Saudi Arabia and Iran: Is War Imminent?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman

by Emile Nakhleh

No, war is not imminent between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia’s ad hoc warlike posturing against Iran and continued war in Yemen, however, will exacerbate regional tensions and deepen the misery of Arab peoples. The Saudi execution early this month of Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr is not about Iran or the Saudi-Iranian power struggle and regional influence in the Persian Gulf. Nor is it about Saudi fears of an ascending “Persian Empire” to the east.

By illegally arresting, convicting, and executing al-Nimr, Saudi Arabia is sending a clear message that it intends to silence the voices of Arab pro-democracy dissidents. With the beheading of a prominent Saudi reformist, the Al Saud regime, especially the impetuous, de facto all-powerful young leader, Muhammad bin Salman, is telling Arab publics that celebrating the upcoming fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring will be futile and that the deposing of despots has left chaos and destruction in its wake. The Saudi-led counterrevolution will not tolerate demands for regime change, no matter how odious the regime might be.

Saudi Arabia’s egregious and mounting human rights violations and intolerance of all dissent—whether liberal, secular, or Islamist—are a reaffirmation of the Saudi ruling family’s visceral dislike of the democratic ideals and activists of the Arab Spring. The Saudi regime, much like other autocratic regimes in Egypt, Bahrain, and elsewhere, is regurgitating a political dictum attributed to Ibn Taymiyya, a radical 13th-14th century theologian, which states that despotism (al-thulm) is preferable to chaos (al-fawda). Ibn Taymiyya’s writings and his massive collection of fatwas are often considered the ideological foundation of Wahhabi Salafi Hanbali Islam, which has been the state religion in Saudi Arabia since the 18th century.

Sunni theologians in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Bahrain have recently used this type of interpretation to urge their citizens to obey their rulers because, according to these theologians, they represent God’s image on earth. Opposition to such rulers—whether in Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Bahrain—as was the case with the Arab Spring five years ago, is fitna (sedition), bid’a (innovation), or ridda (apostasy). Those who harbor such opposition are incarcerated, tortured, or put to death.

The rudderless and destructive war in Yemen and the hollow propaganda campaign against Iran are designed to cover the Kingdom’s bloodthirsty dictatorship at home and the serious power struggle within the Saudi royals, especially between Muhammad bin Salman and his cousin and more senior Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. The looming domestic economic troubles and budgetary shortfalls caused by the unprecedented drop in the price of oil and the colossal failures of Saudi regional diplomacy—Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Iran—are expected to add to the Saudi royals’ woes in 2016 and beyond.

Saudi Arabia’s war has failed to achieve any of the publicly stated objectives in Yemen. Despite the support the Saudi military has received—in weapons, troops, logistics, and intelligence—from the so-called Sunni coalition and some foreign countries, the war is faltering, albeit causing more mayhem and destruction.

If the Saudi regime could not prosecute a war next door despite its overwhelming military advantage over the Houthi rebels, waging a war against Iran would be disastrous. Such action would spell the demise of the House of Saud, the ruin of their namesake country, and the human and ecological destruction of the region.

Saudi Propaganda, Neocons, and Radicalism

The Saudi regime will soon discover that, despite the millions of dollars it’s spending in Washington and other Western capitals through its army of public relations firms and consultants to sell its manufactured story, this rabid anti-Iranian Bedouin bravado will have no buyers. The pro-Saudi chorus of neocons in the American capital, as Jim Lobe has reported on this blog, has failed to muster much support for Saudi Arabia, especially when others see the country beheading its dissidents much as the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) does.

It’s ironic that some of the same Washington neocons who advocated “liberating” Iraq from Saddam in 2003, supposedly in the name of eradicating tyranny from Arab lands, are now deriding the ideals of the Arab Spring. They are now supporting autocratic regimes in Riyadh, Cairo, Manama, and elsewhere in the defense of domestic stability and security.

Driven by a myopic view of realpolitik, they seem disinclined to ask a most elementary question: “Where does this radical Sunni Salafi ideology come from?” It’s no coincidence that al-Qaeda Central, its regional affiliates, and the Baghdadi self-proclaimed Islamic State have all used the same source of radical Salafi ideology that permeates Saudi Arabia.

One could ask why this strain of radicalism doesn’t drive Islam in Southeast Asia or other parts of the Muslim world outside the Arabian heartland? Sunni political Islam in Asia is more tolerant and less dogmatic than its Saudi counterpart because it adheres to the more moderate Shafi’i School of jurisprudence as compared to the intolerant, narrow-minded Hanbali School in Saudi Arabia. Islam in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines has focused more on commerce, education, and community service and less on violent politics.

Muslims in those countries have lived and interacted with large non-Muslim minorities and have not advocated the imposition of radical Sunni ideology on non-Muslims or on Shia and other non-Sunni Muslim sects. Unlike the radical Sunnis of Saudi Arabia and “jihadist” groups that insist on a literal reading of the 7th-century Arabian Koran, several Asian Muslim thinkers told me over the years they would like to adapt the Koran to a 21st-century globalized world. They yearn to see a world that includes Muslims and non-Muslims alike without a bloody division between the traditional “Dar al-Islam” (abode of Islam) and “Dar al-Harb” (abode of war). Wahhabi Salafi Islam has yet to make that leap. The Sunni-Shia sectarian divide in Southeast Asia has not been as divisive as in the Arab Islamic heartland.

By pushing the Saudi agenda in Washington, the neocons are inadvertently playing into the hands of both the hardliners in Iran and the Baghdadi caliphate. Their vocal support of the Saudi regime could empower the Iran hardliners in their opposition to rapprochement with the United States. Such empowerment could translate into votes in the upcoming February parliamentary elections in Iran, which in turn could force the Supreme Leader Khamanei to tilt against the nuclear deal.

Similarly, radical Islamic “jihadists” would see the pro-Saudi neocon campaign in Washington as implicit endorsement of all that Saudi Arabia stands for, including its abhorrent ideology and autocratic rule.

Aspirations to Lead the Arab World

What is even more central to the Saudi-Iranian spat over the execution is Saudi Arabia’s desire to replace Egypt as the anointed leader of the Arab world. Again, these aspirations have nothing to do with Iran, but they have everything to do with convincing Arabs that the leadership of the Arab world now belongs to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and some of his counterparts in the Gulf Cooperation Council hope to seize on the opportunity of Egypt’s perceived marginalization and move the Arab regional leadership seat from Cairo to Riyadh.

The Saudis aspire to establish a “monarchical” Sunni center of power as compared to the “presidential republican” leadership, which Egypt’s three “modern pharaohs”—Gamal Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak—enjoyed between 1954 and 2011. For the most part, secular Arab nationalism underpinned Egypt’s leadership. The Saudis aspire to a different path grounded in Sunni Salafi Wahhabi religious ideology.

During the heyday of Arab nationalism, Egypt’s leadership role was generally supported by other “secular” dictators, including Ben Ali of Tunisia, Qaddafi of Libya, Saleh of Yemen, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Assad of Syria, Basheer of Sudan, and a smattering of other leaders. Egypt’s newest “pharaoh” Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is barely able to hold Egypt together and is disinclined or incapable of forging a regional role without Gulf money to shore up his rule.

Yet, despite Egypt’s misfortunes, the Saudi aspiration to lead the Arab world is at best a pipe dream. The power struggle within the ruling family, the dwindling economy, the war in Yemen, the growing disgruntlement of the Saudi urban Sunni elites, and the gathering terrorist threat make Saudi Arabia more precarious and therefore less qualified or capable to lead the Arab world.

If Saudi Arabia desires to lead the Arab world, it would need to diffuse tensions with Iran, rein in the unbridled ambitions of the rash deputy crown prince and allow Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef to pull the country back from the brink. The Arab “cold war” of the 20th century is long gone, and it would be unfortunate to have it replaced by an “Arab-Persian” cold war in the 21st century.

Photo: Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. Turkey, despite its huge security apparatus, got its first terrorist attacks targeting foreigners from a Saudi born Syrian. It is inevitable that Saudi Arabia will get something similar soon. That would oblige the leadership to deal more strongly with Sunni Islamist extremists in their country. Yet like in Turkey, that would certainly antagonize all the ISIS sympathizers in the country and could provoke a spiraling of violence and ultimately a leadership change.
    The USA has no direct leverage on Saudi Arabia to force it to deal with extremism and is very unease about the Yemen war casualties. Therefore the USA may use indirect ways to force Saudi Arabia to deal more firmly with ISIS and force a leadership change. That is probably what the USA did in Turkey by not preventing the Istanbul bombing so as to force Erdogan’s change course on ISIS and give him a humiliating lesson. Will we see more bombings in the touristic hub of Antalya if he does not change his priorities?
    Will we see similar terrorist act in Ryadh or Djeddah?

  2. Whatever differences Saudi Arabia has with Iran could probably be solved if the two sat down over a beer. The Saudis gov’t has bigger things to worry about like being overthrown by ISIS. I noticed some of the ISIS crew were among those executed last week so some people are looking over their shoulders.

  3. @RonMack, good idea! But Iranians can only afford a cheap beer because of the illegal and severe sanctions whilst Saudis drink only Johnny Walker or Chivas because we’re holding hands with them and kissing their a….! We seriously have to look at our relationship with the corrupt and tribal sheikdom in power in SA!!

  4. Excellent article….KSA dealt several self inflicted wounds, have rendered OPEC irrelevant, and continue to be belligerent. To what end? These actions reflect desperation and frustration. If Russia should link the Metrojet bombing to KSA, they are finished.

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