The contrast between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has been a sort of Cold War for years, is likely to turn into a “hot” conflict. The rivalry between the two Middle East big powers is everything but new. However, latest events –the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, the continuous drop in oil price and the end of international sanctions against Iran- have added fuel to the fire, thus causing concern about the regional and global stability.
The reasons behind tensions
The religious factor. Saudi Arabia, almost entirely Muslim, has a Sunni-majority population (the real family professes the Wahhabi ideology, a minor stream of Sunni Islam). Shiites, around 15% of the population, are concentrated in the eastern province of Al-Sharqiyah. They push for autonomy and the monarchy accuses Iran to foster their aspiration. By contrast, the Islamic Republic represents Shia Muslims, who are more than 90% of Iranian population. Self-proclaimed as protectors respectively of Sunni and Shia communities, SA and Iran stand for opposite tradition and interests, which result in a real sectarian conflict.
The black gold. SA is one of the biggest producer of crude oil and in 2014 the country has significantly increased its production, resulting in a price collapse which was aimed to target not only Iranian market and Moscow’s revenue, but also to make it economically inconvenient for the USA the extraction of shale oil. However, Riyadh’s plans haven’t gone perfectly, with US and Russia still playing a leading role in the energy market. A considerable setback for Saudi Arabia, at a time when the lifting of international sanctions against Iran pushes one of SA biggest competitor back in the game.
The regional hegemony. SA has a significant geopolitical weight, due both to its strong participation in regional and global affairs, but also to its relationship with the Gulf countries and the US. This position has often turned into an attempt to impose its political and religious leadership in the region. This fact not only raises friction within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) –for example with Qatar- but also makes it almost impossible a peaceful coexistence with Iran. On the other hand, in fact, the Islamic Republic, after decades of international isolation, aims to establish its supremacy in the Middle East, where SA, along with Israel-a Jewish country, friend to the US- curbs its ambition.
It is hard to believe that some form of cooperation between Iran and SA is possible, especially after the killing of the Shia leader Nimr al-Nimr, who encouraged Saudi Shiites to take side against the government and along with Iran. The execution of the leader is a clear message to the population, while the following break of diplomatic relations is a clear political signal. The consequences are not late to come: the UAE, Kuwait, Sudan, Qatar and Bahrain have already ceased the relations with the Islamic Republic.
Similarly, an open conflict is unlikely to happen. With a budget deficit of about $100 billion, it would be illogical for the Saudi monarchy to undertake an armed conflict. Iran has just been freed from those sanctions that have hampered country’s development, while it’s showing openness towards the US. Declaring war to SA could play against its own interest, inevitably involving other powers-USA, Russia, Israel- and adding new instability to the already volatile game of power in the region.
This condition of “cold war” is the most likely scenario, with peaks of tension between the Iranian and Saudi capitals, and “hot” clashes confined to peripheral theatres like Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, where Tehran and Riyadh support respectively Shia and Sunni groups.
Unfortunately, another actor plays a key role in this context: the Islamic State. ISIS is spreading among Sunni community, thus worrying Riyadh, which is trying to preserve its influence among Sunni population. On the other hand, Iran is fighting ISIS forces but only to a certain extent. Indeed, Iran could benefit from a conflict between ISIS and SA, as this could gradually weakens both the actors, thus leaving Iran free to confirm itself as regional leader. However, the serious risk is that this game gets out of control, considering the support that ISIS is still finding locally and globally.
It seems that the instability in Middle East is doomed to persist. Moreover, these tensions might break out in a series of conflicts at several levels, involving several actors and following multiple and different political agendas. Will there be a second Iraq, with a vacuum of power and foreign powers ready to step in or it will be one of the regional rival to take the lead? Or will the most feared actor win and the entire Middle East fall under the brutal force of jihadist terrorism?