Monday, 10 August, 2020

The Iran-Saudi Conflict and the End Game

By Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Mehrdad Saberi

“Iran has to choose whether it wants to live by the rules of the international system, or remain a revolutionary state committed to expansion and to defiance of international law,” Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia Adel al Jubeir stated recently in an op-ed in the New York Times. He further lists a whole host of allegations against Iran calling it “the single most belligerent actor in the region pursuing regional hegemony,[1]” as well as referring to Iran as “the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism.” Statements such as the aforementioned one lie at the crux of Saudi’s regional policy these days. From the all-out invasion of Yemen to funneling money to the rebels in Syria, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is intent on scuttling what it calls “Iran’s expansionist and interventionist behavior” in the region.

Against the backdrop of the “expansionist, sectarian, and hegemonic” picture of Iran that Saudi Arabia has opted to conjure up, however, comes in the historical realities that prove otherwise. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger put it, “for nations, history plays the role that characteristics confer on human beings.”[2] Therefore, it is worth deconstructing some historical facts about Iran’s behavior as a nation-state towards its neighbors and verifying whether or not Saudi’s allegations bear any resemblance of truth.

Iran as a Nation State 

Contrary to what the Saudi Foreign Minister argues, Iran has always acted as a responsible nation state within the realm of international norms and regulations. Iran does not have an aggressive policy, and it is the history that testifies to this claim—not the foreign minister of Iran. For at least the past three centuries, Iran has not waged war against any country. Even in ancient times when Iran was conquered by the Arab Empires of Abbasid and Umayyad dynasties (8th-13th CE), instead of revolting against the prevailing reign of the Arabs, Iranians opted to contribute to the prosperity of the Islamic world.

As Peter Brown of Princeton University put it, “in the western imagination, the Islamic [Abbasid] empire stands as the quintessence of an oriental power. Islam owed this crucial orientation neither to Prophet Muhammad(s) nor to the adaptable conquerors of the seventh century, but to the massive resurgence of the eastern, Persian traditions in the eight and ninth centuries; it was the luxurious Persian administration that brought the Arab war machine to a halt.”[3] Furthermore, Iran’s definition of nationhood did not come into being with arbitrary borders drawn by the British and French diplomats and the enthroning of unelected emirs and kings in the twentieth century, but in the words of Henry Kissinger, “Iran’s sense of nation state is the most coherent one amongst other countries in the region,”[4] which predates that of its surrounding countries.

The Logic behind Saudi’s Regional Policy

The foreign policy of Saudi Arabia is to a large extent reflective of regional and international developments, and therefore lacks a steady and harmonious pattern that is born out of the strategic depth of the Kingdom. Frequent shifts in their definition of friends and foes is an ample testament to this claim. For a certain period—between 1980-1988—Saddam Hussein was deemed as a strategic asset for toppling the newly established Islamic Republic during the bloody eight-year war with Iran. Once its neighbor Kuwait was invaded by the very same Iraq—thus an imminent threat at Saudi’s doorstep—during the Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein became a formidable enemy to the Kingdom itself.

 Another area where Saudi Arabia has failed to prescribe a coherent and comprehensive policy is Yemen. The Kingdom backed the Houthis in the 1960s in response to Egyptian-backed Yemeni republican nationalists. The very same Houthis, however, are now being depicted as an Iranian puppet and terrorist group—a claim upon which Saudi Arabia predicated its rationale of invading Yemen in 2009 and again in 2015.[5] Therefore, it is safe to say that the Kingdom since its existence in 1932 has not been able to formulate a coherent foreign policy that addresses its core strategic depth and interests. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a country that the Kingdom has since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 attempted to marginalize by depicting fabricated narratives about it and pressuring regional and international powers to subvert it.

Was It Iran that Inflicted War on Its Neighbors!?

The euphoria following the ouster of the Shah and the victory of the Islamic Revolution soon turned into a nightmare when Iraq in 1980 launched a devastating war against Iran, whose purpose was toppling the newly established Islamic Republic and dismembering Iran. The GCC[6] not only provided tens of billions of dollars financial support to Iraq [7] but also backed Iraq when Saddam Hussein proclaimed Khuzestan Province to be the part of Iraq’s territory and called it Arabistan. The GCC stood on the side of an Iraq that inflicted more than $500 billion[8] damage on Iran and which saw the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iranians perish and left hundreds of thousands either injured by chemical and biological weapons or physically disabled. One might then wonder to which realm of reason Saudis’ depiction of Iran as an “aggressive” player conform—that the GCC backed Iraq’s invasion of Iran is a proper vindication of the extent to which the Saudis have sought to distort Iran’s history and policies.

On Intervention Allegations: Is Iran Intervening in the Domestic Affairs of Other Countries

Saudi officials have for long accused Iran of meddling in the affairs of other countries. In 2015, then Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia Prince Saudi al-Faisal reiterated Saudi’s reading of Iran’s policy in the region:

We see Iran involved in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, and Iraq…Iran is taking over Iraq; it promotes terrorism and occupies lands. These are not the features of countries which want peace and seek to improve relations with neighboring countries.[9]

The newly crowned King Salman of Saudi Arabia, in his remarks at the annual GCC summit in 2015, recapitulated the same allegation in which he called for the necessity of “confronting a foreign threat that aims to take over and destabilize the region and wage sectarian conflict.”[10] Saudi officials have, however, fallen short of substantiating their allegations with any reliable and concrete evidence. Therefore, it is important to put into comparison areas in which Iran and Saudi have evidently intervened.

Iran’s Involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria: Meddling or Upon Official Request of the Local Governments?

It is to no one’s surprise that Iran played a responsible and cooperative role during the US War on Terror in 2001. Iran “effectively mobilized its allies in Afghanistan, the Hazara, Tajik, and Uzbek communities that together comprise half of the population, to align themselves with the U.S forces in fighting the Taliban.”[11] The cooperation between Iran and the US extended well beyond the removal of the Taliban. In the post-Taliban era in 2001, at the Bonn Conference, Iran helped Hamid Karzai, who was supported by both the US and Iran, to assume the presidency in Afghanistan and constitute the new Afghan government. According to Ambassador James Dobbins, the American envoy to Afghanistan at the time (and the current American envoy to Afghanistan), “it was the Iranian envoy, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who convinced Younis Qanooni, a powerful Northern Alliance leader, to back Karzai.”[12]

 Iraqi leaders’ inclination toward strategic and close bilateral relations with Iran is not because Iraqi leaders are under the tutelage of Iran. For decades, Iran stood on the side of the people who fought Saddam’s wrath and brutal dictatorship—who later came to constitute the post-Saddam government in Iraq—whereas, Saudi Arabia steadfastly tilted toward Saddam. At the present time, Iran’s involvement in Iraq is based solely upon the request of the local government of Iraq as well as the Kurdistan Regional Government. In the fight against ISIS, for instance, as attested to by Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani on August 26, 2014, “Iran was the first country to come to the aid of Kurdistan by providing weapons and equipment.” Furthermore, Iran’s role has been decisive in the recent liberation of Ramadi in which “the Iraqi military operated mainly in a supporting role alongside Iran-backed forces.”[13]

In Syria too, Iran has operated within the same realm of the strategic policy to maintain the territorial integrity of countries in the region. Iran’s help to the Syrian government—which is the internationally recognized government of Syria with a representative at the United Nations—has been at the behest of the official request of the Syrian government. Iran has all along called for a cease-fire; formation of a national unity government consisting of all factions including the opposition and the current government; laying the grounds for a transitional period; and preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections in order to restore security and stability in Syria (Iran submitted these parameters in the form of a 4-point Peace Plan to the UN in 2014). The United States has also realigned its objectives closer to that of Iran’s. On January 23, 2016, in a meeting with members of Syria’s opposition in Saudi Arabia, US secretary of State John Kerry demanded  “rebels accept a set of preconditions proposed by Russia and Iran in order to participate in peace talks.”

Saudi Arabia’s Blatant Destabilizing Intervention in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen

In Bahrain, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has intervened—however upon the request of the Bahraini monarch—to quell the protests of the Shia majority of the population (some 70 percent)[14] demanding reforms in the country.

 In Egypt, the Kingdom supported the military coup in 2013 and provided  “an $12 billion aid package along with the UAE and Kuwait” to remove the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, through a military coup led by the army general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

 The GCC members, among whom Saudi Arabia bears the most power, supported the intervention of Libya in 2011. No doubt the then leader, Muammar Gaddafi, was a dictator, but the country had a functioning government with relative stability and security. Now almost five years after the toppling of Gaddafi, Libya resembles the characteristics of a failed state “with two governments (one backed by various militias and other backed by the West) and various groups loyal to tribes rather than a central government.”

 Saudi Arabia began its bombing campaign in Yemen on March 26th, 2015. The objective of the war, as described by the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, is to “protect the Yemeni people from a radical organization (Houthis) that has allied with Iran that has virtually taken over the country; to defend the legitimate government of Abed Rabbo Mansur Hadi; to go after the terrorists and extremists; and to finally open up space for political talks so that Yemen could transition into a better place to live.” However, the entirety of the Saudi claim about Iran’s involvement is hyped.

Saudi’s portrayal of Iran’s backing of the Houthis because of their Zaydi Shi’a faith is to a large extent fabricated. The Zaydi Houthis are a major force in the country (some 40 percent),[15] which effectively ruled over Yemen for centuries until the early 1960s.  There, however, exist fundamental dichotomies between Zaydi (Fiver) and Jaffari (Twelver) Shiism, which is practiced by the majority of Shi’a Muslim in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf region.[16]

Furthermore, Zaydi Shi’ism—practiced by the Houthis—diverges with the Shi’ism practiced in Iran in terms of doctrine, political dimensions, and even religious holidays. Traditionally apathetic to propagating their beliefs in the political realm, the Houthis are not generally sympathetic toward the theory of the Velayat-e-Faqih (the rule of the jurist) practiced in Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. While Zaydism long had a political Imamate, Zaydism has moved away from the idea of a political imam as proper ruler of Yemen.[17]  As a matter of fact, Zaydis have more in common with their Sunni-Shafii Yemeni compatriots than they do with Iranian Shi’as.

Therefore, while the Saudi lobby and media are frantically spinning the Sunni versus Shi’a sectarian narrative—ignoring the complex tribal/class complexities of Yemeni society—the fact is that the anti-Hadi movement includes both Sunnis and Shi’as, thus debunking this false narrative.[18] Iran’s involvement in the ongoing conflict as gravely exaggerated by the Saudis, thus, seems not to have any semblance of truth. Even the United States has thus far acknowledged that there is “no evidence that Iran controls the actions of Houthis.”[19] US President Barak Obama, as well, testified to this claim in his interview with Thomas Freidman last year, describing Iran’s role in Yemen to be “overstated.”[20] In consequence, Saudi’s distorted description of Iran’s role in Yemen is nothing short of propaganda and a guise for intervention in the domestic affairs of Yemen.

On Terrorism Allegations: Were the 9/11 Hijackers Iranian Citizens? 

On January 19, 2016, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Juberi penned an op-ed in the New York Times in which he called Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism. It is important to take a minute and break down the significance of the aforementioned allegation. A Saudi citizen (which happens to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom) argues in an American paper that Iran sponsors terrorism.

The absurdity of this allegation comes into picture having known that 19 Al-Qaeda affiliated hijackers, amongst whom 15 were Saudi citizens, executed the single most tragic terrorist attack in the history of the United States on September 11, 2001. Osama bin Laden, who founded Al-Qaeda, was a member of the prominent Bin Laden family in Saudi Arabia. The Taliban are another terrorist group whose members were the products of Saudi funded madrasahs in Pakistan.  Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries in the world to recognize and support the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan until the 9/11 attacks.

ISIS is another offshoot of the radical Saudi Wahhabi ideology. A former Al-Qaeda affiliate, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi founded “The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad”[21] in the late 1990s, which then later was renamed to “The Organization of Jihad’s Base in Mesopotamia or Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)” in 2004 after Zarqawi swore loyalty to Osama bin laden.[22]  After the death of Zarqawi in 2006, the group now practices its savage conduct under the self-declared caliphate entitled as “Islamic State of Iraq and Levant” (ISIL, or ISIS, or IS) led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Then it is rather preposterous and bizarre for a country with a long track record of supporting the most brutal of terrorist organizations and radical ideologies to sweep its own actions under the rug and accuse another country for such policy.

Saudi’s irresponsible policies and support of terrorism have also espoused criticism from Saudi’s most important international ally, the US.  On Oct. 2, 2014, Biden told an audience at Harvard’s Kennedy School: “our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria … the Saudis, the emirates, etc., what were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of military weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” And last but not least, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned in 2009 in a leaked classified memo that donors in Saudi Arabia were the “most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

Therefore, it is rather clear that Saudi’s short-sighted foreign policy has resulted in nothing but chaos in the region, which then justifies its own policy by scapegoating a third country (Iran) for the quagmire that has engulfed the entire region of its own making.

The Way Forward

“Iran does not have a fight to pick with Saudi Arabia,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in an interview last month. The same, however, cannot be said about Saudi Arabia. Mindful of Saudi’s support to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war as well as the massacre of 400 Iranian Hajj pilgrims by Saudi security forces in 1987, Iran, however, sought to formulate a regional security framework in the 1990s that culminated in the signing of a regional security pact with Saudi Arabia in 2001. The Saudis, however, not only did not adhere to the parameters of the agreement, but, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, then King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia repeatedly exhorted the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” by launching a military strike against Iran in 2008.[23] Furthermore, the recent episode of the killing of almost 460 Iranian pilgrims in the 2015 Mecca stampede injected more tension in the relationship, as the Saudi officials did not even apologize for the incident.

However, the current blame game cannot be the end game, and rehashing grievances will not precipitate any positive results for either side. Iranian officials, at the highest political level, have all along demonstrated their political will to resolve outstanding problems with Saudi Arabia through dialogue and diplomatic means. Thus the leadership in Saudi Arabia should refrain from its zero-sum mentality and embrace direct talks with Iran.

As a first step, the two sides can immediately revive the Iran–Saudi security pact signed by Rouhani in 1998. After elected as the new Iranian president in 2013, Rouhani expressed pride in having been the signatory of the Islamic Republic’s first security agreement with Saudi Arabia in 1998.

The next step should be for Tehran and Riyadh to cooperate in establishing a regional cooperation system in the Persian Gulf among Iran, Iraq, and the GCC to maintain peace and security and to cooperate on other issues such as trade, education, technology, science cultural exchange, as well as fighting terrorism and opposing all weapons of mass destruction.

The framework of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), which refers to the nuclear agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), can be employed as a win-win agreement and a model for the aforementioned objectives to bear fruit. The JCPOA would not have been achieved without a win-win mentality exercised by all sides; a mentality that Iranians have always called for.

[2] Henry Kissinger, World Order (Penguin, 2014).

[3] Peter Robert Lamont Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, AD 150-750 (Harcourt College Pub, 1971).

[4] Kissinger, World Order.

[6] The Gulf Cooperation Council is comprised Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain.

[7]Hossein Asgari, Conflict and Wars: Their Fallout and Prevention (New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2012), 124.

[8] Shireen T. Hunter, Iran after Khomeini (Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1992), pp.72-73.

[9] Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, “Saudi Arabia’s Yemen Offensive, Iran’s Proxy Strategy, and the Middle East’s New Cold War,” The World Financial Review, June 4, 2015,

[11] Flynt and Hillary Leverett, Going to Tehran: Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran( Picador; reprint edition, December 31, 2021), 233.

[12] Jim Dobbins, “Engaging Iran,” The Iran Primer, United States Institute of Peace, October 22, 2013.

[14] Taheri, Amir (17 February 2022). “Why Bahrain blew up”. New York Post. Archived from the original on 3 October 2012. Retrieved 22 February 2011.

[15] Ramtanu Maitra, Murderous Saudi Attacks and Other Complexities in Yemen. 2015

[16] Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya, “The Geopolitics Behind the War in Yemen: Do the US and Saudi Arabia Want to Divide Yemen?” Global Research,….

[17] Barak A. Salmoni, Bryce Loidolt, and Madeleine Wells, Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen: The Houthi Phenomenon (Santa Monica: RAND, 2010), 67.

[18] Pepe Escober, ”Bomb Iran? Not Now: Bomb Yemen,” Russia Today, April 8, 2015,

[19] Jen Psaki quoted in Mohsen Milani, “Iran’s Game in Yemen,” Foreign Affairs, April 19, 2015,

[20] Barack Obama quoted in Thomas L. Friedman, “Obama Makes His Case on Iran Nuclear Deal,” The New York Times, July 14, 2015,….

[21] Zelin, Aaron Y. (June 2014). “The War between ISIS and al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement” (PDF). Research Notes (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), 20. Retrieved 26 August 2014.

[22] Whitlock, Craig (10 June 2021). “Death Could Shake Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Around the World”The Washington Post. Retrieved 22 July 2014.

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1 Comment

  1. David

    February 27, 2022 at 6:35 am

    I am in the U.S. and I think the Saudis try to portray Iran as a threat to the U.S. My research is consistent with the points made in this article. My theory is that the Saudi’s hire public relations firms to make themselves look good and to try to make Iran look like an evil, dangerous threat to the U.S. The conservative Republican party agrees with the Saudis. Surprisingly, many U.S. citizens still believe that Iran is a major sponsor of terrorism and was behind the 9/11 attacks. I wish articles like this one would be published in the U.S. and I encourage all Iranian journalists to try to publish articles in U.S. newspapers and websites that tell the truth. I like this website, by the way.

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