There are fears that the upheaval in the Middle East will exacerbate the deep rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The region’s geopolitical powers have long been locked in a so-called Cold War, but the Arab awakening is changing fronts in their proxy battles and both are vying for greater influence in a new Middle East.

In a Q&A, Christopher Boucek and Karim Sadjadpour assess the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia—taking a close look at the distrust between Shias and Sunnis and Persians and Arabs—and analyze how the rivalry will impact the balance of power in the Middle East. 

How is Saudi Arabia responding to the unrest in the region? How is Iran?

Boucek: What Saudi Arabia hates the most and wants to avoid at all costs is a situation defined by insecurity, instability, and uncertainty. This is what Riyadh sees in the transforming Middle East. The Arab awakening is not something that is perceived to be in its own interests—quite the opposite actually, as it threatens its foreign policy objectives.

Since Saudi Arabia wants to preserve the status quo, it has moved to shore up its friends in the Middle East using money and religious ideology. At the same time, the unrest has led to greater tensions with the United States as Riyadh feels that Washington has not responded effectively to the protests. The United States and Saudi Arabia, once closely aligned on many issues in the region, don’t at first glance appear to have the same interests at this time.

Sadjadpour: Iran, on the contrary, tends to thrive in an atmosphere of instability and chaos. The 2003 Iraq war, the 2006 Israeli war in Lebanon, and the 2009 Israeli war in Gaza seemed to enhance, not diminish, Iran’s regional clout by creating a more fertile ground for its ideology.

Tehran initially saw the Arab upheavals as unsettling and unseating only Western and American-allied Arab autocracies like Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain. Iran’s current leaders have long believed that democratic Arab governments that genuinely represent the will of their people would produce political systems much closer in nature to Tehran than Washington.  

They didn’t anticipate that the upheavals would spread to Syria, which is of tremendous concern to Iran given that the Assad family in Damascus has been their only consistent regional ally since the 1979 revolution. If the Assads were to fall, Iran would be rendered virtually friendless throughout the Middle East, with the possible exception of the current Shia-led government in Iraq.

In the near term, Tehran is scrambling to do in various countries what it did effectively in Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion—fill the power vacuum by offering financial patronage to various political groups. Over the medium and long term, however, the more democracy there is in the Middle East, the more it highlights the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a salmon swimming upstream against the current of history.

What is the history of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

Sadjadpour: There is a natural competition between the two sides in that both predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia and predominantly Shia Iran see themselves as the vanguard of the Muslim world and, according to most estimates, they rank first—Saudi Arabia—and a distant second—Iran—in terms of proven oil reserves.

In the 1970s, the United States saw Iran and Saudi Arabia as the twin pillars of the Persian Gulf. The Shah’s Iran had a somewhat more privileged role as America’s policeman in the region, but the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran was stable and not zero-sum: They could each have a strong relationship with Washington while enjoying more or less cordial bilateral ties. 

The relationship deteriorated significantly after the 1979 Iranian revolution. Iran became an Islamic Republic, led by radical Shia clergy, and Saudi Arabia’s concerns about the threat of Shia fundamentalism—emanating both from Iran and at home—grew more acute.  

The father of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had tremendous contempt for Saudi Arabia, particularly because of Saudi support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

After Khomeini died in 1989, the Iran-Saudi relationship improved significantly during the presidencies of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) and Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005).

But the election in 2005 of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—whose politics and temperament are often reminiscent of the early days of revolutionary radicalism—has exacerbated tensions and relations have subsequently deteriorated. 

Boucek: Additionally, when King Abdullah officially took power that same year, Saudi Arabia chose a more activist foreign policy that put Riyadh more at odds with Tehran.

It’s difficult to think of one instance since 2005 when the two countries worked together constructively to resolve a problem. Today’s tremendous rivalry and deep distrust are here to stay for the moment.

Why are the two countries considered rivals?

Boucek: The rivalry runs deep. In certain respects, there is a sense of superiority in Saudi Arabia. It is the birthplace of Islam and the Arabic language and Saudis rightfully take pride in their heritage. There are also hardline Sunnis who feel that Saudi Arabia is the leader of the global Muslim community and Shias are the worst kind of heretics.

There has always been a fear that Iranians cannot be trusted and Saudi Arabia is therefore actively working to check Iran’s rise. But much of what Riyadh does is for domestic consumption. This partially explains the Islamization of its foreign policy and the championing of the Sunni agenda—all of this helps shore up internal support for the government. Even Saudi Arabia’s actions to help Bahrain’s Sunni government consolidate and maintain authority in the face of protests is in part a message to Saudi Arabia’s own Shia population.

It is also interesting to note that in times like when Bahrain’s stability is in question, the Iranian boogeyman is a useful tool in uniting countries in the Gulf. The Gulf Cooperation Council was essentially started to protect the Arab Gulf states from Iran. And the problem that many countries have with Iran goes much deeper than just the current government. So even if there is democracy in Iran tomorrow, the Gulf’s historical animosities with Persians or Shias are not going to evaporate overnight.

Sadjadpour: There is similar chauvinism among Iranians, who are inheritors of ancient history and often feel a sense of civilizational superiority vis-à-vis Gulf Arabs. It’s not a religious or sectarian antipathy toward Sunni Arabs, but rather a sense of cultural supremacy.

Iranian officialdom also feels confident that wherever it faces Saudi Arabia in the Middle East—whether that arena is Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, or elsewhere—it is strategically and tactically superior. A former senior Iranian official once told me that the Saudis simply throw a lot of money around, but don’t they don’t have the human capital or work ethic to compete with Iran.

Boucek: Another issue is oil. Saudi Arabia and Iran have had slightly different ideals for the preferred world oil price in the past. Iran wanted to see the price of oil as high as possible, but Saudi Arabia previously favored a slightly lower price between $70 and $80 per barrel. This is starting to change, however, following all of the spending that Saudi Arabia announced in response to potential unrest and to deflect domestic criticism—Riyadh now needs a higher price of oil to pay for its new commitments and still balance the budget. Saudi Arabia will not be as active in working to drive prices down so this aspect of the rivalry may diminish.

Where are the proxy battlefields in the rivalry? Is it a zero-sum game in the Middle East?

Boucek: In many places, it increasingly looks like a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Whether it is in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, or other countries, the rivalry is apparent. The Saudis look out and see the Iranians meddling in Kuwait, Yemen, Egypt—it seems like the Iranians are everywhere. But the buck stops in Bahrain for Saudi Arabia. Bahrain is the one place above all others where Shia ascendency or the fall of the ruling monarchy is a nonstarter for the Saudis.

The challenge is that both countries view power and influence in the region as a zero-sum game. If Iran gains, Saudi Arabia loses—and vice versa. In Saudi Arabia there is not just a fear that Iran wants a greater role in the region, there is alarm that Iran wants to control the region. Saudi Arabia often seems to view the region through sectarian lenses and wants to unite people under the sectarian umbrella of Sunnis. Riyadh therefore views the ascendency of Shias and the war in the region in zero-sum terms.

Sadjadpour: In contrast to Saudi Arabia, Iran doesn’t want to frame its regional ambitions through a sectarian prism. Given that Shias constitute only a small minority of the Muslim world, the Islamic Republic wants to try to wave a pan-Islamic banner, not merely a Shia banner. It wants to unite people under the umbrella of anti-imperialism and enmity toward the United States and Israel, not Shiism. 

Will protests threaten either government? 

Sadjadpour: There is a key distinction between the Arab uprisings and the tumult we’ve seen in Iran over the past two-and-a-half years. The Arab opposition movements—whether in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, or Syria—have lacked a common leadership but they have a common goal, which is to bring down their respective regimes.

The Iranian opposition, in contrast, does have a symbolic leadership—Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both of whom are under house arrest—but it lacks a common goal. People like Mousavi and Karroubi, who were regime insiders up until 2009, still seem to want to reform the system, whereas many younger-generation Iranians would like to see more wholesale changes.

The disillusioning experience of the 1979 revolution has also made many Iranians averse to the prospect of another popular upheaval or abrupt change. Whereas the word “revolution” has romantic connotations on today’s Arab street, in Persian it’s a word that represents the past, not the future.

Boucek: Saudi Arabia can manage the Arab awakening internally better than anyone else in the Middle East—although this does not mean that Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy objectives are in any way helped by the change. While it is not immune from the protest movement inside the country, Riyadh is more equipped to handle it through its religious community and financial resources. Saudi Arabia announced over $130 billion in new social welfare spending and the protests within the country have been very small thus far.

Is either country gaining or “winning” in light of the regional upheaval?

Boucek: Despite the government’s strength at home, it would be difficult to find anyone who says that Saudi Arabia is coming out on top. With countries and friendly governments around it facing instability, the current season does not seem to be in Riyadh’s interests. The Saudis feel like they are under threat.

The perception in the region is that if governments become more reflective of popular opinion, this will be to Iran’s benefit. But this does not mean that Iran will be the ultimate “winner.” In the medium and long term, both countries are going to have some enormous challenges moving forward. As countries become more open and tolerant, Iran and Saudi Arabia will be some of the few that are resisting those trends.

How does the United States view events in Iran and Saudi Arabia? Should the United States try to counter Iranian or Saudi influence? Does the Arab Spring complicate U.S. objectives?

Sadjadpour: The U.S. government views the domestic situations in Iran and Saudi Arabia in totally different ways. Popular unrest in Iran is seen as a positive thing, because there’s a sense that if Iran had a more representative government it would be more tolerant than the current one and that it would lead to an improved U.S.-Iran relationship. So, popular protests in Iran inspire hope in Washington.

The opposite is true in Saudi Arabia, in that Washington believes that a popular upheaval in Saudi Arabia would likely bring about a government that is more Islamist and less favorably disposed to the United States. For that reason, news of political unrest in Saudi Arabia is a cause for concern in Washington, not hope.

Regarding U.S. efforts to contain Iranian influence, I think Washington has been too focused on military solutions to political problems. Meaning that Iran’s ascent in the region over the last decade hasn’t been as a result of its military prowess—Saudi Arabia’s military budget is several times that of Iran—but of its political influence. Instead of a strategy that focuses primarily on further arming Iran’s neighbors, the United States should be trying to diminish Iran’s ideological appeal.

Two huge blows to the Iranian regime’s influence in the region would be an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and the fall of the Assad regime in Damascus. A year ago they both appeared to be distant prospects; now only the former appears a distant prospect. 

Boucek: The gap between Saudi Arabia and the United States has gotten bigger during the Arab awakening. There are greater tensions as Riyadh does not think Washington is appropriately responding to the transformative times and keeping its own long-term interests in mind. And Riyadh is worried that if the United States pulls out of the region, the responsibility of containing Iran will fall solely on Saudi Arabia.

Still, the relationship remains strong and is important for both sides. In the end, the United States and Saudi Arabia need each other. Washington needs to move away from trying to get Riyadh to do things to help American objectives, to a relationship where both countries work together to reach the same common goals.