Amer Kurtović, a MA student at the Department, interviewed prof. dr. Josef Kraus the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as the two most prominent countries in the Middle East and among the majority-Muslim countries.
1. In your view, what are the main sources of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran?
It’s a combination of sources based on a political and a religious rivalry in the region. Both want to dominate the region. Actually, up until 2003 there were three states competing for domination of the region: besides Saudi Arabia and Iran, there was Iraq. But, nowadays, Iraq is a failing states and is to an extent ruled by Iran. So, now, there are only two states competing for domination of the Persian Gulf region and the wider Middle East. In addition to the political dimension, there is also a religious dimension. On one side, there is Saudi Arabia representing a fundamentalist Sunni version of Islam and on the other side, there is Iran, as the largest Shiite country and as a theocracy since 1979. The two countries’ visions, both inspired to some extent by their interpretation of Islam, of many things contradict each other and that is the source of much tension. In addition, the two share many battlefields in countries like Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, which provides a certain kind of perpetuity to that rivalry. Lastly, there is the element of foreign supporters – in the case of Iran, the Russian Federation, and in the case of Saudi Arabia, the United States of America – which further perpetuates the rivalry by transposing their rivalry on Iran and Saudi Arabia.
2. Considering the fact that there are many, many more Sunnis than Shias and they aren’t likely to support the other, does that shift the balance of power and influence in the region in Saudi Arabia’s favor?
Conventional wisdom had it that Egypt was the most important country in the Arab world, but nowadays there is a tendency of Saudi Arabia dominating the Arab world and Egypt doesn’t seem to be challenging that. In addition, the king of Saudi Arabia is also the protector, or custodian, or the two holiest cities in the Muslim world – Mecca and Medina – so that gives Saudi Arabia yet another edge over Iran. The proportion of Sunnis to Shias is 9 to 1, but the most populated Sunni states are Indonesia and Pakistan, as well as the Maghreb states of north Africa, all of which are quire distant from the Persian Gulf region. So, if we look at the Middle East or Near East or Southwest Asia, the statistics change: in addition to Iran, there is Iraq which is predominantly Shia, as well as Bahrein which is ruled by a Sunni monarchy but is made up of mostly Sunnis, and there are sizeable Shia minorities in many countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia itself. So, there is no doubt that the two countries can rival each other in the region, but it seems as if Saudi Arabia, supported by both the majority of Muslims and the United States, is currently more successful than Iran. However, just because that’s the case today doesn’t mean that it will continue being such in the future: Iran is, I think, a natural ally of the West, and was for a long time an ally of the West, and may revert to that rule sometime in the future. There are also sizeable communities of Persians in the UK, Germany, and even the United States and they can act, sometime in the future, to put Iran in a more favorable position in those countries’ domestic politics compared to Saudi Arabia, which does not have such expatriate communities abroad
3. How would you assess the regional and religious leadership aspirations and capacities of both Iran and Saudi Arabia?
I’m quite skeptical of either country’s ability to be a leader, firstly because that implies that there is a united Islamic world. There is no such united Islamic world: it is divided into Sunnis and Shias, the Sunnis are further divided into various groupings, and within the Sunni world, there is and is likely to continue being a low-level competition between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Just because they share a religious and an ethnicity doesn’t mean that they’re united: for example, people in Morocco are in so many ways different from people in Saudi Arabia, including linguistically. Again, the most populous and, therefore, eventually influential Islamic countries are thousands of kilometers removed from Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s immediate region.
The politics matters here the most, even though religion can be very easily used for propaganda purposes. For example, in the case of Iran, we can see how pragmatic of a country it is in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan: despite its rhetoric, Iran supports Christian Armenia against Shiite Azerbaijan.
4. What makes up and how strong is the attraction power of Iran and Saudi Arabia? What are the limitations associated with that? What difference, if any, exists between elite opinion and popular opinion in the countries that may be subject to Iranian or Saudi Arabian influence?
Saudi Arabia is the dominant state in the Persian Gulf and that’s quite obvious. It’s the strongest one and the richest one, which is attested by the fact that it’s the de facto leader of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is a political union of Arab monarchies. But, if we widen the region and include in it the Levant, the game changes significantly. Iran has much more influence in those regions than Saudi Arabia. Iran has an ally in Hezbollah in Lebanon, which was founded by Iran in the 1980s and is the most important non-state actor in Lebanon and Iran has an ally in Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who is likely to win the war. An important connection in that is Russia, which is very pragmatic in its international relations, but Iran and Russia have united in the face of common enemies in Syria – ISIS and other rebels – in the region – Saudi Arabia – and in the world – the United States. Russia is now a major actor in the region, despite not having many historical connections with the region, especially compared to European states or the United States. Iran is using that Russian involvement in the region to its favor, as is Russia using Iran’s influence in the region to its favor. For now, it’s a symbiotic relationship that is mutually beneficial to both and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
5. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have different features of state power (i.e. Iran has a larger population, while Saudi Arabia has advanced military capabilities), but it seems that they have relatively equal state power presently. In the medium and long terms, which is likely to edge out ahead of the other?
The future is very hard to predict, but it largely depends on Iran and whether it’ll be able to manage circumstances within international relations and depart from its isolation. In that case, Iran can be the dominant power in the Persian Gulf. In relation to the difference between Iran’s population and Saudi Arabia’s wealth, what the Saudis can do is buy arms but they cannot buy an army. That’s a major impingement for Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, they are very good in international relations and contributing to foreign elections, including U.S. presidential elections, in order buy allies or people’s loyalties. Of course, Saudi Arabia can lose its economic edge if the prices of oil were to collapse. Iran, on the other hand, is the naturally stronger and dominant state in the region but still lacks in international diplomatic activities, even though they have started doing a good job despite the Iranian fundamentalists’ best efforts to thwart closer ties with the West.
6. The thesis that Iran is engaged in various proxy conflicts throughout the Middle East (i.e. Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Qatar, and Yemen), with the primary aim of stopping or reversing Saudi influence in the region, is widely accepted in the field. In your view, to what extent are these conflicts proxy conflicts between Iran and Saudi Arabia, to what extent are they proxy conflicts between other actors (namely, the United States and Russia), and to what extent are those proxy conflicts internationalized conflicts?
I think that those conflicts cannot be put into just one category, since each is unique and each has many components which fall into one of those categories. For example, the conflict in Syria is very different from the conflict in Yemen, even though Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as other foreign actors, are involved in both. But, on the other hand, Iran’s motivation isn’t just to prevent Saudi Arabia from dominating the region but also to dominate the region itself. There is a lot of pushback from the Iranian public regarding Iran’s participation in those conflicts, because involvement abroad is expensive and because scaling back that involvement abroad is likely to foster closer, more amicable ties with the West. However, Iran is not a democracy and the people have little input into foreign policy making so Iran is likely to continue being involved throughout the region.
7. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are regional powers, but hardly more than that. They, to varying degrees, depend on foreign support. Although Saudi Arabia has firm ties with many western states, and especially the United States, Iran is also seeking closer ties with western states, as well. What is the role of outside actors create the conflicts in question?
There are two main actors increasing the tensions between those two countries and that’s the United States and the State of Israel. Both are working toward the same task of securitizing the Iranian issue, putting pressure mainly on American Republicans because there are huge Israeli and Saudi lobbies supporting Republicans in their efforts to isolate Iran and to create an atmosphere of fearing Iran in the region. That helps all: it helps Israel keep the region divided in order to prevent a focus on Israel and Palestine and it helps the United States by motivating Saudi Arabia through fear of Iran to purchase more American weapons.
8. Development of close ties with other countries seem to be contingent, at least in part, on public opinion in those countries. Lately, there is a visible shift in the balance of public opinion in many western states from Saudi Arabia to Iran. To what is that shift attributable?
Such a shift is indeed visible, especially and perhaps only in Europe. There is discussion of Europe compensating Iran for American sanctions and of Iran being a major economic partner of European firms. Creating a perception that Iran will be a major economic interlocutor with Europe is one of the best features of Iranian diplomacy: Iranian officials travelled throughout Europe prior to the signing of the nuclear agreement, promising that Iran will be a major destination of European exports and that Iran will purchase, for example, Airbus aircraft. That is one of the reasons why Europe prefers to maintain good relations with Iran while the United States is still perceiving Iran as a mortal enemy and an untrustworthy partner, largely due to the lobbying efforts of Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Citing the Interview: if you use any information from the interview above, which you are encouraged to do, please cite appropriately and avoid plagiarism – Kraus, J. (2018, October 29). Personal Interview.
About Amer Kurtović: Amer Kurtović hold a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and European Studies from International Burch University and is currently working toward a Master’s degree in EU integration. His primary research interests include the European Union, the Western Balkans, and discourse theory and analysis while his secondary research interests include the Middle East and political Islam.
About Josef Kraus: Josef Kraus holds a Ph.D. in political science. He currently lectures at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic and is affiliated with the International Institute of Political Science. His primary research focus is the Middle East, especially Iran, conflict studies, and religious minorities.