Is a Cold War underway between Saudi and Arabia and Iran?

Is a Cold War underway between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

PRO: There is a cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the evidence are:

  • The rivalry in Sunni and Shite Islamic sect
  • Strained diplomatic relations
  • Geopolitical wrangles
  • Practical aspects, where both countries want to have power and influence in the Middle East region
  • Long-standing ideological differences

CON: There is no ongoing cold war between Iran and Saud Arabia

  • The two countries have trade and commercial ties
  • The two nations push to have oil and gas prices increase
  • The two nations are linked by the Islamic Hajj occurring in Mecca and Medina
  • The nation are united by sports and culture
  • Saudi-Iran security pact signed in 2001 dispels the concept of cold war

The latest reports of escalated anxiety in many western nations as well as in Israel regarding the growth of Iran’s nuclear initiative depicts deep concerns on Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East. The Saudi-Iran rivalry is one that is critical and strategic in the region.1 The two nations have a long history regarding their strained relations, and perhaps the new Arab-spring has intensified the matter. The two countries hardly agree on any issue, and this has been attributed to their quest to be one of the most influential nations across the Middle East. Specifically, there is an ongoing cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia and many aspects can best illustrate the current cold war between these two countries. The cold war itself is linked to the wider challenge that Iran is pursuing to control the Middle East region, and more importantly about the nuclear program currently it is doing. Predominantly, Saudi is the huge beneficiary and the central lynchpin of the efforts to lower nuclear deal, since it is an Iran project to dominate the region. Thus, the cold war is a reality; Iran wants to enlarge its influence in the area, so does Saudi.2 Various manifestations of the cold war shall be elucidated in the paper. The rivalry between Iran and Saudi is genuine, and a comprehensive insight on the matter is offered this research.

The rivalry and enmity between Tehran and Riyadh have a long origin. The conflict majorly encompasses ideological, practical, geopolitical, and sectarian aspects. Based on the sectarian aspect, the main issue that propels the cold war is the dissimilarities in the Islamic religion sects living in both countries.3 First, it is important to note that Iran is a Shia Muslin nation populated by the ethnic Persians, while Sunni Islam majorly populates Saudi Arabia. Iran is ruled by the Shia Islamist government, which nonetheless claims to serve the interest of every Muslim and shuns over sectarian articulations.

However, this is contrary to the stance of Saudi that holds ultra-conservative views on Salafi understandings of the Sunni Islam, which explicitly demonizes the Shia Muslims.4

The two nations have different allies and they are even the custodians of the holiest locations of Islam, the Saudi Arabia Monarchy for a long time has been the target of pursuing anti-Western Iranian administration. In fact, Ayatollah Khomeini, the first Supreme Leader of the Republic of Iran, described the Saudi Arabia monarchy unequivocally as the vile, heretics, and ungodly Wahhabis. In particular, he referred Salafi stream of Islamic religion practiced by Saudis as one established by Mohammed Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab. In response, the Saudi Propaganda to that depicted the Iran administration as the purveyor of fitna (cacophony) in the Islamic religion, an outrageous accusation in the Muslim world.

Predominantly, it is much clear that the Sunni and Shite sectarian aspects of Islam propel the dispute and bitter rivalry between these two nations. Historically, Shiites first fell out with the Sunnis regarding succession, especially after the demise of Prophet Mohammed about 632. Since then, the Sunnis have considered the Shiites as the heretical sect. Persians and Arabs, together with many other people have struggled for the resources as well as land found in the Middle East for quite an extended period. Thus, it is evidence that the sectarian aspect is essential to the ongoing cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It would be complex to bring the two rival parties to an agreement as long as the differences in Islamic context persist in the nations. The Sunnis and the Shiites battle for supremacy and they want to control the Islam world. The power battle shall continue, and the cold war between Iran and Saudi is a reality.

Geopolitical tussles are also critical.5 The two nations have some loosely akin camps. For instance, Iran holds an influence in Syria as well as the militant Arab faction, Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran also holds powers in Hamas within the Palestinian boundaries while in Saudi spheres are the Sunni Muslin Gulf monarchies, Morocco, Egypt, and Fatah (the Palestinian faction). Furthermore, the Saudi sides are pro-Western and even lean towards understanding the state of Israel. Primarily, the Iran camp thrives in the region due to its reputation as the opposing camp, which rebelliously opposes Israel and the West. The geopolitics of the Middle East plays a role in the Iranian-Saudi cold war.

The ideological differences also trigger the cold war between the two nations.6 The rivalry expresses itself in the Palestinian-Israeli arena, though in a more multifaceted manner. Iran, primarily a non-Arab nation favoring the militant anti-West view, backs up the Palestinian conflict against Israel. For instance, Tehran is the huge supporter of the Islamic Jihad in Palestine. Saudi Arabia is not opposed to the Israel on the ideological view and even supports diplomatic process to solve the conflict. The Saudi and Iran ideological differences often promote the cold war between the two nations.

The bitter dispute between Iran and Saudi also relates to the practical aspects of power.7 In essence, the Iranian administration wants to growth its influence and power in the region in what it terms the retreating the United States of America influence in the Middle East. A profound insight into this move by Iran shows its ambition to have control in the Persian Gulf, which is still the principal area of oil supplies in the Middle East. The U. S.A, with whom the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain are aligned, presently handles the security of Persian Gulf. The base of the U.S.A Fifth Fleet is in Bahrain, and this is strategically stationed to ensure the security of Gulf States in the wake of any conventional military danger.

For an extended period, Iran has pursued the nuclear program that it says is solely meant for the peaceful intention of generating power. However, the U.S and Saudi Arabia trust that the nuclear program pushed by Iran is intended for creating nuclear weapons. Everyone knows the danger and the devastating effects a nuclear weapon can do. Thus, the U.S. has spearheaded many attempts and agreements to downsize the Iran nuclear program. The former U.S secretary of states, John Kerry, has been leading the diplomatic ties in the bid to lower Iran nuclear program. U.S and its allies view Iran nuclear initiative as one that is dangerous to humanity. They are in the process of making nuclear weapons to have an enormous influence in the Middle East. Recently, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former leader of the Saudi Arabia intelligence authority and even ambassador to the United Kingdom, and the United States of America, openly suggested that if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia would also feel the pressure and make one to neutralize the influence of Iran in the region. Currently, the Saudis depend on the United States of America nuclear umbrella and the antimissile security systems installed in Bahrain to protect the Persian Gulf area.8 Majorly, that defense systems aims to defend and intercept Iranian ballistic missiles that may be used to convey the nuclear warheads. Thus, should Iran advance the nuclear quests, one of the effects may be the certainty of the regions arms race because other nations seek the nuclear capabilities. In the likely event that Iran wholly develops a nuclear ability, Saudi Arabia would possibly purchase one from a Sunni Muslim country of Pakistan to enable it to construct a deterrent.

The Saudis trust that Iran desires to replace the United States of America in the roles as the giver of security of oil resources within the Gulf region. Nonetheless, Riyadh is the most significant US ally in the area. Thus, this places Iran and Saudi Arabia in a context of direct dispute and persistent cold war. The region’s top rivalry, between Tehran and Riyadh, has become promptly and importantly more toxic. In essence, Iran and Saudi Arabia see one another as enemies and are entangled in an intense competition to have dominance and influence in Middle East. The enmity goes beyond the words, and some even support some militant groups as well as proxy forces across the region.9

Even though the two countries have huge rivalry, there are areas where they have come together. First, the two nations engage in commercial and trade ties, which improve their economy. Trade is an essential aspect that connects two or more parties. Even though Saudi threatened to cut the trade links with Iran, especially after the attack of the Saudi Consulate in Tehran that did not happen. Second, the annual Islamic Hajj that normally happens in Mecca is fundamental to the two nation’s unity. Hajj is a vital event in the Islam context and through this; the two Muslim-majority nations come together and pray. The stampede that happened in 2015 in Mecca made Iran to bar her citizens from attending but the whole issue was resolved in January 2017. Third, Iran and Saud always share sports and cultural events that help in uniting the two nations. In addition, both nations have attempted to ensure oil and gas prices increase. They are major producers of oil and their economy depends on oil prices. Thus, they have championed to see oil prices increase. Finally, the Iran-Saudi security pact signed in 2001 has been essential to both nations.

My stance on this subject is clear: there is an ongoing cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In fact, the political disorders within the Arab nation from 2011 intensified and exacerbated the Iran-Saudi cold war. Thus, the Arab revolution resulted in Saudi fears that Iran could seek to benefit and capitalize from instability since the nations were mostly allied to Saudi. This, together with Saudi Arabia dismay at United States readiness to see the rapid death of Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president, acted to generate proactive position from Saudi Arabia. The essential manifestation of this has been mediation by the Saudi-based military force to crush the rebellion in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia was convinced that Iran coordinated the demonstrations by the Shia Muslim majority populace against the Sunni, and even thought that Tehran wanted to spread the Shia sect in the Saudi Eastern Province populated with the Shia minority group.10 The new administration in Bahrain allied to Iran would infer that Tehran controls the western littoral Persian Gulf. Thus, the Saudi must prevent this. The pattern of enormous Saudi Arabia readiness for sovereign action to oppose Tehran threat has been replicated elsewhere. The growing economic help to Jordan and Egypt is aimed to offset the likelihood that anti-Iranian administration may be brought down or weakened by some internal dissent. Thus, the invitations to Morocco and Jordan to link the Gulf Cooperation Council seem essential.

Saudi also supports the Sunni uprising against the Assad administration in Syria, a country dominated by the Alawite sect of Islamic religion, whereas Tehran is directly involved in helping President Assad remain in power.11 The Syrian civil war has seen conflict of interest and the two nations; Iran and Saudi have a role in the war. Saudi Arabia views the conflict as the attempt by the Sunni Arab populace to overthrow the yoke of the Iran-supported administration. Through this school of thought, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulla has close ties with the Sunni clans present in Syria. Hence, Riyadh discerns a tactical chance in the Assad’s current travails.

In Lebanon, Iran and Saudi Arabia are also directly opposed. Tehran has been supporting the far-reaching Shia Hezbollah movement while the March 14 group, the significant opposition the Iran-backed Hezbollah, is supported and financed by Riyadh.

The impending departure of the United States of America from Iraq creates the possibility of a new arena for the Saudi Arabia-Iran cold war. Iran is directly involved in financing and assisting the Shia insurgents who fight the Western forces operating in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan. Saudi, meanwhile, is more concerned about of the rise of pro-Tehran, Shia administration in Iraq following the exit of U.S troops and seeks to enhance the relations with the Sunni Arab paramilitary and political forces in Iraq.

In essence, it is essential to note that the Shia-Sunni conflict is never about religion matters, but it is a signal of the ongoing cold war between Saudi and Iran. The current conflict in Yemen and Syria and is divided between Shia and Sunni. In Iraq, the nation and its current politics are split between the Shia and Sunni Islam, which contributed to the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, a terror organization) among the Sunni group there. Indeed, a religious split between Shia and Sunni Islam exists and is one that dates several years down the line. The Shia and Sunni have been relating well for much of the time in the history of the Middle East and that the sects were not essential for the area’s politics. The narrative changed in 2003 when the U.S led the offensive of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein.12 Hussein was more hostile to both Saudi Arabia and Iran, and these nations viewed him as the wild-eyed danger. There is a purported view that he held the Middle-East region in the unjustifiable kind of balance.

The execution of Saudi diplomat also accelerated the deepening relations between the two nations.13 Iran’s failure to prevent the burning of the Saudi consulate in Tehran also increased the rivalry between the two countries. In fact, Saudi Arabia even threatened to cut commercial ties with Tehran if the issue could not be resolved. Thus, all these points to the growing dispute and conflict between these nations in the Middle East.14

The Saudi Arabia administration has a key strategic partnership with the United States of America. The country has 20 percent proven oil reserves and thus can supply the world with adequate oil for real time. Saudi Arabia is the leading investor in the US economy, where the country imports a huge number of UK and US defense supplies as well as training. Iran, meanwhile, opposes any Saudi ally and its anti-West allies in the region. The rivalry between the two manifests in many ways. The two countries are both important powers in the region, with clients and interests throughout the Middle East.15

In conclusion, the cold war between Iran and Saudi Araba is genuine. The two nations have real rivalry and enmity between each other in the Middle East regions. The key drivers of the cold war been the two countries relate to ideological, practical, geopolitical, and sectarian aspects. The geopolitics of the regions plays a huge role in the area. Iran wants to expand its powers and influence in the region, something that Saudi is also determined to attain. Thus, in such a scenario, it is possible that the two nations would increase their rivalry since they have a long history of strained relations. Sectarian aspects also play a role in the cold war between Iran and Saudi in the regions. Saudis are mainly Sunni Muslims while Iran has Shiite Muslims. Based on the current politics of the regions, the two are divided along the sectarian lines. The two Islam sects hardly relate to each other in the contemporary society. The ideological dissimilarities have heightened the rivalry. Iran wants to use its nuclear program to control the region and countries that are anti-Western, while Saudi, a key ally of the U.S only relies on the U.S nuclear umbrella and controls the Sunni Muslim states. The current conflict in the regions such as the ones currently happening in Syrian and Yemen has also increased the acuity of the Saudi-Iran cold war. Notwithstanding, the Saudi-Iran cold war encompasses an essential strategic process that is ongoing in the Middle East.

Works Cited

Chubin, Shahram, and Charles Tripp. Iran-Saudi Arabia Relations and Regional Order. No. 304. Routledge, 2014. Print.

Ersoy, Eyüp. “The Rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East.” USAK Yearbook of Politics and International Relations, vol. 6 (2013): 295-298.

Gause III, F. Gregory. “Beyond sectarianism: The new Middle East cold war.” Brookings Doha Center Analysis Paper, vol. 11 (2014): 1-27.

Gause III, F. Gregory. “Saudi Arabia: Iraq, Iran, the Regional Power Balance, and the Sectarian Question.” Strategic Insights, vol. 6.2 (2007): 1-8.

Khalidi, Rashid. Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East. New York: Beacon Press, 2009. Print.

Mabon, Simon. Saudi Arabia and Iran: power and rivalry in the Middle East, vol. 132. London: Ib tauris, 2015. Print.

Ryan, Curtis. “The new Arab cold war and the struggle for Syria.” Middle East Report, vol. 262 (2012): 28-31.

Salisbury, Peter. “Yemen and the Saudi–Iranian ‘Cold War’.” Research Paper, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, vol. (2015): 11.

Simon, Mabon. “The Battle for Bahrain: Iranian‐Saudi Rivalry.” Middle East Policy, vol. 19.2 (2012): 84-97.

Valbjørn, Morten, and André Bank. “The new Arab cold war: Rediscovering the Arab dimension of Middle East regional politics.” Review of International Studies, vol. 38.01 (2012): 3-24.

Wehrey, Frederic, et al. Saudi-Iranian relations since the fall of Saddam: Rivalry, cooperation, and implications for US policy. New York: Rand Corporation, 2009. Print.


1Chubin et al., in their book shows that the Saudi-Iran rivalry is one that is critical and strategic in the region.

2Ersoy, in his peer reviewed article about “The Rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East,” points out that the cold between Iran and Saudi is a reality.

3Sectarianism is an essential factor between Iran and Saudi cold war and this has been reiterated in the Gause III book.

4Gause III depicts more strategic insights on the aspect of sectarian to the Iran-Saudi cold war.

5Geopolitical wrangles, a key to the intensified cold war.

6Khalidi points out how differences in ideologies contribute to the enmity between the two nations.

7The practical aspects of power points to the ongoing cold war

8See Ryan 28-31, on how Iran and Saudi wants to expand their influence in the Middle East and this contributes to the cold war.