Friday, December 23, 2011

Containing Iran: the Saudi Approach

Teddy Lishan Desta, PhD

Teddy is an Associate Editor for the Journal of the International Relations and Affairs Group (JIRAG). He has lectured at colleges and universities on International Affairs, and is also a Teaching Assistant at Florida International University. He holds a PhD in International Relations from The University of Texas at Dallas, a Master of Science in Economics degree from Baylor University. He specializes in International Relations Theory, International Trade, Economics and the International Political Economy.

Saudi Arabia’s approach to contain revolutionary Iran is of a different make. The Saudis rather chose and implemented an ideological/ religious strategy to hinder the spread of Iranian influence.  In order to deter what they considered the fundamentalist rhetoric and revolutionary zeal of Shiism , the Saudi’s promoted their own firebrand form of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism. 

Some of the notable outcomes of the Saudis effort in contain Iran included the sponsorship of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan and the backing of a growing Sunni fundamentalist influence in Pakistani politics. In doing these two things, the Saudi’s successfully implanted bastions of Sunni Islam on the eastern doorsteps of Iran. Moreover, to counter the spread of radical Shiism worldwide, the Saudis committed large amount of resources to the establishment of Sunni mosques and madrassas around the world. 

The primary struggle between Shiism and Sunnism was for the hearts and minds of the restive youth of the Islamic world. This competition was fought on two arenas - which side could exhibit the greatest fundamentalist views and which side could inflict the greatest pain on the so called infidels.  As radical Shiism and jihadist Wahhabism fiercely competed worldwide for the mantle of assertive and defiant Islam, one result has been the flare up of instability and much bloodshed in many parts of the world. The two sides’ competition to outdo each other in inflicting pain on which they considered the historic enemies of Islam was often reckless and bloody. 

The rise of al-Qaeda - with all its evil consequences - is one outcome of this type of ideological competition between firebrand version of Sunni Islam (Salfist/ Wahhabi  school ) promoted by Saudi Arabia and the radical Shiism promoted by Iran. It was the rise and terrorist operations of al-Qaeda in the West which later became the main justification to draw the USA and the rest of West to war in Afghanistan and in Iraq. These two wars, as we examine next, were not without their immense consequences in the shifting balance of power between Shi’ias  and Sunnis.

When the USA military stepped into Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), its official intentions were to fight terrorists. But soon followed some unintended consequences from these interventions, wherein the dynamics of the ongoing rivalry between radical Shi’ias and fundamentalist Sunnis in the region changed radically.  

Firstly, in just a space of two years, the US removed from power the two enemies of  Iran – on one hand the secular-nationalist-Iran-hating regime of Saddam Hussein, and on the other hand the radical Wahhabist regime of the Taliban in Afghanistan.  For the Saudis, therefore, the coming of America in war to the greater Middle East faced them with a double loss. The Taliban they supported got chased from power in Afghanistan, and their co-religionists and co-ethnics the Sunnis got deposed in Iraq. So the USA - the Saudis’ long standing ally in the region - unintentionally tilted the regional balance of power in favor of Iran. The Saudis then has to look around helplessly as Iran became less constrained to throw her weight around the region and the rest of the world seeking more political influence. 

Secondly, America’s presence in Iraq re-ignited a fratricide between Sunnis and Shi’ias that had died over long time. America’s effort to democratize Iraq demoted the once powerful minority group, the Sunnis, and enthroned the once oppressed majority group, the Shi’ias.  As Iraq straddles the major fault line in the Shi’ ia and Sunni divide in the Middle East, the sectarian violence between the two groups was bitter and brutal. Fundamentalist and nationalist elements from both sides pitted it out to the bitter end in a power and religious struggle for dominance. So Iraq for almost five years (2003 - 2008) was not only a theater of conflict where natives fought occupiers, but the cosmic battlefield in a round- two of a ‘system-level’ clash between Sunnis and Shi’ia. It was inventible that the two giants, Saudi Arabia and Iran, should be interested in Iraq during this time. As expected, each supported its own co-religionists in the strife, the Iranians more openly than the Saudis.  But increasingly it became clear that the Shi’ia’s of Iraq were getting the upper hand, and this shift of power clearly has benefitted Iran in its geopolitical rivalry with Saudi Arabia. 

Third, one outcome of the West’s military presence in the greater Middle-East has been to sap the rage and impetus of radical Islam.  Since, at some point, the Afghan and Iraq wars were the cause célèbre for worldwide jihadi forces many of them have rushed to these war fronts seeking exploits and martyrdom; but as the West stood its ground, it has succeeded, to a great extent, to sap the rage of the jihadi forces and to deplete their organizational resources. Probably as the result of this effort, today the expression of the competition between radicals of Sunnis and Shi’ias has entered a new phase.  The new form of competition between the two sides is not as such new, as it is the old fashioned state-to-state (or state vs. quasi-state) arms racing.  For example, Iran has begun to aspire to nuclear power status, and has taken massive efforts to build the military capabilities of its allies in the region. And the Saudis have followed a two pronged response to this challenge. On one side they have begun to build up their own conventional arms arsenal, and on the other they have started to seek for a creative solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  

Fourth, USA’s experience in Iraq gave the Iranians almost a first hand experience to the limits of American power. Because America apparently bogged down in an asymmetrical warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, the perceived weakness of the USA has emboldened the Iranians to act more defiantly on the world stage.  One outcome of the renewed assertiveness of Iran has been its decision to re-initiate its nuclear program. Though Iran may have its own strategic reasons to seek to acquire nuclear power status, the very possibility of a nuclear armed Iran has set-off the alarms in many Middle-Eastern capitals, most notably in Riyadh and Tel Aviv.  The Saudis have clearly seen the added strategic advantage a nuke would bestow on Iran – it would lift up Iran higher in the eyes of the Muslim world, thereby eroding the commanding status the Saudis have; and more immediately, a nuke armed Iran would feel less obliged to consult with others before it threw its weight around in regional disputes, even in places where the Saudis have vital interests. Therefore, to the Saudis preventing their mortal enemy Iran from possessing a nuclear power has become an overriding security concern.

If the Saudis were not to follow Iran down the road of nuclear arms racing, they knew that they should begin to search for an alternative solution. At least they recognized that they could no longer rely on their accustomed ideological skirmishes with Iran, as this approach is no longer deemed sufficient to the new challenge.  So, they have to seek for a creative solution.  One smart solution has been for the Saudis to look towards Washington and Tel Aviv in search of a possible deterrent response to the Iranian nuclear ambition. In Saudis’ thinking, perhaps - Given that the mullahs long-standing hatred of the USA and Israel would not either Tel Aviv or Washington see the Iranian ambition for what it is and take the appropriate action? As strange as it seems, in the Saudi’s eyes, it is going to be the relationship Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively have with Israel and the USA that would be the deciding factor in curbing Iran’s nuke ambitions, and perhaps permanently settling the power struggle between the two Islamic giants in its favor. 

To conclude, where do all these leave Saudi Arabia, which among other Gulf States looks upon the rise of Iran with deep alarm?

·    Saudi Arabia has one of the largest rates of increase in military expenditure (63%) from 2001 – 2010. In 2010, Saudi Arabia spent approximately US $45 billions of dollars on defense. Saudi’s defense allocation which is about 10.4% of its GDP is one of the highest in the world.  This is mainly born of the Iranian threat, which is the only regional power Saudi Arabia feels a threat from. (1). Saudi Arabia will continue to build its arsenal of conventional weapons to build deterrence against the ambitions of Iran. (2)

·    Saudi Arabia shows readiness to go beyond the accumulation of conventional modern weaponry to seek to develop its own nuclear arsenal. According to Prince Turki al-Faisal, one of the most senior princes associated with Saudi security and foreign policy, said at a recent Gulf States forum that an Iranian quest for nuclear weapons and Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal might force Saudi Arabia to follow suit. (3)

·    Since long-standing Middle-East geopolitics will not allow Saudi Arabia to form any meaningful alliance with the sole regional nuclear power, Israel, Saudi Arabia may be forced by circumstances to look to another nearby nuclear power country; namely, Pakistan. In a time where the USA seems in a long process of disengaging from the turbulent Middle-East region and looking to the Asia-Pacific region as its future, Saudi Arabia may be forced to look for a replacement for USA strong presence in the region. (4) By choosing from any of the other existing great powers, because of religious or historical reasons, Saudi Arabia cannot easily tie a knot of security alliance with any of them. Therefore, Saudi Arabia has to look for a regional power country that is its natural complement. Because Pakistan shares the same type of religious faith with eth Saudis and since the two nations have history of cooperation along religious and security lines, the Saudis will find Pakistan a very viable security option as a military ally in its rivalry with Iran. The Saudi’s will not find it very difficult to grow the existing relationship to a deeper level where the Saudis will get Pakistan’s nuclear umbrella in exchange for Saudi’s largess to subsidize the cash strapped Pakistani army and government. It is possible that Saudi Arabia can lease one or two nukes from Pakistan and allow a few thousands of Pakistani soldiers and ace pilots to deploy in the country in order to send Iran a strong deterrent signal. Since Saudi Arabia and Pakistan has a long history of security cooperation and religious affinity, this could be easily realized as needed by the two countries. As much as Pakistan is quite a part of Saudi’s domestic and regional security strategy, we should expect such a relationship to grow deeper.  (5)

·    Saudi Arabia could have a hidden agenda to see the Taliban come to power in Afghanistan. The Since Taliban leaders, many whom were educated in Pakistani madrassas sponsored by Saudi Wahhabi circles, a Taliban ruled Afghanistan will provide security threat to the south-eastern borders of Iran. The extent Pakistan and Saudi Arabia succeed to re-install the Taliban in power in Afghanistan and exercise influence on its foreign and domestic affairs, they will succeed in harassing Iran on its eastern frontiers.

·    Today Iranian influence in the Middle-East stretches like a crescent from the Persian Gulf to the south-western shores of the Mediterranean coastlines. Iran’s political and security clout reaches all the way to the borders of Egypt, crossing Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. If the Arab Spring helps to consolidate the cropping Islamist governments in North Africa, that in turn will further grow Iranian influence in the Arab world to the dismay of Saudi Arabia. On its part, given its history, Saudi Arabia will not rest quietly as Iran expands its influence over the region. For example, the current turmoil in Syria provides Saudi Arabia with a chance to take Syria permanently out of the sphere of Iran.  Saudi Arabia, by working unilaterally and multi-laterally can strengthen the Syrian opposition forces and at the same time weaken the pro-Iran Bashir al-Assad regime.  By the same token, Saudi Arabia can buttress moderate political parties in Lebanon to check-mate Iran’s trusted ally in Lebanon, the powerful Hezbollah party, and in the case of Palestinian politics support the moderate PA against the Iran allied Hamas.


1). Background paper on SIPRI military expenditure data, 2010. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Retrieved from:

3). Prince Hints Saudi Arabia May Join Nuclear Arms Race. The New York Times. Retrieved from:

4).The wretched Middle East: A region that an American presidency turns away from at its peril. The Economist. Retrieved from:

5). Is Pakistan helping the Saudis with a nuclear deterrent? Rediff News. Retrieved from: