The Iran-Saudi “cold war” carries, for both countries, a dimension that raises particular security concerns: the presence of minority communities in their respective backyards that show sympathy to the other side due to domestic repression. But it is worth remembering that every claimed act of subversion local context and official overreaction that drives a response to it.
The Houthis in Yemen are perhaps the most obvious example. They are increasingly regarded as an Iranian proxy, yet their struggle is couched in the politics of Yemen’s regionalism. The politics of alliance by Houthis over the past two years, however, has involved alliances with Saudi-backed coalitions in Sana’a again a common enemy: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
They have fought both for and against the Saudi- and American-backed government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who, like the Houthis, is a Shia Muslim. Unfortunately, the Houthis’ recent triumph, which may result in the re-emergence of Saleh onto the political scene, has led them to take many of the same discriminatory actions that they were subjected to against other Yemenis. Such behavior can only embolden the rhetoric of AQAP as “defenders” of the country from both the United States – since Saleh oversaw an escalation of drone strikes by the CIA – and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
These dynamics play themselves out in other parts of the Saudi near abroad, though with relatively less violence and tumult. In Bahrain, the opposition continues to be demonized with a wide brush as agents of Iran, despite the fact that most of the opposition rejects the Islamic Republic’s state ideology. But every attack on a roadblock by frustrated “black bloc” hooligans is seen as an act of pro-Tehran terror. Such fears drove the Saudi “police action” in March 2011 that continues to this day.
Most recently, an episode involving a new Saudi-owned TV network, Al Arab, illustrated the limits of “debate” allowed over rights and reform in the Saudi backyard. Al Arab was taken off the air after it ran interview with a Bahraini activist critical of his government’s punitive policies against demonstrators. The impeccable credentials of the network’s financier, Saudi Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal, and its general manager, the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, could not save them from a humiliating rebuke. In running the interview, Al Arab had crossed a line set by the House of Saud: protection of the House of Khalifa from international opprobrium and domestic criticism.
The fact that the Al Arab network had to be launched in Bahrain and not in Saudi Arabia is a telling development: Private news channels are not permitted to operate inside the Kingdom and exceptions are not allowed. The Saudi government simply refuses to take the risk of loosening press controls , especially in light of the discontent gripping the country’s Eastern Province.
Like in Bahrain, Iran has made few inroads in the Eastern Province and has made its designs there quite clear. The Eastern Province is a relatively underdeveloped region that happens to hold more oil and Shias than anywhere else in the Kingdom. Restive anti-government sentiments are severely suppressed, and since 2011, people have been “disappeared” by the police for protesting government policies. In October 2014, local son and cleric Nimr al-Nimr received death sentence for incitement, lèse-majesté, and “foreign meddling (read Iran)” in his sermons. The sentencing has made the cleric a cause célèbre for other Shias in the region, with outpour of sympathy from Bahrain, Yemen, and Iran.
The above dynamics only reinforces the views of Riyadh about a grand alliance encircling the Kingdom, whereby every Shia is a fifth columnist until proven innocent, the nucleus of a new Hezbollah Al-Hejaz. This group, active between 1987 and 1996, was anti-government and slavishly pro-Tehran. While it has since ceased to exist as an organized terrorist network, some clerics in the Eastern Province still sympathize with its broader political goals and religious ideology.
The Islamic Republic, of course, presents itself as the friend of individuals like al-Nimr, who has kind words for the Islamic Republic – though the cleric once in his criticism of the House of Saud also described Iranian “sympathies” as mere self-serving opportunism. This recognition is significant, because it ought to remind Saudi officials that those in their realm sympathetic to Iranian overtures do not aspire to be Tehran’s pawns, but will take its support in the face of repression.
In a mirror image of how the Wahhabi establishment treats Shia and Christians in Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic of Iran regards expressions of Sunni identity within its borders as acts of subversion stage-managed by Israel and the United States. The legitimate grievances of the Sunni ethnic minorities in southeastern Iran are swept under the rug by painting them as just another manifestation of Balochi terrorism, which has at times had contact with American and Israeli spies. Ethnic Arabs and Kurds in western Iran are treated as second-class citizens much like Saudi Shias are in the Eastern Province, with frequent arrests and bans on public gatherings. A religious unity summit in Tehran showcased the double standard. While a prominent Sunni cleric from southeastern Iran stood alongside the Supreme Leader, Iranian police were reportedly quick to restrict Sunnis’ public prayer meetings that Friday. The message was clear: this appearance is for the wider world’s consumption and not for you; so do not get carried away by this show of clerical bonhomie.
Whatever successes Iran has scored in Iraq and Yemen among Shia Arabs seeking redress against Sunni leaders, they have failed to score similar victories inside Saudi Arabia or Bahrain. Similarly, the Saudis have failed to advance their policies against Iran in Yemen, or silence domestic opposition in the Kingdom and Bahrain by simply calling it “Iranian-inspired.” It is unlikely that either of the two powers will recognize its limits, or accept that their ideologically driven foreign policy hurts their respective reformists, who would like to see a reduction in ultra-sectarian politics.