Iran v. Saudi Arabia: Sectarianism, Realism, and Foreign Policy in the Gulf

Photo: IBTimes, UK

By Morgan Byrne-Diakun, Columnist

Sectarianism continues to be a word used casually by pundits and policymakers to describe ongoing tensions between the Sunni and Shi’a Muslim communities in the greater Middle East. Grievances, both past and present, do exist between these groups, making it easy to believe that Shi’a Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia are in conflict simply because their populations follow different sects of Islam. While this simple explanation may be appealing given the complex nature of the Middle East, the reality of the Iran-Saudi rivalry is driven by much more pragmatic concerns for national security. The shortsighted sectarian lens should not drive US policy; in fact, the United States ought to abstain from direct involvement and allow regional actors, despite their rivalry, to take a greater role.

The most obvious recent example of misplaced sectarian framing in the feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran came after the Saudi execution of 43 Sunni Islamist extremists and four Shi’a Muslim clerics in January 2016. Riots erupted in Iran as mobs attacked Saudi Arabian diplomatic facilities in Tehran and Mashhad, protesters demonstrated in Bahrain and Iraq, and more than a dozen Sunni Arab states in the region severed diplomatic ties with Iran.[i] [ii] Considering the ethnic and religious breakdown of the countries involved, it is easy to see how many could interpret these actions as motivated by sectarianism.[iii] [iv] But despite the veneer of sectarian motive that stoked public anger, the executions and severing of diplomatic ties with Iran should be viewed as calculated, rational moves on the part of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.

Many pundits have incorrectly dismissed this most recent flare up as simply another symptom of sectarian tensions.[v] So what is different this time?

Primarily, as Iran reemerges onto the regional and international stage, oil-rich Arab countries that previously enjoyed a pseudo-hegemonic presence in the region have become justifiably concerned about the shifting balance of power. Hedging against Iranian strength is a rational move for both Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf nations that find themselves squeezed between their feuding neighbors.

Additionally, the conventional military strength of Iran and Saudi Arabia has never been greater and the apparent stakes of strategic dominance may also be at their apex.[vi][vii] As the collapse of the oil market may be exacerbated by the entrance of Iranian supply, the Gulf states’ short-term economic well-being is severely threatened.[viii] Arab Gulf states have already ended fuel subsidies, financial markets have crashed, and Saudi Arabia even floated the idea of having an IPO for the world’s most valuable company.[ix] The ongoing proxy conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen highlight Iran and Saudi Arabia’s shared intention to gain recognition as the regional superpower to be reckoned with in the Middle East. These regional developments can thus be interpreted not in binary sectarian terms, but through a realist lens, as each state’s attempts to protect their security and interests in the region drive foreign policy.

At the same time, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have demonstrated their willingness and desire to work with the international community to gain legitimacy as regional superpowers.[x] [xi] These overtures must not be ignored by American policymakers. American politicians regularly pontificate about the need for regional partners to play a larger role in the provision of security in the Middle East. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have positioned themselves to take a greater role in ensuring security and stability in the region with a much greater capacity for power projection than ever before.

For such a handoff of responsibility to succeed, several things must happen. As US-Iran relations strengthen, Saudi Arabia will have to recognize that its time as the sole regional superpower worth dealing with is coming to an end. Further, the United States must demand assurances from both Saudi Arabia and Iran not to supply arms to terrorist organizations. If these concessions can be made, the Saudis and Iranians should be allowed to take a more dominant role in the provision of security and stability in the Middle East.[xii]

Conflict, maybe even war, is inevitable, and the sectarian narrative of Middle East turmoil is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Despite this reality, allowing Saudi Arabia and Iran a greater role on the front line of such conflicts will, at the very least, allow the United States to disassociate itself with the direct consequences of involvement. Removing the sectarian lens from policymaking discussions and allowing regional powers greater independence and leadership in securing the region would better position the United States to pursue its foreign policy and national security objectives.

[i] Riyham Abd al-Wahab, “Names of 47 Executed by Saudi Arabia Today,” Kalam al-Yaum, January 2, 2016, accessed February 11, 2016,

[ii] Ben Hubbard, “Iranian Protestors Ransack Saudi Embassy After Execution of Shiite Cleric,” The New York Times, January 2, 2016, accessed February 11, 2016,

[iii] “The Greatest Threat in the Middle East,” The Soufan Group, January 8, 2016, accessed February 22, 2016,

[iv] Jacob Olidort, “The Truth About Sectarianism: Behind the Various Strands of Shiite-Sunni Dischord,” Foreign Policy, January 25, 2016, accessed February 23, 2016,

[v] Kim Ghattas, “The Blood Feud That Drives the Middle East,” Foreign Policy, November 13, 2015, accessed February 11, 2016,

[vi] Abbas Qaidaari, “More Planes, More Missiles, More Warships: Iran Icreases Its Military Budget by a Third,” Al Monitor, July 13, 2015, accessed February 11, 2016,

[vii] Abbas Qaidaari, “Iran’s Military Bulks Up With New Russian Tanks,” Al Monitor, December 16, 2015, accessed February 11, 2016,

[viii] Stanley Reed, “Saudi Arabia Keeps Pumping Oil, Despite Financial and Political Risks,” The New York Times, January 27, 2016, accessed February 11, 2016,

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Robert W. Jordan, “Iran Could Become an Economic Superpower,” TIME Magazine, July 16, 2015, accessed February 11, 2016,

[xi] Lara Aryani, “Saudi Arabia and the War of Legitimacy in Yemen,” Jadaliyya, May 2, 2015, accessed February 11, 2016,

[xii] Kenneth M. Pollack, “Fight or Flight: America’s Choice in the Middle East,” Foreign Policy, February 16, 2016, accessed February 23, 2016,

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