Thoughtful piece from Professor Mohsen Milani in Foreign Affairs on Saudi Arabia’s motivations and concerns in its strategic competition with Iran:
Two years ago, I explained in these pages the nature of the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This conflict is not caused by—nor is it even about—sectarianism. It is about power and hegemony in the Middle East. But both countries have conveniently used sectarianism to enhance their agendas.
The Saudi decision to sever ties with Iran is directly related to its assessment that Iran has the upper hand in the region. They fear that Iran’s position will significantly improve after the lifting of the sanctions. And they know Saudi Arabia’s strategic value to the United States diminishes as tension between the United States and Iran decreases.
The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq was the most critical phase in this cold war, and it decidedly tilted the balance of power in Iran’s favor. The Saudis regarded the Sunni-ruled Iraq as the most effective counterweight against Iran and a brake on Iranian expansion into the Persian Gulf and the Levant. This is why the Saudis lavishly donated to Saddam Hussein’s war machine against Iran in the 1980s. The establishment of a Tehran-friendly, Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad was a momentous strategic setback.
Preventing the consolidation of a Tehran-friendly government in Baghdad by all means necessary was and remains Riyadh’s top strategic goal. That strategy failed, though, as Baghdad became Tehran’s close political ally and Iran substantially expanded its sphere influence in southern Iraq, right on the border with Saudi Arabia. In this context, the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has been both a real blessing and a potential danger for the kingdom. It is a blessing because ISIS is anti-Shiite, anti-Iran, and a destabilizing force in Iraq. It is a potential danger for the Saudis because ISIS seeks to create a caliphate whose heart would be Mecca in Saudi Arabia. This Janus-faced quality of ISIS explains the Saudis’ reluctance to seriously engage in the U.S. coalition to defeat ISIS.