Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Iran and the Arab World: A View from Riyadh

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Iran and the Arab World: A View from Riyadh

Article excerpt


Expectations about a broad regional realignment vis-à-vis Iran are very much rooted in Neo-Realist assumptions about the self-help nature of international politics and the irrelevance of domestic politics. In the case of Saudi Arabia, such a perspective could therefore assume a natural tendency to align with Israel. Set apart from other actors in the region by specific (complementary) military and economic strengths and weaknesses, both countries share a common link with the United States and a concern about revisionist regional powers like Egypt under Nasser, revolutionary Iran, or Iraq under Saddam Hussein.1

It is thus no coincidence that the image of a moderate, i.e. pro-Western, block that transcends the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been reemerging for the last couple of decades. Washington policymakers toyed with that idea of a "strategic consensus" during the presidency of Ronald Reagan and suggested an "informal alliance" against "radical regimes" and "extremism" in the context of the President Clinton's "dual containment."2

In the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, U.S. politicians and some academic observers had begun to differentiate between supposedly apolitical Sunni societies on the one hand and the supposedly violent, fanatic, and revolutionary feature of Shi'a Islam on the other. This allowed the autocratic governments in predominantly Sunni countries to portray the rising influence of militant Islamist groups as being the result of "foreign," in particular "Shi'i" influences.3

While Riyadh obviously had much cause for concern in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War when Saudi security clashed with Iranian participants of the annual hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca,4 the most prominent case of Iranian support for Shi'i terrorist groups operating in Saudi Arabia constituted an attack not on Saudi targets, but on the U.S. airbase in Dahran in 1996. With the attacks occurring in a time of Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, the leadership in Riyadh was even concerned about the negative repercussions possible U.S. military reprisals against Tehran might have. Nowadays, the idea of a "Shi'a threat" is more of a rhetorical device to express concerns linked to Saudi- Iranian competition over the direction of domestic politics in Iraq and Lebanon as well as Iran's nuclear program.5

In fact, the violent Islamist threat to Saudi internal security appears limited to Sunni groups. This does not mean, however, that Iran does not feature in Saudi perceptions of domestic stability at all. Concerns about Iranian support for al-Qa'ida have been noticeable ever since Riyadh began to take seriously its domestic violent Islamist opposition. At various stages of the current struggle, reports have surfaced suggesting links to Iran. For instance, in February 2003, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who would later become al-Qa'ida's leader in Iraq, was reported to have met al-Qai'da's then military commander Sayf al-Adil in Iran to plan not only the Islamist infiltration of Iraq after Saddam Hussein's fall from power, but also to plot the terrorist attacks on Western housing compounds in Riyadh in May 2003.6 In February 2009, Saudi Arabia released a list of 85 most wanted terrorists. Thirty-five of them were last seen in Iran with Saudi officials accusing one of them, Abdallah al-Qarawi, of being closely involved in much of the radical Islamist unrest in Saudi Arabia of recent years. According to the same report, al-Qa'ida cells in Iraq and Lebanon are directed by al-Qa'ida members residing in Iran.7

Iran's ability to use Saudi Arabia's Shi'i population as leverage against Riyadh is curtailed by the fact that the Shi'a in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia seek spiritual guidance from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq (Najaf), and not from Iran.8 In fact, the religious leadership in Iran is increasingly concerned about Iraqi Shi'i centers of learning reasserting their traditional predominance in Shi'i Islam. …

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