Foreign Policy Blogs

Candid Discussions: Sadjadpour on Saudi-Iranian Dynamics

Karim Sdj.

Karim Sadjadpour is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, D.C. Previously, Mr. Sadjadpour was an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group. As a leading expert in Middle Eastern affairs, Mr. Sadjadpour’s views and commentaries are regularly sought by major international media outlets such as BBC, CNN, NPR, PBS NewsHour, Fox News, and Al Jazeera. He regularly contributes to the Economist, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, and the Foreign Policy Magazine. He has also appeared before the U.S. Congress to brief U.S. policy makers and legislators on the Middle East.

He is also a former Young Global Leader from the World Economic Forum. Mr. Sadjadpour recently sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of the Foreign Policy Association to discuss Saudi-Iranian dynamics and the increasing sectarian rivalry between the two Middle Eastern heavyweights.


What would you name as the key factors shaping Saudi-Iranian dynamics today?

The Saudi-Iran rivalry is sectarian (Sunni vs. Shiite), ethnic (Arab vs. Persian), ideological (U.S.-allied vs. U.S. opposed), and geopolitical. Each country sees itself as the natural leader of not only the Middle East, but also the broader Muslim world. Iran and Saudi Arabia are destined to be competitors — like France and Germany in Europe or Brazil and Argentina in Latin America — but that doesn’t mean they have to be adversaries.

The problem at the moment is the two countries are on opposing ends of several bloody conflicts, including Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain and the Palestinian territories.  It’s a vicious cycle: Regional conflicts exacerbate the animosity and mistrust between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which in turn exacerbate the regional conflicts.

Since the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its blood-soaked march through Iraq from Syria, a vast amount of literature has been produced that blame various regional players for the creation of the radical Sunni group. How would you put in context Iranian and Saudi roles in the rise of ISIS?

The rise of ISIS evokes the old saying that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. No one wants to take blame for ISIS, but there is plenty to go around. To begin, ISIS combines remnants of al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Baathist military, two former adversaries that were brought together after the U.S. invasion and mismanagement of Iraq.

ISIS is also a byproduct of Iranian-backed repression and Saudi Wahhabi ideology. The brutality of Iran’s allies — particularly the Alawite Assad regime in Syria as well as the previous Shiite Maliki government in Iraq — has fueled Sunni Arab disenfranchisement and served as a critical recruiting tool for jihadist groups like ISIS. At the same time, to the extent that ISIS members are motivated by religious ideology — which is not always the case — their dogmatic, intolerant worldview is borne out of Wahhabi Islam.

In the fight against ISIS Iran is both the arsonist and the fire brigade, but ISIS can only be fully extinguished by the Sunnis themselves. Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq and Syria may be effective at killing Sunni extremists but in doing so they simultaneously fuel Sunni extremism. At the moment, however, I think many Sunni Arabs in Syria and Iraq oppose Iran and its Shiite clients more than they oppose ISIS.

Iran seems to have enabled the Islamic State by ignoring its actions when directed against other rebels. Meanwhile, elements of Saudi society (including the clergy) sympathize with ISIS — though that is not the official position of the Saudi government. Do you think the high-ranking leadership from the two countries can work out a plan against Daesh (Islamic State), or will their rivalries continue to provide the radical group with breathing room?

It’s unlikely that Iran and Saudi Arabia will manage to collaborate directly against ISIS because their diagnosis of the problem is fundamentally different. To Riyadh, ISIS’s rise is attributable to the repression of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq at the hands of Iran and its Shiite clients. To Tehran, ISIS’s rise is attributable to the financial and ideological support of Gulf Arab countries, namely Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi ruling family is in a difficult position in that the spread of ISIS and its radical ideology poses a grave danger to it; yet, appearing to join forces with Shia Iran against their Sunni brethren would have domestic repercussions.

ISIS is not a sensitive political issue within Iran, but I’m not sure if the Iranian government or the Assad regime has an incentive to see its total elimination. It is important to remember that at the outset of the Syrian uprising in Spring 2011, Bashar Assad’s clear strategy was to crush the moderate opposition and indulge the radical Islamist opposition in order to demonstrate to Syrians, the United States, and the outside world that it was either him (Assad) or al Qaeda.

Assad’s strategy has proven effective as a growing number of prominent foreign policy thinkers in the U.S. have argued that, “as bad as Assad is, the alternative to him is worse.” When ISIS rapes, pillages, and burns people alive it makes Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran appear Norwegian in comparison.

In a nutshell, I would argue that the Iranian government is willing to fight ISIS but it doesn’t want it to be totally eradicated, while the Saudi government would like to see ISIS eradicated, but it doesn’t want to fight it.

The newly crowned Saudi King has expressed his interest in continuing the policies of his predecessor, the late King Abdullah. What does this mean for Saudi-Iranian relations? Would you be surprised if King Salman decided to intensify the regional proxy war with Iran?

The Saudi-Iran rivalry is not driven by personalities as much as it is deep-rooted in religious, ethnic, ideological, and regional differences. Given that King Salman is 79-years-old and he has retained key national security officials, such as Deputy Crown Prince Muhammed bin Nayef, it’s doubtful that we will see a discernible shift in Saudi views or policy toward Iran.

A major Saudi frustration with Iran is the same frustration felt by many countries, including the United States. That is the fact that Iran’s most powerful officials—namely Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Quds Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Soleimani—are inaccessible, while Iran’s most accessible officials (such as Foreign Minister Zarif) are not powerful.

What are the Saudi leadership’s options in Yemen? How far do you think Riyadh is willing to go to secure its interests in Yemen against Shia Houthis?

Yemen combines several nightmares for Saudi Arabia, an ungovernable failed state where both radical Sunni jihadists and Iranian-allied Houthis have flourished. Given its lack of viable partners in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has seemingly tried to contain and quarantine itself from Yemen’s conflict rather than forcefully intervene, as they did in Bahrain in 2011.

There are no two neighboring countries in the world with a greater income disparity. Per capita income in Saudi Arabia is around $54,000/year, while per capita income in Yemen is less than $4,000/year. While it’s in Saudi interests to see a more stable and prosperous Yemen, Saudi policies banning Yemeni laborers in Saudi Arabia — despite the presence of millions of South Asian and Pilipino workers — have worsened the economic conditions in Yemen, which in turn threatens Saudi interests.

As Saudi author Ali al-Shihabi soberly puts it in his excellent new book, “Yemen will most likely crumble. As law and order break down, basic services break down, and poverty and desperation spread out among Yemen’s population, a refugee crisis of immense proportions will drive millions of Yemenis over the fence into Saudi Arabia. Nothing and no one will be able to stop them once they move. The potentially dire implications of this should be painfully obvious.”

Have efforts by the Rouhani-Zarif administration to reach out to the Saudi leadership been hampered by the office of the Supreme Leader, or are there simply different dynamics at play?

Rouhani and Zarif, like their patron former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, seemingly recognize the importance of improved ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional stability. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, however, has a much more cynical view of Saudi Arabia, a view that is the legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iraq war.

In Khomeini’s last will and testament, the government toward which he exhibited the greatest vitriol was not Israel or the United States, but Saudi Arabia, to whom he referred to as “traitors to the House of God…..who deserve the most potent damnation by Allah.” Apart from religious differences—Khomeini excoriated Saudi for “propagating the baseless and superstitious cult of Wahhabism” — Khomeini hated the Saudis for helping to finance Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.

Since succeeding Khomeini as Supreme Leader in 1989, Khamenei has shown few signs of deviation from his predecessor’s ideological principles and worldview. In his speeches and in official media close to Khamenei, Saudi Arabia is frequently excoriated as an immoral American puppet and chief financial patron of Islamic radicalism.

How could U.S. interests be impacted by the weakening of Sunni radical groups in the region? Could such a development contribute to the downward trajectory in U.S.—Saudi relations as the defeat of radical Sunni groups would be associated with growth of Iranian influence in the region?  

At its core, the U.S.-Saudi partnership is based on oil and security. America helps secure the Persian Gulf in order to ensure the free flow of oil from Saudi Arabia and other regional producers. What’s most likely to impact this dynamic is America’s burgeoning shale energy industry, which stands to reduce Saudi Arabia’s leverage over the global economy.

America’s partnership with Saudi Arabia is the most commonly cited example of American interests trumping American values. Saudi Arabia’s notorious human rights record, its treatment of women, and its support for Islamist groups worldwide have earned them growing criticism from American opinion makers. As the global economy’s dependency on Saudi oil decreases, voices critical of Saudi Arabia in Washington will only grow louder.

Indeed, it’s certainly possible to foresee an era in which an energy self-sufficient America renews its alliance with Tehran, and downgrades its rapport with Riyadh. In the near future, however, the largest economy in the world (the U.S.) is not going to abandon the world’s key energy producer (Saudi Arabia) to form an alliance with a country (Iran) whose official motto remains “death to America.”