In the past few weeks I have come across several articles highlighting tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. All of these make note of the sectarian differences between the two states and suggest that the relationship with each other is shaping not only regional politics in regards to the Arab Spring, but also how Saudi-American relations are changing and adapting.
Of particular interest is the debate over whether Saudi Arabia should be viewed as the central counter-revolutionary force in the current Arab Spring, or rather, its behavior toward fledgling regimes in the region is an attempt to maintain the delicate balance of power in the region via Saudi vs. Iranian dominance.
As I noted above, the sectarian factor dividing Saudi and Iran is becoming more and more central to inter-state relations. As Gause notes, there are far more Sunni’s in the region and Saudi Arabia is not blind to that fact. There have been violent clashes in Qatif (an oil rich region in S.A) between Saudi forces and Shiites, which was blamed on Iran directly, and responded with “an iron fist” (as any dissent across country will be according to the leadership in Riyadh).
In addition to direct violence along sectarian lines, is the potential rise in extremist activity in the region. Gause also notes that these sectarian tensions provide fertile ground for selling extremist ideology abroad, and recruiting new members. The Salafi Jihadist movement, Al Qaeda, is thought to be “under control” within the Arabian Peninsula, but for how long? It seems logical that the promotion of a common Arab identity would serve to stabilize and unify the region, but at this point, with Iran and Saudi vying for dominance in the Middle East, it seems highly unlikely that the successful promotion of such is unlikely.
What does seem more likely is the possibility of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Margaret Coker and Farnaz Fassihi wrote an article for the WSJ back in mid-October indicating the US withdrawal from Iraq may provide the perfect opportunity for violent conflict. With US withdrawal, the regional equilibrium will essentially be upended and Iraq is a border state, with sectarian issues of its own.
With Iran seeking to play out its own “Grand Bargaining Strategy” with the United States (unsuccessfully, it would appear); Saudi Arabia is weary of ANY Iranian influence and views the spread of such as a direct threat to Saudi stability. A stable Middle East is obviously best for American interests, but I would argue that the US would fully support (or at least not openly reject or admonish) Saudi Arabia should any conflict between the two states arise.
Because the future of the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia remains to be seen, I think that the actions of Crown Prince Nayef toward any violence at home, and within the region will be a good indication of how the relationship between Iran and Saudi will play out. In terms of the Arab Spring and the Saudi role, I think that it is within the best interest of the royal family to act as a counter-revolutionary force (to maintain their monarchy they will have to oppress any and all dissent) and in doing so, this will serve to contain Iranian influence and maintain the current balance of power within the region. As of right now, this strategy has been working, the question is for how much longer will it continue to do so?