THE KINGDOM of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran are engaged in a decades-long struggle for dominance. But unlike the popular image of two uniformed militaries fighting each other on defined battlefields, this conflict relies on covert actions to undermine each other and achieve their goals. In the 21st century, regional conflicts no longer occur in a vacuum and the outcome of this power struggle carries global implications. A September 14 attack on two major Saudi oil processing facilities caused international concerns and threatens to escalate an already tense situation to a new, dangerous level.
A tense situation made worse
Two major oil processing facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia were crippled in a series of devastating attacks on September 14 in what was described by Saudi Aramco* as a, “...terrorist attack with projectiles.” Several hours following the attack, Houthi rebels fighting Saudi troops in Yemen claimed responsibility behind the attack through their TV channel Al Masirah, with Houthi spokesman Mohammed al-Bukhaiti stating, “We confirm that the Yemeni forces are the ones who hit the oilfields... We don’t need to provide evidence.”
The attack resulted in what Bloomberg describes as “the largest disruption to Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) production in 16 years.” While no deaths or injuries were reported by Saudi Aramco there was a substantial economic loss with net domestic oil production of Saudi Arabia being cut by half, and the following loss had caused global oil prices to immediately spike by 10%. Although Houthi rebels in Yemen have claimed responsibility for the attack, their claim was rejected by the Saudis and Americans, who hold the Iranian government accountable for the attack. The accusation of Iranian responsibility was later joined in by Britain, France, and Germany in a joint statement released on Sept. 23, 2019.
Claims of the Iranian government’s responsibility for the attack later were supported by an anonymous U.S. official, claiming in an interview with CBS News, that the United States is in possession of evidence that allegedly proves Iranian complicity. This evidence comes in the form of satellite photographs that depicts the Iranian military in the process of preparing for the attack at an air base in southwestern Iran. The United States alleges that 18 drones and 7 missiles were launched from this base on the night of the attack, as they flew approximately 400 miles through Kuwaiti and Saudi airspace at a low altitude to avoid radar detection before eventually striking their targets**. The Saudi Arabian government presented evidence implicating Iran at an official press conference held on September 18 in the form of wreckage alleged to be from an Iranian built missile.
Iran denies any involvement in the attacks and maintains that the Houthi rebels are solely responsible, with Iranian President HasanRhouhani arguing that the attack was a legitimate defensive response by the Houthi rebels to Saudi military operations in Yemen.
This conflict has historical roots
Conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran has its origins in the American-Soviet Cold War, ancient religious divides, and a historical rivalry for dominance. Understanding these is key to developing a complete understanding of the situation today.
The origins of this conflict date back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution during which the Shah of Iran and his government were overthrown. ShahMohammad Pahlavi had enjoyed absolute power since the 1953 coup orchestrated by the United States as the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was removed from power. This American effort was in response to Iranian plans to push western companies out of Iran’s lucrative oil market***. With the coup’s success the United States was able to use Iran to further their goals in the region, primarily containing the spread of Soviet influence into the Middle East. The Shah’s reign saw a drastic change in Iranian society with rights for women and religious minorities who were previously treated with indifference, acknowledged. While such reforms may appear positive from a western-liberal perspective, these changes were met with severe opposition from Iran’s deeply religious and conservative population. The Shah’s new system had bred anti-American sentiments among the conservative Iranian population that found a leader in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, an exiled religious leader and opponent of the government****. The Ayatollah and his followers managed to overthrow the Shah in 1979 and established a new Iranian Islamic theocracy that was openly hostile towards the United States.
Across the Strait of Hormuz sits Saudi Arabia, a longtime ally of the United States. Like Pre-revolution Iran, Saudi Arabia was also a key component in the American Cold War policy of containment. While the Cold War plays a role in this relationship, the roots of the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict stem from the religious and cultural clashes between the two countries. Saudi Arabia has long seen itself as the center of the Arab world, both culturally and religiously. Saudi Arabian borders contain several of Islam’s most religiously significant cities such as Medina and Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed renowned for hosting millions of Muslim pilgrims every year*****. The emergence of the Iranian theocracy is often seen as the origin of Iran and Saudi Arabia’s tensions as Saudi Arabia’s status as religious center of the Muslim world was threatened for the first time.
This hostility was further aggravated by the Sunni-Shia divide; Islam is not a homogenous religion but is primarily divided into several branches, the Sunni and the Shia. This split goes back to 632 AD following the death of the Prophet Muhammed as the fight over the succession caused deep segregation of the Muslim world. At present, the Sunni make up 85% of the world’s Muslim population while the Shia is about 15%. The Sunni-Shia divide is accountable for the series of conflicts in the Middle East, and naturally serves as a point of tension between the Shia-dominant Iran and the Sunni-dominant Saudi Arabia.
The Yemen crisis is a focal point
Even though Iran and Saudi Arabia are the two giant regional players in the Middle East, they have not directly engaged with each other in open combat—making use of third-party organizations to fight on their behalf. Yemen is a prime example as to how this conflict is fought.
Since 2015 the tribal people of northern Yemen known as the Houthis have been fighting a civil war against government forces. This culminated in direct Saudi involvement aiming to support the Yemeni government against the Houthi rebellion, that has devolved into a drawn-out ground war.
Iranian involvement in Yemen has been suspected by many since the beginning of this conflict. Like Iran the Houthi rebels are primarily Shia and are in a perfect position to strike Saudi Arabia. And if Saudi Arabia’s accusations are to be believed then this support is substantial. While an accurate estimate of Iranian support is impossible, it would seem justified from a strategic point of view as the Houthi rebels can be used to weaken Saudi Arabia’s perceived strength and influence in the region. This will allow Iran to more effectively support their allies in Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon, which is in line with Iran’s strategy of pressuring and containing Israel******.
Iranian and Saudi goals
Domestic policies also play into this conflict. Saudi Vision 2030 is a massive effort to diversify its oil export economy by turning Saudi Arabia into a popular tourist destination and the center of entertainment in the Middle East*******. This program has faced setbacks, as the disappearance of Washington Post reporter and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi along with the war in Yemen have negatively impacted Saudi Arabia’s international reputation, leading to numerous companies pulling their support from the plan. With an increasingly aggressive Iran making moves in the region, the Saudi government is not able to lose support for its long-term strategic goals such as Saudi Vision 2030. Increased Iranian pressure has also led to Saudi Arabia involving itself in other regional disputes. In Syria, anti-Assad forces have received large amounts of weapons allegedly paid for by the Saudi government******** and Saudi Arabia has been coordinating with U.S. efforts to train opposition troops*********. The importance of Saudi Vision 2030 can’t be overstated, but in the meantime their most urgent goal is to contain Iran and maintain their current position as the leader in Arab affairs.
The most pressing concern for Iran is weakening Saudi Arabian influence in Middle Eastern affairs so that they can deal with other regional challenges, namely the United States and Israel. While quantifying Iran’s involvement in Yemen is difficult, Syria presents a clear picture of how far the Tehran government is willing to go, reportedly losing over 2,100 troops on the Syrian battlefields********** and is spending $6 billion every year to support Assad’s government according toStefan de Mistura, former United Nations Envoy to Syria. Due to Syria’s central location in the Middle East, Iran is willing to invest large amounts of manpower and finance on Syria. From Syria, Iran would have easier access to allies in Lebanon such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and other anti-Israeli groups operating in the area. This policy of supporting armed groups runs the risk of further escalation, as the attack on the Saudi Arabian oil refineries has demonstrated.
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Regardless of who is truly responsible for the attack in Saudi Arabia, regional tensions are at an all-time high. While both sides have avoided open warfare up to this point, any further escalations in this decades-long conflict threaten to plunge the region, and potentially the world, into war. Any clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran or their allies will cause massive damage to the global economy and global order.
*Saudi Aramco: The nationalized petroleum and natural gas company of Saudi Arabia
***British Broadcasting Corporation
*****Middle East Monitor
******Global Security Review
*******Saudi Vision 2030