By: Abdul Rasool Syed
All cold wars have the potential to suddenly turn hot, probably only for a moment before the leaderships ‘turn off the war’. This risk exists in the case of Saudi/GCC versus Iran.” — Michael Knights
In the Middle Eastern geopolitics, Saudi Arabia and Iran are the key strategic rivals; each trying to have ascendancy over the other and establish, thereby, its hegemony over the region. The rivalry between the two countries is premised on deep-rooted religious, political and economic antagonism. Religiously, Saudi Arabia follows and fosters Sunni school of thought – exclusively the Wahabbi brand of Islam – whereas Iran stands for the Shi’ism and keenly pursues its policy to export its version of Islam to the whole Muslim world, particularly the Middle East. Both countries are, therefore, engaged in proxy wars in the Middle East and support their ideologies with men and material. Having enormous reservoirs of oil at their disposal, both the countries are cut-throat competitors. And politically as well, both Iran and Saudi Arabia are diametrically opposed to each other; the former is somehow a theocracy ruled by the supreme leader called Ayatollah whereas the latter is monarchical kingdom governed by Aal-e-Saud (the progeny of King Mohammad bin Saud, the founder of Saudi Kingdom) dynasty.
The animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran has a long chronological account. But, Iran’s 1978-79 Islamic revolution, amidst an environment of hostility between the two countries, acted as a catalyst to provoke further tensions in the region. To Saudi Arabia, the emergence of Islamic Republic posed a daunting threat because its leaders were Shias who followed the opposite school of thought, and it was staunchly anti-American, opposing a close ally of the monarchies on the Arabian Peninsula.
Iranian leaders were keen to export their fervour beyond their country’s frontiers. Iran’s first supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini openly backed Shia militias and parties abroad. In response, Riyadh sought closer relationship with other Sunni states. This move led to the establishment of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Tensions further aggravated in the 1980s, when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. After the 1991 Gulf war, which significantly weakened Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran emerged as two regional powers.
The more recent pressure points that put the two countries at loggerheads include:
1. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that resulted in the fall of Saddam Hussein, the key bulwark of Saudis against Shi’ite influence in the region. Saddam kept Iraq’s Shia majority at bay and thereby prevented them to reach the corridors of power. Iraq’s new government, which was installed in the aftermath of US military venture, further cemented Shi’ite foundations in the country.
2. During the Arab Spring in 2011, Saudi Arabia and Iran resorted to proxy wars, often backing opponents in the countries with unrest.
3. Riyadh vehemently opposed the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal between Iran and P5+1 as it boded an end to Iran’s international isolation. Consequently, the Saudi kingdom extended an olive branch to Israel, an arch adversary of Iran in the region, which too was unequivocal in spitting venom against the Deal.
4. Furthermore, in 2016, the execution of a popular Shia cleric Nimr Al-Nimr ignited an unmanageable ire in Iran. Iranians rioted in Tehran and attacked the Saudi embassy, leading to suspension of diplomatic relations.
Read More: SANCTIONS ON IRAN
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