Once the cradle of civilization, the Persian Gulf region might today be described as a powder keg ready to deflagrate: with Iraq slowly consumed by its war against the Islamic State, the stage only sees two major contenders, namely Iran and Saudi Arabia. Most Western knowledge about the delicate political balances in the area can only be traced back to 1991, when a US-led coalition first landed in Kuwait during the First Gulf War. However, as it often happens, the issues that affect the region have much deeper and older roots. The two countries have had a long diplomatic history, frequently alternating friendship and hostility, but recent events caused the tensions between them to escalate to an unprecedented extent. The Iranian nuclear deal is not helping the negotiations, and is instead seen as a threat by many of the main Middle Eastern powers – Israel in particular – and many wonder whether a war is something we should worry about in the foreseeable future.
But let us stop for a moment and revise what we currently know on the subject.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are very different in almost all aspects: the only thing they have in common is Islam as the official religion, but that’s about it. Even in religion, the two countries follow two different paths: Iran has a predominant Shi’a majority, while Saudi Arabia leads the Sunni world by hosting the two sacred mosques of Medina and Mecca. The main difference between the two currents lies in the ancient dispute of Prophet Muhammad’s succession: according to the Shi’a, the title of Khalifa (leader of the Muslim world) should have been inherited by the Prophet’s family, following the principle of direct succession; the Sunnis (followers of the Sunna, one of the sacred texts of Islam), who compose around 90% of the overall Muslim population, argue that the Khalifa should be invested by the religious community, impersonated by the Imams. But there is more than a religious dispute at play.
Since the crowning of King ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl Saʿūd in 1932, Saudi Arabia enjoyed a relative stability up to the present day: it is now one of the last examples of absolute monarchy in the world, where the royal family enjoys almost unlimited power and does not hesitate to exert it when needed. On the other hand, Iran experienced much more political turbulence in its recent history: as a matter of fact, the country as we know it today was born in the aftermath of a revolution that took place in 1978, that overthrew the monarchy led by the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and installed an Islamic republic in its place, ruled by an elected government but under the advice of an ayatollah – a religious guide. Despite the difference in religious path and government form, the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia before the revolution was friendly: the Shah and the then King Faisal used to be pen friends, exchanging opinions on matters of government and administration; in particular, the Shah often urged the Saudi monarch to follow the example of the more liberal Iran and guarantee more freedom to his people – especially the women – but to no avail. However, after the revolution, the newly risen ayatollah Khomeini rejected any offer of new diplomatic relations with the Saudis, defining them “ungodly” and “heretics”. The hostile climate kept on intensifying as Iranian pilgrims who had traveled to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj ritual took part in several violent demonstrations that resulted in fights with the Saudi security forces and hundreds of losses. The dramatic turn of events put an end to the dialogue between the two countries until later. After the First Gulf War, there have been several attempts at reconciliation, in particular during the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting of 1997, where the two countries agreed to an economic and cultural cooperation within the context of OPEC, of which both are members.
Today, the political balances have changed once more: the threat posed by the Islamic State just west of its borders as well as the stance taken by Saudi Arabia towards the Shi’a Muslims in the Arabian Peninsula – that resulted in the Saudi military intervention against the Houthi militia in Yemen and in the executions of 47 people on the 2nd of January, including Nimr al-Nimr, Shi’a preacher – have made Iran wary. The so-called “nuclear deal”, and agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) and the European Union for the reduction of Iranian nuclear facilities in return for the lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions might represent Teheran’s way of preparing for what is to come: the funds and assets unfrozen by the deal may be used to finance military efforts, if need be.
The truth is, both Iran and Saudi Arabia are realizing that as the West gradually loses its grip on the Middle Est, the Muslim world might soon be in need of a new political and military leader, in order to finally achieve some stability in the region. However, a large scale conflict seems an unlikely scenario. First of all, there is no proper casus belli, a real reason to wage war, although of course it would be easy for either side to manufacture one, if that was the intention. Second but not less relevant, an outright war at the present state wouldn’t benefit any of the participants: the inevitable damages to the oil wells and pipes in both countries would significantly jeopardize the economy of the region, not to mention that the progressive weakening of both armies might tempt other players to take advantage of the situation to further their own interests and break the status quo, which is something neither side wants. Third, there are higher interests at play: both countries are backed by global powers (such as the US in the Saudi case and Russia and China for Iran) that have every reason to avoid further agitations in the region. In conclusion, I wouldn’t expect any major conflict to break out between Saudi Arabia and Iran for the time being. Rather, they will try to consolidate their position around the Persian Gulf by means of proxy wars, aimed at weakening their opponent without exposing themselves: as a matter of fact, both countries are already (more or less openly) subsidizing different sides in the Syrian civil war, and the outcome might prove decisive to resolve the dispute. The winning faction is likely to end up in an alliance with its supporter, and a Saudi-Syrian or Iranian-Syrian axis would perhaps be powerful enough to assert its dominance in the region.