by JUDY DEMPSEY
A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Cornelius Adebahr – Associate in Carnegie’s Europe Program
They might, and one could be inclined to say that they should—if only for them to see how devastating their unchecked rivalry is. After all, it took France and Germany a number of wars to overcome their hereditary enmity and embark on the path of European integration. However, the cost of war, for the people in an already war-torn region as well as for the world as a whole, would be too high to contemplate such prospects lightly.
Ironically, Iran—the West’s longtime adversary—has proved more rational over the past couple of years than the West’s ally, Saudi Arabia, has in the last twelve months. Tehran has little interest in starting a war that would endanger the economic and political benefits promised by the July 2015 deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Riyadh, in contrast, acts like a cornered boxer incalculably fighting for survival.
This leaves only bad options for Europe and the United States. They should refrain from taking sides, including through arms sales, and press both parties to backtrack. Yet given their lack of real influence, the Western partners should explore how a grand bargain with China, India, and Russia in the framework of the United Nations could help stabilize the Middle East at least for the next decade. With the region going up in flames and its powers behaving irresponsibly, there is no alternative to outside interference, as bad a taste as this may have.
Koert Debeuf – Project coordinator of the “World Leaders on Transitions towards Democracy” publication at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance
No, Saudi Arabia and Iran will not go to war. At least, not a real war in which both countries declare war on each other. There are two important reasons for which one can be pretty sure of this.
First, Saudi Arabia does not have the military capacity to go to war with Iran. Even though Riyadh is investing billions of dollars in the newest military equipment, it doesn’t have serious ground troops. The only way for Saudi Arabia to fight a war is by making use of the armies of other countries like Egypt. It is very unlikely that a state such as Egypt will be keen to go to war with Iran only because of the Sunni link between the Egyptians and the Saudis.
Second, both Iran and Saudi Arabia know that a real military confrontation would plunge the entire region into complete chaos. Today, both countries do fight smaller proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. But a real war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and its allies, on the one hand, and Shia Iran, on the other, would be a catastrophe for both countries’ ambitions. Iran wants to play the role of the new reliable partner in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia wants to assume leadership in fighting instability, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and the collapse of neighboring countries. A war would put an end to the long-term strategies of both Iran and Saudi Arabia.
That’s what both countries learned from the devastating war between Iraq and Iran from 1980 to 1988. There are no winners in a regional clash of the titans.
Ana Echagüe – Senior researcher at FRIDE
It is unlikely that Iran and Saudi Arabia will engage in direct confrontation. But the escalating tension between the two countries and the recent severing of diplomatic ties will further inflame sectarianism and likely thwart negotiations on resolving the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.
Saudi Arabia has become increasingly desperate as it witnesses Iran’s reintegration into the international arena and seems to be grasping at straws in an effort to gain the upper hand in the region through a more assertive foreign policy. In Yemen, Riyadh is bogged down and garnering international condemnation. In Syria, Saudi attempts to dislodge Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by supporting the opposition have been unsuccessful, and Russia, despite Saudi courting, has intervened on the side of the regime. Saudi efforts to cobble together a viable representation for the Syrian opposition have also faltered amid recriminations of Saudi backing of extremist groups. Riyadh even botched its latest bid for leadership of the Sunni world through the establishment of an Islamic coalition to fight terrorism, as some would-be members refused to join and others claimed they had not been consulted.
Iran, the United States, and Russia have all signaled their interest in de-escalating the tension. But Riyadh’s knee-jerk reaction of fueling sectarian flames to deflect regional and domestic pressures, while not new, is especially dangerous in such a charged environment.
Lina Khatib – Senior research associate with the Arab Reform Initiative
The current tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the most serious between the two rivals in decades. But its danger transcends bilateral Saudi-Iranian relations. While the tension is unlikely to escalate into direct military confrontation, its repercussions are already being felt in the proxy wars fought by Iran and Saudi Arabia, mainly in Syria and Yemen.
The tension is partly the result of Riyadh’s loss of patience with Tehran. Saudi Arabia sees Iran’s embrace by the international community after the July 2015 nuclear deal as an indirect endorsement of the expansion of Iran’s regional influence at a time when the West is not paralleling this embrace with reassurances to Saudi Arabia that the kingdom considers satisfactory.
Moreover, Iran and its allies are not acting in a way that shows Saudi Arabia that they are serious about negotiations on a political transition in Syria, as seen in theassassination of Syrian opposition leader Zahran Alloush on December 25, 2015, a month before peace talks were meant to begin.
But Saudi Arabia’s reaction to Iran’s position further endangers the peace processes in Syria and Yemen. There can never be a resolution to either conflict without both Saudi Arabia and Iran being on board. Solving the diplomatic crisis between the two countries must therefore be of utmost urgency for the international community.
Rem Korteweg – Senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform
If “war” means military clashes between Saudi and Iranian forces, then probably not. Neither Tehran nor Riyadh has an interest in direct military hostilities, and the latest escalation will not be enough to change that calculus now. The vast ballistic and conventional arsenals of both states should be effective deterrents. Iran will not invade Saudi Arabia, or vice versa. The Strait of Hormuz will not be mined (as it was during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s). But Saudi-Iranian relations are likely to become more tense, more adversarial, and more violent.
The two countries are already at daggers drawn. Their involvement in proxy conflicts in Syria and Yemen, their economic competition as Saudi Arabia tries to defend its share of the global oil market in anticipation of new Iranian exports, and Riyadh’s deep suspicion of Iran’s nuclear program and the July 2015 nuclear accord mean the situation is volatile and dangerous.
Making matters worse, a number of Arab countries support Riyadh’s position, further deepening Sunni-Shia divisions. Outside powers, like the United States, seem unable to cool tempers. So expect sabers to rattle: proxy conflicts may flare, missiles may be tested, and angry mobs may take to the streets, but the world will be spared an all-out Saudi-Iranian war—hopefully.
Marc Pierini – Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
A war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is indeed a possibility, but it is probably not the most imminent threat resulting from the acute crisis between the two countries.
The real game changer in the Middle East in 2015 was the deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany on Tehran’s nuclear research program. Apart from ending the sanctions regime against Iran, the nuclear deal has had a massive effect on diplomatic relations in the region: Iran is back as a major player, and this is felt not only in Syria and Lebanon but also in Yemen and Bahrain. The Sunni-Shia rivalry for leadership in Muslim countries is clearly present in the background.
In addition, the Russian intervention in Syria from September 2015 onward has had the effect of somewhat limiting Iran’s influence on developments on the ground, although both Moscow and Tehran strongly support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
As it stands today, the diplomatic row between Iran and Saudi Arabia complicates matters for the formation of a government in Lebanon and for the upcoming conference on a political transition in Syria following the UN Security Council resolution of December 18, 2015. Without a minimum of understanding between Tehran and Riyadh, these two issues will not move forward.
Walter Posch – Middle East security expert at the Austrian National Defense Academy
No, Iran and Saudi Arabia will not go to war, but there will be no peace either. Rather, one can expect a year of increasing tensions.
Saudi-Iranian competition is the basic strategic equation in the Middle East. Both sides use sectarianism to promote their regional interests. But playing the sectarian card is a risky endeavor, because both states have sizable confessional minorities: Sunnis in Iran and Shias in Saudi Arabia. And in both countries, bigots doubt the loyalty of their minorities. The interconnectedness of domestic minorities and regional policies makes any protest or demand for more confessional tolerance an issue of domestic security.
On the regional level, Iran has suffered a loss of influence in Bahrain, Yemen, Sudan, and Nigeria but could expand its position in Iraq and hold ground in Syria. It is in Syria that the confessional conflict spiraled out of control and Riyadh and Tehran understood that their respective positions are irreconcilable. Iran’s regaining of international respectability after the July 2015 nuclear agreement irritated the Saudis, who do their best to further isolate Tehran.
Riyadh certainly calculated the angry reaction by Shia mobs in Tehran to the January 2 execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. The ensuing condemnation by the UN Security Council of the mobs’ attack on the Saudi embassy in Iran brings back a little bit of Tehran’s international isolation. The episode definitely puts Saudi Arabia in a stronger position for negotiations on a political transition in Syria.
Marietje Schaake – Vice chair of the European Parliament Delegation for Relations With the United States
War between Tehran and Riyadh would be irrational, and the blame game of who escalated first should stop. There are many reasons to be concerned about the reckless acts of Saudi Arabia and Iran alike, particularly in a Middle East that already sees so much bloodshed.
World leaders were quick to seek de-escalation, even before Saudi leaders cut off trade and airline connections with Iran. There is too much at stake, particularly when it comes to the urgent need to end the war in Syria, for which both Iran and Saudi Arabia need to be fully on board.
The tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia come at a time when both Europe and the United States are increasingly reluctant to treat Iran as a pariah, while Saudi Arabia has been a “partner.” But it is a partner that does not take advice even from its U.S. ally, which warned against executing Shia Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. The results of cooperating with Saudi Arabia should be reassessed.
When German intelligence warned in December 2015 of the dangers of the reckless new leadership in Riyadh, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier reiterated that this statement did not reflect German foreign policy toward the kingdom. It should. In fact, the entire EU should reassess its partnership with Saudi Arabia. It should build a more even-handed approach toward both Iran and Saudi Arabia, one based on principles.
Ulrich Speck – Senior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy
A direct war between the two is unlikely, as it is difficult to see what either could gain from it. The problem underlying the current crisis in the Middle East is twofold: first, Saudi Arabia and Iran both have the ambition to become the regional hegemon; and second, many states in the region are weak and ridden by internal conflicts. As a consequence, there is a complex mix of direct intervention and proxy war in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
The West shouldn’t take sides in this conflict, as both Riyadh and Tehran are equally dismissive when it comes to human rights, democratic governance, and the market economy. Neither regime is stable, nor is either a reliable ally.
In the short term, the West should work with Iran and Saudi Arabia to manage regional conflicts as far as possible. In the longer term, what matters most is that modern, capable states are established in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and that other countries in the region such as Lebanon and Jordan remain stable.
Ultimately, the Middle East needs a broader security architecture. But that is far off, as the United States—the only country that could provide security in a credible way—is very unlikely to reengage in the region.
- This article first appeared on Carnegie Europe