Will Iran and Saudi Arabia Go to War? How the Bitter Rivals Stack Up in Terms of Alliances

Saudi Arabia fears an 'imminent attack' on it by Iran, according to intelligence inputs passed on by Riyadh to Washington. Tehran would also launch attack on Iraq's Erbil and other cities apart from attacking Saudi territory, the Kingdom told the United States, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

The US acknowledged the threat, saying that it is prepared to safeguard the security of its regional partners. "We are concerned about the threat picture, and we remain in constant contact through military and intelligence channels with the Saudis ... We will not hesitate to act in the defense of our interests and partners in the region," a White House National Security Council spokesperson said, according to the WSJ.

Allies of Iran and Saudi Arabia
Allies of Iran and Saudi Arabia Wikimedia Commons / Noah

Saudi Arabia says Iran would use such an attack to divert attention from the anti-hijab protests that have been raging in the country for several weeks.

Iran says foreign powers such as the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are instigating the anti-government protests in the country. "You are involved in this matter and know that you are vulnerable," General Hossein Salami, the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, had told Saudi Arabia last month.

Fight for Regional Dominance and Proxy Wars

Iran and Saudi Arabia, which vie for regional supremacy in the region as well as the leadership of the wider group of Islamic nations, have had tense relations for a long time. Their political differences are worsened by the religious ones, with Saudi Arabia easily being the leader of the world Sunni community while Iran is the unquestioned leader of the Shia.

The two regional powers have ever been at war but have been waging proxy wars on different turfs. Strategic success has shifted at various points in favor of each of the rivals, depending on the wider global power dynamics.

Role of US and Russia

While Saudi Arabia enjoys the full-throttled support of the United States, Iran has enjoyed spells of Russian support in key strategic fronts, such as in the Syrian conflict.

Ebrahim Raisi, Iran president-elect
Ebrahim Raisi, Iran president Wikimedia Commons

Iran Wins the Fight to Save Assad

The US and Riyadh wanted Bashar al-Assad to be ousted but Iran supported him. Assad has prevailed with strong Russian backing, much to the disappointment of Saudi Arabia. With Assad remaining in power in Damascus, Iran has a staunch ally in the close proximity of Saudi Arabia.

Tehran's Success in Iraq

Iraq's erstwhile Sunni leader Saddam Hussein was a thorn in the side of Iran, but the US took him down in 2003 at the behest of Saudi Arabia. This, paradoxically, brought Iraq under the control of Iran, giving Tehran a rare strategic victory.

Riyadh Trapped in Yemen War

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia is trapped in a war with the Houthi rebels, who are supported, funded and armed by Iran. The Saudi adventurism in Yemen was triggered by the belief it had to stop the expansion of Iran's sphere of influence at any cost. However, after seven years, Riyadh has not won that war.

Lebanon Power Calculus

Meanwhile in Lebanon, the rising clout of the fiercely pro-Iran Hezbollah militant is a matter of extreme stress for Riyadh.

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Riyadh's Dwindling Support in GCC

Among Saudi Arabia's closest circle of GCC friends, Bahrain has a significant Shia minority, while Qatar is more close to Tehran than to Riyadh. Oman has always been neutral, but that neutrality merely means that it is not an automatic ally of Saudi Arabia despite being a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

As the Qatar crisis has shown, Riyadh has lost natural allies. Though Jordan, another Sunni monarchy, has always been on the side of Saudi Arabia, the relationship was rocked owing to the attempted palace coup in Jordan a few years ago.

Iran Expanding Influence, Saudi Arabia Becoming Militarily Stronger

It is clear that while Iran has been expanding influence in the region in the last two decades, Saudi Arabia has not been able to do that. However, to make up for this, Saudi Arabia has made leaps and bounds in terms of military prowess in recent years.

Israel, the Counterweight That Matters

However, the biggest counter weight against Iran that the Saudis can count on are not its own allies, but Israel. Iran and Israel are sworn and mortal enemies, and Tel Aviv will go to any extent in trying to curb Tehran. That is a huge relief for Riyadh, a factor that has manifested in the warning of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

While a direct war between Iran and Saudi Arabia may not erupt, the proxy wars are likely to go and become worse in the coming years.