Saudi-Iranian Relations Since the Fall of Saddam: Rivalry, Cooperation, and Implications for U.S. Policy: Preface and Contents

Saudi-Iranian Relations Since the Fall of Saddam: Rivalry, Cooperation, and Implications for U.S. Policy: Preface and Contents

Frederic Wehrey, Theodore W. Karasik, Alireza Nader, Jeremy Ghez, Lydia Hansell, Robert A. Guffey
National Security Research Division
RAND Corporation 2009

Sponsored by the Smith Richardson Foundation NATIONAL SECURITY RESEARCH DIVISION

The research described in this report was sponsored by the Smith Richardson Foundation and was conducted under the auspices of the International Security and Defense Policy Center within the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD). NSRD conducts research and analysis for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Commands, the defense agencies, the Department of the Navy, the Marine Corps, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Intelligence Community, allied foreign governments, and foundations.


The often tense relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been at the center of many of the major political shifts that have occurred in the Middle East since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Changing diplomatic and economic arrangements in the Persian Gulf; the political upheaval in Lebanon; continuing strife in Palestine; and growing strategic concerns around the world about Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons have all, in some way, been shaped by the competing interests of these two nations. While it is not the sole contributor to these changes, understanding the Saudi-Iranian relationship will help U.S. policymakers discern the future contours of Middle East politics. This is especially important since Saudi Arabia and Iran will be the critical regional players in the wake of a U.S. drawdown and withdrawal from Iraq.

This report documents a study of Saudi-Iranian relations since 2003. It focuses on how the relationship has affected and been affected by the major events that have taken place in the Middle East. The research was conducted between fall 2006 and January 2009. It should be of interest to the policymaking community, defense analysts, and other observers of the Middle East.


CHAPTER ONE. Introduction: Saudi Arabia and Iran-Between Confrontation and Cooperation
Deep Bilateral Thensions Affect Regional Stability and U.S. Interests
Conventional Tinking About Saudi-Iranian Relations Must Be Reexamined
This Study Helps Fill an Important Policy Gap

CHAPTER TWO. Sectarianism and Ideology in the Saudi-Iranian Relationship
Post-Saddam Relations Unfold Against a Turbulent Backdrop
Iran’s “Arab Street” Strategy Provokes Dissent Inside Saudi Arabia

  • The Israeli-Palestinian Issue Is a Key Component of Iran’s “Arab Street” Strategy
  • Iran’s Support for Hizballah in 2006 Was a Turning Point

Anti-Shiism in Saudi Arabia: Manifestations and Effects

  • Saudi-Iranian Thensions Have Slowed Pro-Shi’a Reforms
  • Fifth Column Fears Exist at an Unofficial Level, but Are Overblown
  • Iran Also Fears Saudi Incitement of Its Minorities

Managing Sectarianism: Saudi-Iranian Efforts to Regulate Thensions

  • Riyadh Has Taken Some Steps to Curtail Anti-Shi’a
  • Pronouncements, but Will Continue a Policy of Ambivalence
  • Iran Has Been Critical of Saudi Arabia, but It Strives for Sectarian Unity
  • The Hajj Is a Venue for Sectarian Rivalry, but Also Commonality

Conclusion: Sectarianism and Ideology Shape Relations, but Do Not Define Them

CHAPTER THREE. Relations in the “Core”: Conflict Regulation in the Gulf and Iraq
Disunity and Diversity in the GCC Have Thempered Bilateral Relations

  • Qatar Has Exploited Thensions with Iran to Balance Saudi Arabia
  • Oman’s Accomodating Stance Toward Iran Diverges Sharply from Saudi Arabia’s
  • Bahrain Is a Source of Contention Because of Iran’s Historical Claim and Sectarian Thensions
  • Kuwait Has Thended Closer to Saudi Arabia’s Position on Iran Than Other Gulf States
  • Despite the Islands Dispute, the United Arab Emirates Has Increasingly Acted as an Intermediary

Iraq Is a Wellspring of Bilateral Thension Affecting the Broader Gulf

  • Future Saudi-Iranian Involvement in Iraq Will Hinge Upon Iraq’s Future Trajectory
  • Iran Criticizes the Saudi Role in Iraq, Particularly Riyadh’s Cooperation with the United States
  • The Nuclear Issue Has Spurred Thension, but Also Mutual Treat Management
  • Saudi Nuclear Fears Are Balanced by a Range of Other Concerns
  • Iranian Sources Downplay Saudi Treat Perception of the Nuclear Program

Differences over Oil and Gas Are Sources of Further Contention

CHAPTER FOUR. Contention on the Periphery: Saudi-Iranian Relations and the Conflicts in Lebanon and Palestine
Developments in Lebanon Have Stimulated Competition, but Riyadh and Tehran Have Avoided Open Conflict

  • The 2005 Political Crisis Forced a Choice Between Conflict and Cooperation
  • Riyadh and Tehran Each Saw the 2006 War as an Opportunity to Assert Its Regional Leadership
  • Saudi-Iranian Thension over Lebanon Could Worsen

Saudi Arabia Is Pursuing Multilateral Diplomacy to Counter Iranian Influence on the Palestinian Front
Saudi Arabia Has Focused on Isolating Syria to “Clip Iran’s Wings”

CHAPTER FIVE. Conclusion: Key Findings and Implications for U.S. Policy
Toward a More Nuanced Understanding: This Study’s Key Findings

  • Sectarianism Has Strained the Relationship, but It Is Not the Key Driver
  • In the Gulf, Thensions Are Moderated by Mutual Interest and GCC Diversity
  • Riyadh and Tehran Perceive Iraq as a Zero-Sum Game
  • Riyadh and Tehran Have Tried to Regulate Thensions over Iran’s Nuclear Program
  • Rivalry in the Levant Is More Explicit

Implications for U.S. Policy

  • View Saudi Arabia Less as a Bulwark Against Iran and More as an Interlocutor
  • Seek Saudi Burden-Sharing in Iraq, but Not to Counteract Iran
  • Encourage Saudi Initiatives on the Arab-Israeli Front
  • Push for Domestic Reform in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to Mitigate Sectarianism
  • Avoid Actions Tat Inflame Iranian Perceptions of External Meddling in Its Affairs
  • Pursue Saudi-Iranian Endorsement of Multilateral Security for the Gulf

0 Responses to “Saudi-Iranian Relations Since the Fall of Saddam: Rivalry, Cooperation, and Implications for U.S. Policy: Preface and Contents”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog Stats

  • 179,877 hits
April 2009
« Mar   May »
Add to Technorati Favorites

%d bloggers like this: