Syria Conflict Highlights Saudi-Iran Tensions

Saudi foreign minister Prince Saudi al-Faisal speaks during the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 4, 2012.
Saudi foreign minister Prince Saudi al-Faisal speaks during the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 4, 2012.

The unrest in Syria highlights a larger struggle for regional influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia.  Tthe tensions have been building as uprisings in the Arab world have pit the two on opposite sides of the conflicts.

Arab, Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and mainly Persian, Shi'ite Iran would seem destined to be at odds, facing off over the oil and gas rich Gulf.  Relations grew worse following the U.S. war in Iraq, but have spiked further as they reacted to the past year's events across the region.  

Tehran supported the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, while Saudi Arabia backed the governments.  In Syria, support flips, with Iran working to keep the besieged Assad government in power and Saudi Arabia calling for the rebels to be better armed.

Researcher Nadim Shehadi of London-based Chatham House says the two nations are not alone in their seemingly contradictory approaches.   

“The Arab uprisings have come as a surprise to everybody and none of the players have had a consistent policy, not even the United States or Europe or Russia," said Shehadi. "Because of the confusion there has always been the appearance of double standards.”

Among the standards not being used by Saudi Arabia and Iran, political analysts say, are the democratic rights of the oppressed.  Both have dampened protests at home, mixing security crackdowns with pledges of increased government spending.

'Proxy confrontations'

A variety of tactics can also be seen in their support or opposition to groups across the region. Abdulaziz Sager, head of the Gulf Research Council, says Syria is just the most visible of the proxy confrontations in the region.

“Iran wanted to make sure that Iraq, Syria, Lebanon/Hezbollah, or what we call the Shi'ite Crescent, for them is quite important to offset the power of the other side of the Arab world, which is the Levant and the Gulf region.  In reality today this is two blocs,” said Sager.

Those two blocs are reflected on the global stage, with the U.S. for the most part supporting the Saudi camp, and Russia siding with Iran. But Sager says it was not clear that Shi'ite leanings would guarantee the Syrian government choosing Tehran over Riyadh.  

“Saudis historically have good relations with Syrians, but unfortunately the Syrians have not listened to the Saudi advice on the way they should have handled the clashes from the beginning,” said the head of the Gulf Research Council.

Tehran also appears to have gained the upper hand in a conflict right on Saudi Arabia's southern border.  Northern Yemen rebels, the Shi'ite Houthis, have been increasing their areas of influence.     

“It's not clear how much of the Houthi revolt is directly support by the Iranians," said Nadim Shehadi of Chatham House.  "But wherever you have a Shi'ite-Sunni confrontation, or any variation of that, then you get the Iranian-Saudi rivalry manifesting itself.”

Saudi Arabian troops cross the causeway leading to Bahrain in this still image taken from video, March 14, 2011.
Saudi Arabian troops cross the causeway leading to Bahrain in this still image taken from video, March 14, 2011.

'A game-charger'

Another contentious area of Saudi and Iranian power plays is found in Bahrain, where Riyadh came to the aid of the Sunni government in putting down a popular uprising cast by some as sectarian unrest by disenfranchised Shi'ite groups.

Such maneuvering could, in theory, go on for years, but Shehadi says a game-changer looms.  If Iran is close to developing nuclear weapons, as the West claims and Tehran denies, analysts like Shehadi say the effect on regional and global actions will be profound.  

“If there is anything that happens in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi or Kuwait, the West will not be able to intervene and protect these countries in the same way," said Shehadi. "It will be like when the [Soviet] tanks rolled into Prague in 1968 and the West did nothing because the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons.”

Shehadi says Iran's nuclear potential could allow Tehran to treat any of the countries in the region much the way the Soviet Union used to treat Eastern Europe.


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Comment Sorting
by: Mr. me
April 05, 2012 2:19 PM
the sytles of Iran and Saudi are different.
Iran government suppports terorism. while Saudi is for peace. when was last time anybody accused the saudi terorism. how about iran. for last three months, i heard more than five teroresm act, in india, goergia ...

by: Just.
April 05, 2012 12:46 PM
Saudis need to wake up and get ready all time to prevent the danger to come. Iran want to lead middle East one day.

by: John
April 05, 2012 11:24 AM
What an absolute joke when hilary clinton visited Saudi lol. They are the worsed ruling family from them all. I give credit to Iran for not taking rubbish from any other country. The US influence is declining. Its only a matter of time when they realise the peoples power is greater!

by: A
April 05, 2012 11:22 AM
US will always have double standards. They supported Mubarak & Bin Ali for decades! & they support all the other tyrant leaders in the gulf such as Bahrain, Kuwait etc. These leaders don't even know the meaning of the word democracy.

by: E
April 05, 2012 10:13 AM
"Iran's nuclear potential could allow Tehran to treat any of the countries in the region much the way the Soviet Union used to treat Eastern Europe."

I highly doubt this analysis. The West did not, and still does not, have the deep vested economic and strategic interests in Eastern Europe as it does today in the Gulf. As such, I highly doubt that the West (read USA) would give up on the region, and allow Iran to kick it around the moment the regime in Tehran goes nuclear.

by: nak
April 05, 2012 9:58 AM
Saudis have no business promoting democracy! They should start with their own KINGDOM first!

by: Time for the security council to act like world powers..not like low lifes
April 05, 2012 9:00 AM
Any comprehensive peace plan in the mid east will require not only Iran changing but also Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Israel, Palestine ... trying to address only one nation is much like playing whack a mole .. it just wont work. No country in this region should receive special support by Russia, China or America. They are all a part of the problem and the solution.

by: John
April 05, 2012 8:57 AM
Saudi Arabia talking about democracy is rich.

April 05, 2012 8:55 AM
@ Joseph Zrnchik...have you forgotten the latest terrorist attempts by Iran? "Smart"?...Smart would be all the rest of the world anticipating an atomic bomb armed Iran as the clear threat it is and doing everything to stop it(and I mean everything..."once the atomic genie is out of the bottle, it is almost impossible to put it back in!")

by: Joseph Zrnchik
April 05, 2012 7:58 AM
If Iran was smart it would fund the Shiite opposition being brutalized by the most oppressive regime in the Middle East. The Saudis caused and funded 9/11. All the terrorists were from Saudi Arabia, including bin Laden. Overthrow the regime!

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