Analysis & Opinions

How Effective is Saudi Arabia’s ‘Counter-Iran Policy’?

| Apr. 07, 2018

Saudi Arabia is shifting its traditions of regional engagement. It has never been so active in defiance of the balance of power in the region. Why? Because it perceives the balance to have been shifting into Iran’s favor. Things could not have unfolded worse from Riyadh’s point of view. While the Syrian war, along with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is almost finished, Saudi Arabia is still wrestling with its war in Yemen, and trying to get Qatar and Egypt in line with its regional priorities. And while the Iran-Turkey-Russia partnership has been so effective, Riyadh’s Yemen and so-called ‘anti-terror’ coalitions are scattered. Meanwhile, an anti-Iran U.S. administration has been sworn in. Trump is seen as an opportunity to counter Iran. And as a catalyzer of Riyadh’s anti-Iran push, Trump’s presidency is motivating the Saudis to escalate in the hope of an Iran-U.S. confrontation. Thus the Qatar crisis, Hariri’s resignation, and the ‘act of war’ accusation against Iran. This policy, no matter how effective, is causing regional shockwaves. This article deals with this shift, Iran’s reactions to it and its regional repercussions.

Decades of cautiousness rendered Saudi Arabia a passive regional polity. Traditionally, Riyadh has been a status-quo seeker, trying to integrate its regional ambitions within the regional balance. Its new policy, however, is out of step with that tradition. King Salman’s new track, aimed at curbing Iran’s regional influence, is shifting Riyadh’s regional posture. With the lack of much-needed compromise over the region’s main crises, Saudi’s new policy adds to regional uncertainties, taking opportunities according to Riyadh and emboldening challengers according to its critics.

Stemming from Riyadh’s shift, Iran-Saudi relations have moved to a new track. Ever since the 1970s, Iran-Saudi relations have undergone different phases characterized by limited cooperation at times and rivalry and open hostility at others. The balance of power has been a crucial proponent of their mutual and regional calculations and conduct. As such, when the balance tilted in Iran’s favor, Saudi Arabia inclined to an anti-Iran posture. And at times of Saudi-American enhanced cooperation, Tehran’s emboldened insecurity widened the room for differences. Therefore, U.S. regional policy has been affecting Iran-Saudi relations, and as such, the more imbalanced – perceived or real – that U.S. policy becomes, the less opportunity for compromise.

Since curbing Iran’s influence is the cornerstone of the new approach, and because Iran-Saudi dealings have had a regional impact, it is expected that Riyadh’s new policy and Tehran’s reactions will add new dimensions to regional rivalries. Syria, Qatar, Lebanon and Yemen have been the main stages for the Saudi shift and its new track with Tehran. In the first part of this article, I will discuss Saudi’s regional shift. The second part deals with the causes of the shift and Iran’s reactions. And the third part speculates on possible regional repercussions.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ahmadian, Hassan.“How Effective is Saudi Arabia’s ‘Counter-Iran Policy’?.” , April 7, 2018.