Saudi and Iranian Manipulation of Sectarian Violence as an Incubator for an Emerging Balance of Power

The history of man is the history of crimes, and history can repeat. So information is a defense. Through this we can build, we must build, a defense against repetition.

—Simon Wiesenthal

The theory that history repeats itself has never been truer than in the Middle East. In a region that has always been what strategist George Friedman calls a “geopolitical flashpoint,” 2016 has started to become reminiscent of 1979. This past January, the House of Saud beheaded a Shi’a Sheikh, Nimr al Nimr, prompting Iranians to take to the streets and torch the Saudi Arabian embassy. Saudi Arabia, just like in 1988, has strangled relations with their Iranian neighbor; and both states have embarked on a power-grab. Iran has incited the Kingdom’s Gulf neighbors with Shi’a minorities—most notably, the Houthis in Yemen—to liberate themselves from their Sunni leaders. Across the Levant, North Africa, and the Gulf, the gloves have come off and the two powerhouses have conducted interventionist strategies, funded terrorist organizations, propped up dictatorships, and manipulated religious fervor—all to fuel a sectarian conflict in this winner-takes-all game.

Many scholars and critics have deemed the violence in Syria as a turbulent power vacuum. They are correct; a witch’s brew of dictatorial greed, decades of religious persecution, cultural and religious landscape at odds, and vulnerable economic conditions have produced one of the largest conflicts since the conclusion of the Second World War. We have come to know this conflict as an open invitation for foreign intervention. But many perceive Syria and Iraq as the second chapter of the Cold War, a stage for Russia and the United States to carry out countering strategic interests through proxy warfare. I will argue that this perception is clouded. The regional sectarian violence is really a theatrical showdown between two regional rising stars: Iran and Saudi Arabia, who puppeteer such violence to incubate a new balance of power in the Middle East, where Iran’s rising power unhinges Saudi hegemony.

Questioning a Balance

In international relations, balance of power theory endures, yet is seldom experimented upon. If Kenneth Waltz saw the Middle East today, he might consider it a picturesque representation of anarchy. The competitors view themselves as custodians of Islam, vying for control in a region that has lacked a consistent multipolar power dynamic. Hans Morgenthau deems that the balance of power is a “perennial element” in international relations, regardless of the “contemporary conditions” of the international system. Many scholars are looking to the Middle East as a hub that places traditional realpolitik back in business—and see that play out between the power plays between Tehran and Riyadh.

In the balance of power, states use various mechanisms to balance. There is equilibrium of power that mandates states adjust accordingly; when one makes gains, the other must outmaneuver to re-balance the scales. In the Middle East, however, the mechanisms of balance of power differ from those in the West. States do not necessarily focus on power plays amongst one another, but rather on what scholar Stacie Goddard calls the “dynamics of collective mobilization”and struggles for influence among political communities. To manipulate the balance of power in the Middle East, states must first establish one – something both Tehran and Riyadh have done through decades of military, economic, and religious expansion. States’ mechanisms to achieve regional power are not as simple as the West’s, and concentrate primarily on the nationalization and expansion of crude oil industries, leveraging their control of regional institutions (like the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the United Arab League) tapping into the anger of the Sunni-Shi’a divide, feeding nationalist fires, vying for huge arms deals with Western countries, and competing for great powers’ good graces. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been at odds over the region’s balance of power, moving levers to advance their position and hollow out a decaying power structure.

Exploring Historical Ramifications

Is some of this sectarian violence a motive that truly reflects the interests of both states, or a sway of rhetoric?  Before looking forward to understand these possibilities, we must reflect on the history between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Regional supremacy in the Arab World has been a strategic goal of Iran since the days of the Shah and since the al-Saud family’s rise to power. While these objectives are not new, the opportunities to achieve them are. The weakened governments in Iraq and Syria, the dormant Shi’a minority populations under Saudi-supporting leaders, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action under the International Atomic Energy Agency all bolster Iran’s hopes to spread its influence in the Arab World, and incentivize Saudi Arabia to halt them in their steps.

Since the rule of the House of Saud, Sunni Wahhabism has thrived in Saudi society today and dictates the shape of its foreign policy. When the Crown Prince Saud came to power in 1953, he seized the opportunity to enhance the state’s presence in international trade. The years that followed introduced OPEC in 1960, the OIC in 1969, ownership of Aramco in 1980, and founded the GCC in 1981. Throughout this period, the Saudis learned the importance of dollar diplomacy and economic mastery. The 1990’s saw the al Sauds using the American relationship to advance their position and maintain stability in neighboring states by, for example, requesting American intervention in Kuwait in 1990. But it was in 2011 when the state of the union began to evolve for Saudi Arabia. The Arab Spring struck a chord with the al Sauds, prompting the government to ban public protests by Shi’a minorities in the East, to crack down in neighboring Bahrain, and to violate several international human rights obligations. Post Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia has sighed relief in maintaining regional control, yet looks upon their neighbors with caution.

Shi’a Islam has always been a key fixture in Persian society in Iran, and for centuries. But it was in 1979 when the Shah was exiled and the Islamic fundamentalist,Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power, spreading messages of anti-Americanism, call for the Shah’s extradition, the infamous Hostage Crisis at the United States Embassy in Tehran, and attempting to thread Shi’a Islam and nationalism together. It was during the 1980’s when Iran closely aligned itself with Russia, pushing the United States in the direction of the Saudis—establishing a dynamic that served as the “status quo” until the twenty-first century. The United States introduced the first round of sanctions against Iran in the 1990s, with oil and trade sanctions justified by an alleged support of terrorist organizations. The second wave began in the early 2000s, with the IAEA suspicious of uranium enrichment programs and a United Nations investigation, continued with the 2005 discovery of Iran’s violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Just in 2015, the international community has reached a long-awaited Joint-Comprehensive Plan of Action with the Iranian government on limiting the state’s nuclear production facilities through inspections.

The Middle East’s balance of power crucially shifted in 1979. The Iranian Revolution exacerbated Western-Iranian tensions and swung the United States to the side of the Saudis. The decades that followed saw the rivals compete for foreign alliances and play their animosity out through calculated measures, such asattacking embassies in 1988, cutting diplomatic relations in 1989, and carrying out small proxy wars in neighboring conflicts, such as Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, and of course, Syria.

Sectarianism as a Political Sheath

Today we are witnessing the second phase of this tense relationship come to fruition. This has been accomplished through both states’ angering sectarian factions. Farea al Muslimi, an analyst, states, “All the sectarian rhetoric is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for these regimes who love to play the sectarian card.” In 1991, Iran and Saudi Arabia resumed diplomatic relations, and both nations experienced a relatively friendly period until the American intervention in Iraq in 2003, where Saudi Arabia perceived Iran manipulating Shi’a militants with the defeat of the Ba’athist Regime. Scholar Brendan O’Neill claims that “much of the bloodshed in Syria is an expression of the Saudi-Iranian battle for the vacuum created by the post-Cold War,” and this rings true when applying balance of power theory.

When the Arab Spring was alive and well, Iran perceived these uprisings as precious opportunities to support Shi’a minorities in neighboring Gulf States, while Saudi Arabia saw it necessary to defend them. I say this because in 2011, Bahrain experienced attempted revolution with the return of Shi’a activist Hassan Mushaima—believed collaborate with Iran—and popular demand for a republic. Days later, Saudi Arabia and the GCC sent military-transport vehicles into Bahrain to stop the uprising in its path. But this is a two-way street. One can see Iranian attempts for influence across the region through the funding of terrorism and revolutionary missions. In Lebanon, Iran has funded the Shi’a terrorist organization, Hezbollah. In Palestine, Iran has been linked with Hamas. In Bahrain—a 61.3% majority Shi’a country under Sunni leadership—it has been hinted Iran encouraged Shi’a citizens to protest al Khalifa’s leadership. In Yemen, Iran funded the Zaidi Shi’a rebels, called Houthis, in a successful attack upon the Yemeni government and President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, forcing him to flee in February 2015. Saudi Arabia followed up with aggressive airstrikes to defend their custodianship of Sunni Islam and purview of their southern neighbors. In Syria, both powers vie for influence among the sectarian divide, with Iran deploying their elite Revolutionary Guards to defend the Alawite Assad Regime and allegedly pour$9 billion into the war effort. This cat and mouse game has molded Iran into of a regional risk-taker and Saudi Arabia into a vulnerable monarchy, cornered and cautious of its neighbors, yet ready to defend those loyal to Sunni religiosity.

Yet, if one singular event turned this cold war between Tehran and Riyadh hot, it has been the Iranian nuclear deal. The inclusion of Iran in the international community is a fundamental threat to Saudi Arabia’s status quo, a status quo backed by a series of American administrations and supplemented through an expensive oil trade that ensured Saudi Arabia a strategic advantage over Tehran. The relationship with the United States has been integral in striking a trulyunipolar balance of power in the region, and both states understand that. Saudi Arabia, along with the rest of Gulf countries, knows too well the historical lesson that a weakened relationship with the United States leaves them at the doorstep of their foes. A long-standing ally of the United States, Saudi Arabia feels“betrayed, and now they feel like they must do something, even if it’s the wrong thing.” Riyadh sees the Iran nuclear deal in zero-sum terms and has calculated a more aggressive strategy against Iranian presence in the Gulf, further enhancing this rivalry. To mask this insecurity, Saudi Arabia has been buffering its defense systems. Riyadh has established a 34-member military campaign against terrorism, with states such as Qatar and Pakistan, an alliance that alienates Iran, Syria, and Iraq, despite sharing a common enemy: ISIS. Saudi Arabia’s aggressive foreign policy leaves it vulnerable in the region. Its friends in the Gulf have prompted questioning, its reliable allies in the Levant have frayed under the spark of revolution, and Iran has broken the status quo.

Manipulating the Threads of Sectarianism

For these two regional powers, the logic of driving such a hard-lined sectarian agenda lies in maintaining domestic stability. Escalating sectarian tensions does not only establish a state as a custodian of its religious sect, but also attempts to promote nationalism among citizens.  As has been the case of stirring nationalism at home, foreign threats have also assisted in this pursuit. ISIS—while a threat to national security—has furthered nationalism, especially within Iran. ISIS has deemed itself the true representation of Sunni Islam and has persecuted Shi’a militants, governments, and civilians as a result. While ISIS brands itself as Sunni, it has been a clear-cut national security threat in Saudi Arabia. Yet, Saudi Arabia has tried to catapult itself into the role of commander in an Arab operationagainst the Islamic State. While it has shared success in isolating Iran, it has garnered several problems in its organization. First of all, Saudi Arabia has named the mission, “The Islamic Coalition,” yet has isolated important Muslim-majority states in the region, such as Syria and Iraq.

When the Kingdom executed al Nimr and ceased diplomatic relations with Iran—a calculated public relations strategy—it expected GCC states to follow their lead. Thus far, only Bahrain and Sudan have cut relations with Tehran, and the United Arab Emirates has promised to “downgrade” their relations with the Persian state. Yet the remaining series of the Saud family’s allies have remained—an unflinching demonstration of shifting confidence between traditional alliances.

Theorizing for the Future

Saudi Arabia and Iran’s rivalry in the region will certainly not alter the global power balance, but it will establish a new dynamic in a region. Looking forward, there are many reasons for Saudi Arabia to be cautious, as there many opportunities and bellicose maneuvers for Iran to seize.

When applying balance of power theory to Middle Eastern sectarian violence, one will realize that two powerhouses are not only tapping into existing ancient Islamic lesions, but also adopting a religious persona that compromises any political exhaustion of the Arab Spring and a fraying political system of dictators. Moving forward, government officials and citizens should be concerned that a rivalry between the two giants will give the Islamic State more leeway to operate and execute their objectives. In addition, the deteriorating relations will deter the momentum of the Syrian Peace Process, and establish an undercurrent of tension that will undercut whatever diplomatic resolution comes to fruition.

Through this we can build, we must build, a defense against repetition.

Caroline Rose is a student in the School of International Service class of 2018. She can be contacted at

All views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Mind or of Clocks and Clouds.

Caroline Rose

About Caroline Rose

Caroline is a fourth-year student in the School of International Service, majoring in International Relations with a concentration in Foreign Policy and the Middle East. Caroline is a staff writer for the Middle Eastern and North African column. She serves as the CEO of the American University International Relations Society and is a member of the Model United Nations team on campus.