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Saudi Arabia vs. Iran: From Proxy to Hybrid Warfare

Saudi Arabia vs. Iran: From Proxy to Hybrid Warfare

Formerly strategic partners, Saudi Arabia and Iran have transformed the entire Middle East in a geopolitical chessboard. The breach occurred in 1979 when, in the aftermath of large protests, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was forced to abandon Iran, allowing the regime led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to seize power in Tehran. 

From that moment on, the ideology promoted by the Islamic Republic of Iran delegitimized the existence of the Gulf Monarchies, depicted as allies of the invasive West, inevitably deepening sectarian cleavages in the region – Saudi Arabia consolidated the Sunni axis under its leadership, whereas Syria and Lebanon – through Hezbollah – joined the Shiite axis under the leadership of Tehran. Notwithstanding political entanglements, the 1979 Revolution aimed to acquire a universal character, encompassing the entire Muslim world, given the good relations between Tehran and some Sunni movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the Islamic Jihad Movement in 1980. The Iraq-Iran war led, among other things, to a change of paradigm, the Saudis proclaiming themselves as the protectors of Islam against any threat, including the Shia heresy. Within this conflict, which has marked Islam from its oldest days, the discourse of the Saudis is legitimized through the Arab identity and the custody of the two Holy Mosques: Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina. In turn, with a view to advance its national interest in the Middle East as a peripheral power, the Persian and Shiite Iran relied upon the defense of the Palestinian cause, accompanied by a tough discourse against Israel. 

American intervention in Iraq, in 2003, did not entail the result expected by Riyadh, the power in Baghdad being passed to the Shiite majority whose ties with Iran were extensive. Later, two main events stand out. The outbreak of the Arab Spring increased uncertainties, gave a significant fright to the Gulf monarchies and led to the fall of predictable regional players. Afterwards, the signing of the Nuclear Agreement marked the emergence of Iran from its marginalization in the global community, a situation perceived as a direct threat to the interests and security of Saudi Arabia. 

Therefore, both Saudi Arabia and Iran supported a series of non-state actors in order to fulfil their regional goals. The Saudis supported Sunni tribes in Iraq to the detriment of the central government, but also Sunni jihadist groups fighting against Bashar al-Assad. Last, but not least, Saudi Arabia supported the emergence of the Future Movement in Lebanon, as a counterpart to Hezbollah and a regime change in Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt, whereas Iran supported the Shiite movements in Bahrain and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. 

Nevertheless, these proxy wars acquire a hybrid nature when the two states attempt to destabilize one another. The hybrid war, a concept developed within the NATO analyses in the aftermath of the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah from 2006, seems to be a novelty in terms of warfare at the beginning of the century, merging the military and the non-military spheres, the conventional and non-conventional forms, and unfolding on many levels: political, economic, diplomatic, societal, metapolitical (values and perspectives) and so on. 

The proxy elements – usually third actors – are only a component of the hybrid war, but play an essential role, as they conceal external aggression, making the conflict appear as an intra-state, rather than an inter-state war. Apart from cyber and informational aggressions, the psychological war and the polarization of society are key aspects of the hybrid war. An example would be Iran’s efforts to destabilize Saudi Arabia through an incitement to violence and rebellion of the Shiite minority, which amounts to 15% of the total population of the Kingdom, but strategically placed in the oil producing area. Within this context, the Saudis decided in 2016 to execute 47 people charged with terrorism, amongst them being the Shiite cleric Nimr-al Nimr. Tehran reacted through a powerful diplomatic response, whilst protesters set the Saudi Embassy in Tehran on fire. Riyadh replied through breaking diplomatic relations, an act that was undertaken afterwards by other Arab and African states, such as Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia. 

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia tries to destabilize Iran, through making use of its complicated ethnic mosaic (officially Persians-67%, Azeri-19%, Kurds-10%, Luri-6%, Arabs-2%, Turkmens-2% and Baloch-2%) and the new geopolitical dynamics in the region. Consequently, Tehran accuses the Saudis of supporting the Kurdish groups of Iran which aim for secession from the country. However, as in every hybrid war, there is no solid evidence to be presented, at least in the incipient stages, of the ties between the sponsor and the non-state actor. 

The Saudi-Iranian rivalry contributes therefore to an arch of instability which connects Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea, whereas regional stability could hardly be reinforced in the absence of an agreement between Tehran and Riyadh.

In the autumn of 2016, the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) broke the peace treaty signed in 1966 with the authorities from Tehran, advocating for the right to self-determination of the Kurdish population, as well as for secession from the Iranian state. Currently, the Kurdish groups from Iran have joined their counterparts in Syria and Iraq and do not hesitate to equate Daesh with Tehran, which amounts to a huge challenge in medium and short-term to the integrity of Iran. Although rejecting any accusation on the part of Iran concerning the financial, military and logistic support of the Kurdish secession movement, the Saudis do not refrain from touting their efforts and positions against the current leadership in Tehran – one relevant event being the presence of Prince Turki al-Faisal, former chief of the Saudi intelligence service, during a meeting organized in Paris by the supporters of the former Shah. 

Therefore, not only do Iran and Saudi Arabia attempt to impose their geopolitical agenda at the regional level by attracting various states in their own sphere of influence, but they also try to undermine one another, by supporting opposition movements which would lead either to a regime change or to territorial disintegration. Typical to the hybrid war is that both countries aim to gain the trust of the population from the areas under destabilization, trying to create, either directly or indirectly, a lobbying effort at the international level in order to obtain support for their cause. 

There is currently a low probability of escalation towards a direct war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but the continuation of the hybrid threat could result in the development of internal terrorism in both states. The mosques, public institutions and the oilfields particularly could be their main targets. Saudi Arabia is already facing a series of attacks against the Shiite mosques, which could lead to an escalation of social tensions. 

The Saudi-Iranian rivalry contributes therefore to an arch of instability which connects Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea, whereas regional stability could hardly be reinforced in the absence of an agreement between Tehran and Riyadh.

 
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OEconomica No. 1, 2016