sole superpower status, or China may rise as the new hegemon (although probably not in the relatively short timeframe we envision here). We need to include these potentialities, and others, in our mapping.

Such a perspective goes hand in hand with the nuclear agreement with Iran and the end of the sanctions (for details and a review, see Fishbein, “Things Come Together: Saudi Arabia and Iran“, 9 March 2016). As long as Iran was under sanctions, one of our two countries – Iran – was under conditions where it was denied many means and instruments to achieve its purpose. We were thus not in conditions that may see balance of power formation (where states will ally against the stronger state or alliance of states). Indeed, we were more in a situation where countries would bandwagon (ally with the most powerful state – at the time the U.S. – for fear of retaliation and to benefit from its “benevolence”, Waltz, ibid. 125-128). Can there be, in a unipolar world, anything else than bandwagoning on the one hand, “rogue states”, on the other?

Now an agreement has been achieved, Iran can again use all instruments it needs. Meanwhile, on the nuclear front, at least ideally and officially, all countries of the region are similarly denied nuclear military developments, while deterrence applies. We would thus be currently and most probably for the short to medium term (up to the next three years) under conditions which allow for balance of power formation.

It is also because our timeframe is so far undetermined – indeed it is our handling of time that we seek to improve and thus that constitutes the fundamental object of this work – that we must make sure we integrate in our mapping not only conditions where balance of power formation operates but also where it does not.

For now, we shall only depict, as shown on the diagram below, the global international variables to start describing conditions for the happenstance of balance of power formation.

conditions for BoP
Sub-graph 3: Conditions to see Balance of Power Formation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Click to see on interactive graph.

We shall continue our integration of balance of power formation, notably in terms of impact (which types of balancing can be expected, the Thucydides trap, etc.), as expected from the theory in a forthcoming article.

Featured image by Devanath, Pixabay, Public Domain.


Wight, Martin, “The Balance of Power” in Herbert Butterfield & Martin Wight (eds.), Diplomatic Investigations: Essays in the Theory of International Politics (London: Allen & Unwin, 1966).

Evans, Grant and Newnham, Dictionary of World Politics, (Hemel Hampstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992).

Kegley, Charles and Raymond, Gregory, The Global Future: A Brief Introduction to World Politics, (Boston: Wadsworth, 2014, 5th Edition).

Waltz, Kenneth, Theory of International Politics, (McGraw-Hill, 1979).