Saudi Arabia - Iran : the big clash?

Gérard Vespierre, Conference at University « Paris Dauphine » January 17th, 2018

« Khamanei, new Hitler of the Middle East... » recently stated Mohammed Ben Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. The relations between the two countries have never been so tense...

Since the Second World War, Saudi Arabia and Iran were in camps of the allies of the United States. Both of them jointly participated in the creation of the OPEC.

So what was the reason for the rift? The fall of the Shah, the coming to power of Khomeini, and the establishment of an Islamic republic contributed to the emergence of the first elements of the estrangement.

The emphasis by Iran on the Shiite crescent from Pakistan to Lebanon and its use as a political weapon of influence has been an additional driving force in the rivalry between those two countries, leaders, one of the Sunnism, the other one of the Shiism. Are the religious factors essential in the rising tensions?

The presence in Syria, in Iraq and in Yemen of the « Pasdarans », the shiite militias and the lebanese Hezbollah, supervised by the Iranian officers, create and feed the conflict. This rivalry is indeed more political than religious. The Shiite and Sunni populations of the world still make the pilgrimage to Mecca together...

Another subject of tension is Iranian nuclear power. It was extremely difficult to bring Iran to the negotiating table. Indeed, the battle has lasted over 10 years, between economical sanctions and « war in the shadow ».

In 2016, the opposition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, latent up to then came to surface. The prince, Turki ben Fayçal, grandson of the founder of the kingdom, brought his support to the Iranian National Resistance Council, in front of several tens of thousands of Iranians... in France... in Villepinte.

In 2017, new and important developments took shape. The new president of the United States offers to Riyad a renewed vision. The political system of Tehran is presented as a "trouble-maker". The American vision of the " regime change " appears officially. Israel also claims to be ready to bring its support to Saudi Arabia, and regularly proceeds to strikes in Syria against areas of armament of the Shiite militias.

Now, isn't the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran turning into a game of multipolar alliances ?

In 2018, the international pressure against the Iranian regime increased. The campaign of disclosures on the massacre of 30000 Iranian political prisoners during the summer of 1988 intensified. The pressure became even more intense against the « Pasdarans » and the companies involved in the realization of the missiles programs. The very recent riots against the Iranian regime more threatening to the regime than the upheaval of 2009 because they are the expression of broader demands (political, financial, societal), summing up to the global condemnation of the Iranian regime.

The Saudi Governement is getting ready, in the context of a « Vision 2030 » to develop profoundly its country within the framework of an internal opening, and of a extensive international cooperation, while Iran is isolated and suffers from economic stagnation and internal political protest.

There is no frontal confrontation, and while an all-out rivalry clearly exists between the two powers, the upper hand has changed sides.