Two opposing coalitions in the Middle East define a rivalry that threatens to tear the region apart. As competition for dominance intensifies, the confrontation between Iran’s network of state and non-state actors, and a counter-front of traditional Western allies – centred on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel – has become the region’s central battle line.
One of the most damaging Western rhetorical frameworks for the Middle East is that of a long-standing sectarian rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Within this framework, the turmoil in the region is a by-product of an irrational 1,400-year-old struggle between Saudi Arabia, the seat of Sunni hegemony, and Iran, the vanguard of the Shias.
Iran has not expanded its influence across the region out of a desire to reclaim influence from Saudi Arabia, but due to its deeply rooted enmity towards the US-led regional order. In line with this view, one of the first acts of the 1979 Iranian revolution was to take over the US embassy in Tehran. It is no secret that Iran harboured members of al-Qaeda such as Adel al-Wahabi, Saif al-Adel, Abu Khayr al-Masri, and Hamza bin Laden – with the primary purpose of harming US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Iran also carries out attacks on Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. Tehran appears to have stepped up these operations: in March 2018, the Houthis – widely seen as the main Yemeni ally of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – launched ballistic missiles at Riyadh. But this direct aggression against Saudi Arabia is only one small component of a strategy designed to undermine the United States by destabilising perceived Western clients.
As a nation state that has traditionally operated within an established regional order, Saudi Arabia continues to view the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq as a catastrophic move that laid the groundwork for Iran to expand its influence in the Middle East. The Saudis also view American inaction in Syria as facilitating Iranian (and Russian) expansionism.
The Obama administration made the case for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear programme by arguing that the deal would encourage Iran to forsake its traditional foreign policy tools of political assassination and support for proxy groups across the Middle East, in favour of a more peaceful regional and international posture. Yet for Riyadh, since the deal was signed, Iran has allowed protesters to attack the Saudi embassy in Tehran, accelerated its expansion in the region, and repeatedly harassed the US military in the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia does not distinguish between the political and military wings of Hezbollah – which, as the IRGC’s Levantine proxy, has established itself as the dominant domestic armed force in Lebanon and gained significant control over the Lebanese state. In Syria, the Saudis continued a long tradition of close cooperation with the US by committing to the CIA rebel vetting framework, refraining from efforts to supply the Free Syrian Army with MANPADs (portable anti-aircraft systems), and effectively withdrawing from the Syrian conflict after the US rebel training programme ended. Despite this withdrawal, Riyadh views Iran as exercising more power in Syria than any other actor, to the detriment of regional stability and Western interests.
By supplying the Houthis with a range of ballistic missiles to use against Saudi Arabia, Iran seems to have intentionally escalated the Yemen conflict. Tehran now appears to have abandoned plausible deniability of involvement in the conflict in favour of overt provocation. The shift increases the risk of an inter-state war in which Iran would likely be at a disadvantage, given that its major adversaries have superior conventional military power. Despite this risk, Riyadh will not allow the IRGC to secure a foothold in Yemen. It believes that such a foothold would create a failed state on Saudi Arabia’s southern border that directly threatened Gulf Arab states’ security and trade, including through the Houthi ballistic missile threat.
Saudi Arabia believes that Iran’s growing assertiveness has – as some European states have acknowledged – revealed its true role in the region. This assertiveness has bolstered the Trump administration’s arguments against the Iran nuclear deal, and led to a consensus between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other states on the importance of checking Tehran’s influence in the Middle East.
Yet, for Riyadh, this convergence of interests between Israel and Saudi Arabia is only partial. And it is not a sign of rapprochement. For reasons of national security, the Israelis seek to reverse the IRGC’s build-up in Syria just as the Saudis seek to prevent Iran from establishing a foothold in the Gulf of Aden. Saudi Arabia remains committed to the Arab Peace Initiative, which contains provisions for normalising relations with Israel under specific conditions. Thus, it is possible that the Saudis would respond in kind to Israeli confidence-building concessions on resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. But the prospects of peace negotiations based on the Arab Peace Initiative seem slim. The Trump administration does not appear to have a coherent policy on this issue, while its stated aim of moving the US embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a discouraging sign.
In this sense, there is no coherent regional anti-Iran alliance; there is only consensus and clarity on the nature of the Iranian threat. The Trump administration has adopted tougher rhetoric on Iran than its predecessor. But without a coherent Syria policy and the enforcement of red lines on Iranian influence in the region, there has been little significant change in US foreign policy doctrine on the Middle East. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia would gladly support a recalibrated joint policy – involving the US and its regional allies – on curtailing Iranian proxies across the Middle East. As Saudi Arabia sees it, the international community can only avoid the outbreak of an inter-state conventional war by enforcing clear limits on the Iranians’ ballistic missiles programme, cultivation of regional proxy groups, and efforts to finance terrorist organisations – as well as their nuclear programme.
Mohammed Alyahya is a Saudi Arabian political analyst focusing on Gulf politics and policy, and US-Gulf relations. He has written for the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Guardian, and the Telegraph among other outlets.
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 President Obama told America’s National Public Radio in 2014 that “They have a path to break through that isolation and they should seize it. Because if they do, there’s incredible talent and resources and sophistication inside of Iran, and it would be a very successful regional power that was also abiding by international norms and international rules, and that would be good for everybody. That would be good for the United States, that would be good for the region, and most of all, it would be good for the Iranian people.”