Is the Iran-Saudi Cold War Heating Up?


Throughout decades of ferocious rivalry, Iran and Saudi Arabiahave, even while backing competing forces across the Middle East, generally maintained one red line: They wouldn’t interfere directly in each other’s domestic security. Policy makers in Riyadh and Tehran have known that backing militant groups among their rival’s Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia or Sunni minorities in Iran could lead to an escalation for which neither country is ready.

 But that tacit agreement might be unraveling.

While no hard proof has been presented, in the past month Iran has ratcheted up claims that Saudi Arabia is supporting groups working to overthrow the government in Tehran or to destabilize the country, in particular opening a new front with Kurdish separatists. The Saudis, for their part, say Iran is increasing support for Shiite militants.

 Both countries deny the allegations. But given the total breakdown in diplomatic relations since January, and in an increasingly volatile region, it isn’t hard to imagine this tension morphing into something much more dangerous: a tit-for-tat exchange of attacks carried out by domestic armed groups. The fact that Iran’s Sunnis and Saudi Arabia’s Shiites have suffered periods of widespread arrests and their communities have been largely excluded from political and economic opportunities has created fertile ground for militant groups eager for foreign backing.
 Saudi Arabia has long accused Iran of attempting to export its revolutionary ideology. For this reason, the Saudis have tried to dissuade links between its Shiite community and Tehran. The execution in January of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric who was accused of “seeking foreign meddling” and inciting violence, was partly motivated by a desire to deter Shiite groups from turning to Iran for support. Weeks later, Saudi Arabia tried 30 Shiites detained in 2013 on charges of espionage for Iran and provoking sectarian divisions.
 Last week, the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, accused Iran of managing and executing the 1996 Khobar Tower bombings and harboring Al Qaeda’s senior leaders in 2003, when they ordered the bombing of housing compounds in Riyadh. Saudi Arabian officials also point to increasing fears that Iran, together with Hezbollah al-Hijaz, a Saudi Shiite militant group, has recruited and trained separatists.

For its part, Iran has complained that since the 1979 revolution that Saudi Arabia has sought to undermine it. The Iranians have accused Saudi Arabia of backing separatist groups, in particular the ethnic Arabs known as the Ahwazis in oil-rich Khuzestan Province. In the past month, Iran says Saudi Arabia has upped the ante. In particular, the Iranians point the finger at Riyadh for operations carried out by Kurdish separatists.

 After almost two decades of a relatively undisturbed truce with Iranian authorities, this summer has seen the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, a rebel group, engage in skirmishes with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Iranian forces have also come under fire from Pejak, an Iranian offshoot of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party. And earlier this month, militants ambushed an Iranian lawmaker’s car as he drove in the Kurdish region near Iraq.

A senior Iranian general attributed these attacks to “terrorist groups” supported by “reactionary states,” a term often used in Iran to describe Saudi Arabia. Mohsen Rezaei, a former Revolutionary Guards chief commander and now a leading member of the influential Expediency Council, has publicly scorned Saudi Arabia for backing separatist “terror cells” among Iranian Kurds. Mr. Rezaei claimed he was privy to evidence that the Kurdish rebels were carrying out orders from Riyadh after having met with Saudi officials in Erbil, Iraq. The Saudi consulate there deniedthis. The Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran similarly rejected links to the Saudis, but has said it would welcome talks with Saudi Arabia in the future.

 Iran’s perceptions about Saudi connections to recent events were fueled further by Prince Turki bin Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief whomade statements this month that amounted to calling for regime change in Iran. On July 9, Mr. Turki addressed the annual rally of Mujahedeen Khalq, an exiled Iranian dissident group that Iran designates a terrorist organization. Revolutionary Guards commanders and senior Iranian officials unanimously condemned Mr. Turki’s statements, with many arguing they proved the Saudis were sponsoring Iran’s recent instability.
 This has provided more ammunition to those within Iran’s security establishment who call for greater military or political responses, whether internationally or in terms of domestic pressure inside Saudi Arabia. Other factions in Iran’s leadership strongly prefer a more patient path toward de-escalation.

What can be done at this point to stop tensions from boiling over?

At a minimum, Saudi officials must avoid actions that make it look as if they are plotting regime change in Tehran. Saudi Arabia has to tread carefully in how it develops any relations with armed Kurdish groups. The Iranian leadership should steer away from provoking Saudi Arabia. For their own sakes, both countries must do more to meet the legitimate demands of their minority groups that are increasingly at risk of radicalization. The West, meanwhile, should use its alliance with Saudi Arabia and the new opening with Iran to caution against measures that threaten regional security.

 The citizens of the Middle East are desperately looking for leadership that offers hope for future generations rather than greater turmoil. Saudi Arabia and Iran could take a step in this direction. But each must first do more to avoid interfering in the other’s domestic security.

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