Foreign Policy Essay

Defusing the Iran-Saudi Powder Keg

By Dina Esfandiary, Ariane Tabatabai
Sunday, May 28, 2017, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The Iran-Saudi rivalry has fostered instability throughout the Middle East, with neither side likely to emerge triumphant. This rivalry increases bloodshed in the region and hinders U.S. attempts to secure its interests. Ariane Tabatabai of Georgetown and Dina Esfandiary of King's College assess the problems caused by the Iran-Saudi rivalry and argue that dialogue now is both possible and necessary.


The Iran-Saudi rivalry has either been the powder-keg for or exacerbated conflicts throughout the Middle East. These conflicts are either at a standoff or worsening for all countries involved—stalemates with growing tolls in blood and treasure and little prospect of definitive success. The key to unlocking progress on regional security issues lies in a Saudi-Iran dialogue, but its obvious after President Trump’s visit to Riyadh that one side isn’t on board today.

Proxy Conflicts across the Middle East

Iran and Saudi Arabia’s regional competition has played out in battlefields across the Middle East, but neither country has achieved their objectives in the countries in which they are engaged. In Syria, Iran props up the government of Bashar al-Assad directly, by putting boots on the ground and committing its own resources, and indirectly, by supporting and working with the Russians. But this has had a significant political cost: Though Iran has helped maintain the Assad regime, it wasted considerable resources, found itself suffering in popularity on the Arab street, and saw significant casualties—over 1,000 dead by the end of 2016. For their part, Saudi Arabia and its allies provide weapons and support to various opposition groups and expressed a willingness to contribute troops to fight the Islamic State in Syria. But Saudi support has not stemmed the Assad regime’s consolidation of control in contested urban areas through a series of ceasefire agreements that have weakened the rebels’ position.

Iran and Saudi Arabia’s regional competition has played out in battlefields across the Middle East, but neither country has achieved their objectives in the countries in which they are engaged.

In Yemen, Riyadh built a coalition to crush the Houthi rebels and check Iran’s perceived meddling in its backyard. Iran, for its part, viewed the conflict as a low-cost way to poke its rival in the eye. While overstated, Tehran supports and arms the Houthi rebels directly and through Hezbollah, but it has little actual control over actors in Sanaa. Two years into its intervention, Saudi Arabia is more bogged down than ever. The death toll is mounting—more than 500 Saudi deaths had been recorded as of December 2016 and approximately 85 Emirati casualties—and its coalition is strained over support for competing factions within Yemeni politics.

Iran sees Iraq as Saudi Arabia sees Yemen: its backyard and a first-order priority. As a result, it has invested considerable means to pushing back the Islamic State in Iraq and extending its influence throughout the country. This has made Iraq an attractive arena to play in for Riyadh; the kingdom has turned a blind eye to private donations and support to extremist groups, and amped up anti-Shia rhetoric. The growing role of Iranian-supported militias and growing Sunni nationalism has exacerbated Iraq’s already precarious politics.

Iran’s presence in Afghanistan has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia and everything to do with securing its eastern border. Iran has actively funded various groups to preserve its influence while undermining groups that could pose a threat to Tehran. But today, Iran’s activities there are influenced by Riyadh’s growing involvement. Riyadh funds various groups to undermine Iran and what it perceives as Iranian proxies in Afghanistan. But the situation there now is not beneficial to either party. Various non-state actors, including the Islamic State’s offshoot there, are gaining or regaining ground and further destabilizing the country. And in Afghanistan (as well as Iraq and Syria), this instability risks further increasing or bogging down U.S. presence in the region, an undesirable prospect for Tehran.

Need for Dialogue

Today, military power, finances, and backing of regional groups no longer secure either side’s interests. Dialogue, so far largely absent, is the best path forward.

In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani made dialogue with Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbors a tenet of his foreign policy soon after he was elected in 2013. But Iran feels its efforts to reach out were repeatedly rebuffed. This was evident in recent public comments from Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who dismissed the prospect of direct discussions in early May, and in Saudi officials’ anti-Iran rhetoric during U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh. Following the execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in January 2016 in Saudi Arabia, efforts toward establishing talks became politically costly in Tehran. Hardliners there pushed back on Rouhani’s overtures and targeted Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, repeatedly calling him in for questioning in parliament and launching personal attacks. Personal frustrations and pressure from hardliners resulted in the Iranian government stalling outreach towards the Gulf Arabs throughout the rest of 2016.

On the Arab side, frustrations with Iranian involvement in what are perceived as “Arab affairs” made negotiations on these issues moot. For them, Iran shouldn’t be involved in Arab territories in the first place. This is a point Mohammed bin Salman made in his recent comments. “We are a primary target for the Iranian regime…We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we’ll work so that the battle is for them in Iran,” he said in a televised interview. “Where are the common points that we might be able to reach an understanding on with this regime?” he asked. The Gulf Arabs have set preconditions to dialogue, which include unilateral Iranian withdrawal from regional conflicts—a non-starter for Tehran. They also believe that while they identified specific actions for Iran to alleviate their concerns, there’s little they can offer Iran in exchange.

[A]fter a period of reluctance and heightened tensions, Iran seems to have a newfound desire to try again.

There is a window of opportunity for dialogue between the two sides. Rouhani was just reelected for a second term in office. This time his mandate is stronger: He won by a landslide in a resounding rejection of the populist and isolationist policies his hardline opponent advocated. He also enjoys a friendlier Majles populated by his own faction. And after a period of reluctance and heightened tensions, Iran seems to have a newfound desire to try again. Tehran is aware it is spread thin in the region and concerned about the uncertainty created by the new Trump presidency and its hostile rhetoric. The Gulf Arab states are also tentative about Trump. Though they eagerly welcomed the U.S. president with red carpets, lavish meals, and a sword dance, they have adopted a “wait-and-see” approach to him. After all, President Trump is renowned for flip-flopping. What’s more, the pragmatists in the Persian Gulf now recognize the shortcomings of outsourcing regional security.

In December 2016, the Gulf Cooperation Council endorsed a plan that was presented to Iran in January by Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khalid Al Sabah during a visit to Tehran. The letter reportedly established the principles for dialogue between Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbors, including reiterating a principle of non-intervention, and outlined areas of discussion, such as regional conflicts and economic concerns. The initiative was well received in Iran, but President Rouhani reiterated that preconditions could not be set for dialogue. Earlier this year, Iran and Saudi Arabia held a first round of talks on resolving outstanding issues preventing Iranian pilgrims from attending the Hajj this year, and a few weeks ago they reached a compromise allowing Iranian pilgrims to return to Mecca. Both sides could build on this foundation. Rouhani said as much after his reelection, noting that “the people of Saudi Arabia are our friends and neighbors.”

Limited Prospects for Progress

While this is good news, President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia complicated matters.

President Trump’s visit to Riyadh was designed to embolden the Gulf Arabs and isolate Tehran. Trump and the Gulf Arabs sealed a weapons deal worth more than $110 billion, and both Trump and the Saudis leveled accusations at Tehran for human rights violations and sponsorship of terrorism. Trump seems disinclined to reduce tensions with Tehran, increasing the likelihood of accidental crises. In April 2017, he responded to a chemical weapons attack from the Syrian government by conducting airstrikes against the airbase from which the attack originated, and earlier this month struck Iran-backed forces approaching U.S.-backed partner forces in al-Tanf. This further highlighted the unpredictability of the new administration, and the lack of clarity on the scope and nature of future U.S. presence in the region. Such action also increases the potential for direct confrontation between Tehran and Washington, given the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps forces in Syria. Any potential confrontation between the two in the region is likely to render regional dialogue out of the question, as Iran will toughen its stance.

The escalation of tensions between Iran and the Gulf Arab countries in the past year has made the Iranian public even less receptive to the already-unpopular idea of dialogue. During election season, no one was willing to expend the necessary political capital to conduct outreach to the Gulf neighbors. But in response to the rhetoric coming out of Riyadh this week, President Rouhani reiterated Iran’s willingness to engage.

Both Iran and the Gulf Arabs should seize the opportunity to expand on the Hajj talks and the Kuwaiti initiative to normalize dialogue. But dialogue can only be successful if Iran’s presence in the regional arena is the subject of talks rather than a precondition to them. And rather than controversial high-level discussions, which invite pressure and scrutiny, both sides should maximize opportunities for low and mid-level officials, as well as non-officials, to meet. Discussion should begin with low-hanging fruit: areas where one side has less at stake and can make greater concessions. For example, Yemen is a top priority for the Gulf Arab states, but not for Iran. In exchange, the Gulf Arabs could be more forthcoming on the Afghanistan file.

Both Iran and the Gulf Arabs should seize the opportunity to expand on the Hajj talks and the Kuwaiti initiative to normalize dialogue.

Each side could also take unilateral steps to foster dialogue. Iran could develop a clear list of measures it would like the Gulf Arabs to take, which then could be the subject of negotiations. The Gulf Arabs should develop a common strategy on Iran that lies closer to the middle ground—somewhere between Oman’s friendlier stance on Iran and Bahrain’s fervent opposition to it—allowing them to engage Tehran as a unified actor.

Lastly, the United States should refrain from escalatory rhetoric that could exacerbate tensions with Iran. It should adopt a flexible approach to managing minor issues likely to arise in the Persian Gulf, including between the two countries’ naval forces. It’s clear that the United States must contain and counter Iran in certain areas. But Tehran’s intent shouldn’t be misjudged and its capabilities blown out of proportion. As a result, every crisis should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, rather than through the prism of an overall confrontational approach. The Trump administration holds political capital with Gulf Arab governments that President Obama had long lost. This was especially evident after President Trump’s trip to the kingdom and his meeting with Mohammed bin Salman, which were hailed by the Saudis as “historic” and a “turning point” in U.S.-Saudi relations. Trump has said he wants U.S. allies to be more independent, so he should leverage his privileged position with the Gulf Arabs to encourage them to take ownership of regional security. That requires dialogue with Iran.

The conflicts in the region won’t resolve themselves. Belligerent rhetoric, pouring money into conflict zones, and backing various proxies haven’t worked. The two sides now have to choose between further draining their resources to check each other or trying something new. There’s a limited opportunity for dialogue—it’s time both sides seized it.