Iran’s revolution and the rise of the mullahs in the late 1970s all but guaranteed a rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran. But recent tensions have more to do with the changing nature of both countries and how they see themselves and their role in the region. In short, this isn’t the Iran and Saudi Arabia of the 1990s.
Riyadh is feeling defensive and pressed by a perfect storm of challenges, including falling oil prices, mounting deficits, a costly war against the Houthis, and a rising Iran. Angry at the United States for courting Iran and not doing enough to pressure the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to end the Syrian civil war, Riyadh is acting uncharacteristically boldly in Yemen; supporting Sunni groups against Assad, some of which are close to al Qaeda; and, most recently, executing 47 individuals. including a prominent Shiite ayatollah, Nimr al-Nimr, as a warning to Shiite dissidents in the kingdom and to anyone outside who wants to challenge the regime.
Iran, on the other hand, is feeling emboldened by a nuclear deal that is likely to provide billions in sanctions relief and generate newfound legitimacy. At the same time, Tehran is determined to pursue its quest for regional influence and power by supporting the Assad regime, pro-Iranian Shiite militias in Iraq, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. It is also assisting the Houthis in Yemen. Iran has likewise continued to test the limits of the nuclear agreement by pursuing ballistic missile programs. It is counting on the United States’ desire to see the nuclear agreement implemented to prevent Washington from pressing additional sanctions. That Saudi Arabia has managed to line up a number of Gulf states to downgrade their ties to Iran will only deepen the fears of Iranian conservatives and provide additional ammunition to push back against the Sunni coalition.