December 07, 2017

Here’s How Both Obama and Trump Stoked the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry

By Ilan Goldenberg

From the surprise resignation (then un-resignation) of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to the intra-Gulf crisis with Qatar to the battle for influence in post-Islamic State Iraq and the vicious civil wars in Yemen and Syria, the signs of the regional battle royale between Saudi Arabia and Iran are everywhere.

This conflict has been escalating since the start of the Arab uprisings in 2011 and is driven by a combustible blend of geopolitical competition, religious sectarianism, and nationalism. While the United States is not the primary actor in this fight, it has an important role to play. President Barack Obama failed to de-escalate the conflict by trying to get the two sides to share. President Donald Trump’s strategy of taking a confrontational approach with Iran while giving Saudi Arabia unconditional support has further exacerbated the situation. A policy that lies somewhere between these two extremes is more likely to succeed.

Rising regional competition

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has long been a feature of Middle Eastern geopolitics, but the rivalry kicked into overdrive after the start of the Arab uprisings in early 2011, as security and political vacuums opened up across the region and the two rivals raced to support the various state and nonstate actors most amenable to their  interests. When the uprisings began both sides felt insecure. Iran feared that the loss of its closest Arab ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, would cut off its supply lines to Hezbollah and dramatically weaken its influence in the Levant. And Tehran saw the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, which came within 20 miles of Iran’s border, as a national security emergency. But Iran also saw opportunities to undermine the current regional order to its advantage in places such as Bahrain, where the majority Shiite population protested against the ruling Sunni royal family, and in Yemen, where Iran had relatively weak ties to the Shiite Zaidi sect, but viewed instability and conflict as weakening and distracting Saudi Arabia.

Read the full commentary in Foreign Policy.

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