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.


Join the conversation on our social journalism site -
Middle East Voices
. Follow our Middle East reports on
Twitter and discuss them on our Facebook page.
This forum has been closed.
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!

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs