The Middle East is one of the most complex regions in the world:
Currently there are 4 failing states and 3 wars, with major powers increasingly taking
Countless armed militias and terrorist groups are spreading violence across borders.
The region has seen conflict after conflict going back well into the 20th century.
But among all the uprisings, civil wars, and insurgencies, two countries always seem to
be involved: Saudi Arabia and Iran.
They’re bitter rivals, and their feud is the key to understanding conflicts in the
The Saudis and Iranians have never actually declared war on each other.
Instead, they fight indirectly by supporting opposing sides in other countries and inciting
This is known as proxy warfare.
And it’s had a devastating effect on the region.
Countries, especially poor ones, can’t function if there are larger countries pulling strings
within their borders.
Both the Saudis and the Iranians,
see these civil wars as both tremendous threats,
and also potentially enormous opportunities.
The Saudi-Iranian rivalry has become a fight over influence, and the whole region is a
It’s why the rivalry is being called: a Cold War.
The most famous cold war was fought for 40
years between the United States and Soviet Union.
Looking forward to the day when their flag would fly over the entire world.
They never declared war on each other, but
clashed in proxy wars around the world.
Each side supported dictators, rebel groups, and intervened in civil wars to contain the
Like the US and Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia and Iran are two powerful rivals - but instead
of fighting for world dominance, they’re fighting over control of the Middle East.
In order to understand the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, let’s go back to the origins of each country.
In the early 1900s, the Arabian peninsula was a patchwork of tribes under the control
of the Ottoman Empire.
After World War I, the empire collapsed, leaving these tribes to fight each other for power.
One tribe from the interior, the al-Saud, eventually conquered most of the peninsula.
In 1932, they were recognized as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
6 years later, massive oil reserves were discovered in Saudi Arabia, and, in an instant, the Saudi
monarchy was rich.
That oil money built roads and cities all around the desert country - and
it helped forge an alliance with the US.
On the eastern side of the Persian Gulf, another country was emerging, but having a much harder
Iran also had massive oil reserves and an even bigger Muslim population.
But constant foreign intervention was creating chaos.
Since the 18th century, Iran had been invaded by the Russians and British twice.
In 1953, the US secretly staged a coup, removing the popular prime minister, Mohammed Mosaddegh.
In his place, they propped up a monarch, Reza Shah, who was aggressively reforming Iran
into a secular, westernized country.
But he harbored corruption and terrorized the population with his secret police, the
By the 1970s, both Saudi Arabia and Iran had oil-based economies and had governments heavily
backed by the US, but the feelings among each population were very different:
Ultimately at the end of the day, the Shah of Iran, powerful as he was, simply
did not have the same control over his people or ultimately the same legitimacy and affection
that the Saudi people felt towards their monarchy at that point in time.
That’s because Iran’s Muslims felt stifled by the Shah’s reformations and by the end
of the decade, they finally fought back.
Iran's Islamic revolution overthrew a powerful regime,
that boasted military might.
It’s really in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic revolution
overthrow the Shah, that the real tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran begins.
Ayatollah Khomeini was a Muslim clergyman, who preached against Western-backed secular
He advocated for a government that popular, Islamic, and led by the clergy.
And In 1979, he led a revolution to establish just that.
It was a massive international event that prompted reactions around the world especially
in Saudi Arabia.
The Iranian Revolution terrified the government of Saudi Arabia.
They were fearful that Ayatollah Khomeini
would inspire their populations to rise up against them,
exactly the way he had caused the Iranian population
to rise up against the Shah.
There was a religious threat too.
Up until now, the Saudis had claimed to be the leaders of the Muslim world.
Largely because Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina are in Saudi Arabia.
But Khomeini claimed his popular revolution made Iran the legitimate Muslim state.
There was another divide; Saudi Arabia’s population is mostly Sunni, the majority sect
of Islam, while Khomeini and Iran are mostly Shia.
Westerners always make a mistake by drawing an analogy between the
Sunni-Shia split and the Protestant-Catholic split within Christianity.
The Sunni-Shia split was never as violent.
And in much of the Islamic world,
when Sunnis and Shia were living in close proximity,
they got along famously well.
So, while the Sunni-Shia split was not a reason for the rivalry, it was an important division.
After the revolution, the Saudi’s fears came to life when Iran began “exporting
This CIA report from 1980 details how the Iranian started helping groups, mostly Shia,
trying to overthrow governments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia.
And they prompted the Saudis
to redouble their efforts, to fight against Iran.
They bolstered their alliance with the US and formed the GCC, an alliance with other
The stage was set for conflict.
War in the gulf. Iraq invaded Iran in seven areas.
With a 5:1 superiority, Iraqi forces moved quickly
The rise of Iran as a regional power threatened
other neighboring countries as well.
In September 1980, Iraq, under the rule of dictator Saddam Hussein, invaded Iran.
He was hoping to stop the Iranian revolution, gain power, and annex some of Iran’s oil
But they didn’t get far.
The war bogged down into stalemate complete with trench warfare, chemical weapons and
heavy civilian casualties.
When Iran started winning, the Saudis panicked, and came to Iraq’s rescue.
They provided money, weapons, and logistical help.
So it becomes critical to the Saudis that they build up Iraq, and build it up into a
wall that can hold back the Iranian torrent that they have unleashed.
The Saudi help allowed Iraq to fight until 1988.
By then, nearly a million people had died.
Iranians largely blamed the Saudis for the war and the feud escalated.
Fast forward 15 years and Iraq again became the scene of a proxy war.
In 2003 the US invaded Iraq and overthrew
Neither Saudi Arabia or Iran wanted this to happen, since Iraq had been acting as a buffer
But problems arose when the US struggled to replace Saddam.
The United States has no idea what it is doing in Iraq after 2003.
And it makes one mistake after another, that creates a security vacuum,
and a failed state, and drives Iraq into all-out civil war.
Without a government, armed militias took control of Iraq, splintering the population.
Sunni and Shia militias suddenly sprang up all over the country.
Many were radical Islamist groups who saw an opportunity to gain power amidst the chaos.
These militias were readymade proxies for Saudi Arabia and Iran, and they both seized
the opportunity to try and gain power.
The Saudis started sending money and weapons to the Sunni militias, and Iran; the Shia.
Iraq was suddenly a proxy war with Saudi Arabia and Iran supporting opposing sides.
That trend continued into the Arab Spring, a series of anti-monarchy, pro-democracy protests
that swept through the Middle East in 2011.
This had very different consequences for Saudi Arabia and Iran:
That is terrifying to the Saudis who are the
ultimate status quo power.
They want the region stable, and they don't want anbody
rising up and overthrowing a sclerotic, autocratic government,
for fear that it might inspire their own people
to do the same.
The Iranians are the ultimate anti-status quo power,
they have been trying for decades to overturn
the regional order.
Each country threw their weight behind different groups, all over the Middle East.
Just like in Iraq, the Saudis began supporting Sunni groups and governments while Iran helps
Shia groups rise up against them.
In Tunisia, the Saudi’s backed a dictator while the Iranians stoked protests.
In Bahrain, Iran supported Shia leaders seeking to overthrow the government.
Saudi Arabia, in turn, sent troops to help quash the unrest.
Both got involved in Libya, Lebanon and Morocco
As Saudi Arabia and Iran put more and more pressure on these countries… they began
Now the feud has gone a step further, with both countries deploying their own militaries.
In Yemen, the Saudi military is on the ground helping the central government.
They are fighting the rebels, called the Houthis, who are an Iranian proxy group.
The reverse is happening in Syria. The Iranian military is fighting side by side with militias,
some of them extremists groups like Hezbollah, in support of dictator Bashar al-Assad.
They are fighting rebel Sunni groups, who are Saudi proxies.
The more civil wars that broke out in the Middle East, the more Saudi Arabia and Iran
Neither the government of Saudi Arabia nor the government
of Iran are looking for a fight.
But the problem is these civil wars create circumstances that no one could have predicted.
Both the Iranians and the Saudis feel that their vital national interests,
are threatened, are in jeopardy,
because of different things happening in these civil wars,
things they blame each other for.
Now the cold war is drawing in other countries.
The Saudi government is threatening Qatar, a tiny Gulf state that was developing ties
Meanwhile in Syria and Iraq, the terrorist group, ISIS is nearing defeat and both the
Saudis and Iranians are angling to take control of that territory.
It’s a Cold war that's becoming incredibly unpredictable.
As the Middle East continues to destabilize, its hard to say how far these countries will go.