Iran and Saudi Arabia Square Off

The Growing Rivalry Between Tehran and Riyadh

Yesterday afternoon, the U.S. government charged Mansoor Arbabsiar, a dual U.S.–Iranian citizen, and Gholam Shakuri, an alleged member of the Iranian Quds Force (a division of the Revolutionary Guards), with conspiracy to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, Adel Al-Jubeir, and to attack both the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington, D.C. Although the nature of Iranian government involvement remains to be seen, the indictment is just the latest story in the intricate cold war now developing between Iran and Saudi Arabia. 

The two countries, at odds since the 1979 revolution in Iran and ever more so in the wake of the Arab Spring, are competing for dominance in global energy markets and nuclear technology and for political influence in the Persian Gulf and the Levant. Their conflict, with its sectarian overtones, has the potential to weaken pro-democracy forces in the Middle East and North Africa, empower Islamists, and drag the United States into military interventions. To avoid all this, the United States will need strategic imagination to devise ways to mitigate and manage the rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are neither natural allies nor natural enemies but natural rivals who have long competed as major oil producers and self-proclaimed defenders of Shia and Sunni Islam, respectively. Until the Iranian revolution in 1979, their rivalry was managed and controlled by the United States, with whom they were both strategic allies. But after the Shah was overthrown, Saudi Arabia’s leadership became frightened by the Ayatollah Khomenei’s denunciation of the Saudi monarchy as antithetical to Islam and his ambition to export to the revolution to the Arab world. Saudi Arabia remained an ally of the United States; Iran became an implacable foe. Thereafter, the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia became defined by the new U.S. strategy -- ally with Saudi Arabia to offset Iran.

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