How likely is a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia ?
Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 

How likely is a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia?


Are Iran and Saudi Arabia going to war? They are already fighting – by proxy – all over the region. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran quickly deteriorated in January 2016 following Riyadh’s execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimi but their struggle for power dates back to Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979. Tehran's influence extends today across a broad area of the Middle East from Iran in the east to Lebanon in the west.

They are fighting in Yemen's civil war with Saudi Arabia helping one side, Iran the other. In Syria, Iran supports President Assad while the Saudis have funded and armed rebel groups. In Iraq, Iran is influential while Saudi Arabia is currently trying to extend its clout there. And then there is Lebanon, where for decades Iran has supported the Shiite Hezbollah militia, which is now fighting in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince, increasingly tough on Iran, probably ordered the recent resignation of the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, trying to force a confrontation with Hezbollah, to weaken its authority and the influence of Iran.

Last but not least: the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar due to the Qatar's goodwill toward Iran.

Origins of the rivalry

Saudi Arabia and Iran have a long-standing rivalry based on geostrategic interests and religious differences. Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holy sites always felt it was the undisputed leader of the Muslim world. But then, in 1979, along came Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran's Islamic Revolution. Suddenly Saudi Arabia had a rival, feeling threatened in its own back yard with the two countries representing the two rival camps within Islam. Saudi Arabia is Sunni, Iran is Shiite, so this geopolitical rivalry inevitably has religious overtones.

The advent of the Islamic Republic - with its fiercely anti-American bias - was perceived as a threat to the conservative Sunni monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula, allied with the United States, with Saudi Arabia being a key financial backer of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during his 1980-1988 war with Iran.

The latest round of tensions began when Riyadh and Tehran severed diplomatic relations in January 2016, after Iranians stormed Saudi Arabia's embassy in response to the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.

To add fuel to the fire, this year Riyadh and several of its Sunni allies broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar , accusing Doha of support for extremism and links with Iran.

At the beginning of November 2017 the Saudi-supported prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, in a broadcast from Riyadh announced his resignation, blaming Iran's pressure on his country through Hezbollah. Shortly afterwards a missile fired from Yemen was intercepted and destroyed near Riyadh by Saudi Arabia air defences. Saudi Arabia, maintaining that this was an act of war by Iran, will likely try to push for further sanctions against Tehran.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Saudi Arabia's rhetoric does not necessarily reflect interest in war: Prince Mohammed is probably looking to supplement the nationalist rhetoric to consolidate his position as he pursues an anti-corruption purge to guarantee his hold on power. At the same time, recurrent statements against Iran help shift the media attention away from the domestic power struggle.

The Crown Prince, only 32 years old, wants to let women drive and is looking beyond oil. Mohammed bin Salman has consolidated his hold on power with a major purge on the country's political and business leadership. The purge represents the opening salvo in a fight against corruption that comes with an embrace of moderate Islam, a determination to relax the strict segregation of the sexes and the introduction of massive investments in futuristic projects.

But the wider significance of bin Salman’s power grab can only be fully understood in conjunction with events in Israel. The Jewish state and Saudi Arabia share a common enemy: Iran. Both fear the latter is exploiting the opening created by the fall of the Islamic State (IS), and the triumph of the Assad regime in Syria, to dominate the region. Iran and its proxies — whether the Houthi rebels in Yemen or Hezbollah in Lebanon — are successful, and neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia are going to accept it. So the two are establishing close diplomatic cooperation, intelligence sharing and perhaps more.

Two months after his 32nd birthday, the Crown Prince has established himself as a despot, albeit one hailed by the West as an enlightened visionary. He strongly wants to get rid of the past checks and balances and establish an autocratic monarchy.

Saber-rattling: who would prevail?

A direct confrontation is unlikely: if Iran and Saudi Arabia were to go to war, that would be catastrophic.

Nevertheless let's have a look at the military might of the two countries: Saudi Arabia is estimated to be the world’s 24th strongest nation, while Iran ranks 21st. In terms of military budget, Tehran spends € 5 billion on defense each year, while Riyadh's budget is € 48 billion.

While Iran’s 934,000-member active-duty force is over triple Saudi’s 256,000 total active-duty and reserve troops, Tehran’s arsenal consists of less-advanced Chinese and Russian fighters, tanks and helicopters backed by Soviet-era armor and heavy artillery. Saudi’s military assets, on the other hand, outnumber Iran’s arsenal both in quantity and quality, being Riyadh the Middle East’s top importer of American and Western arms.

Anyway, while Saudi Arabia’s military assets may be more sophisticated, Iran and its allies have performed better in real-life combat situations, including the campaigns against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, Iran prides itself on manufacturing whatever it can domestically: its successes in areas like rocketry are visible. Iran's ballistic missiles are more than capable of overwhelming Saudi defenses.

One last point: Saudi fire-power has been devastating in neighboring Yemen, but the conflict has not brought the quick victory Crown Prince Salman had hoped. Instead, it has slipped into a brutal standstill and humanitarian disaster that has earned Riyadh criticism around the world.


Iran and Saudi Arabia are the two main rivals for regional supremacy in the Middle East. Both are oil-rich countries. Both have authoritarian systems of governance. They also have a claim to the leadership of the two main Muslim sects. However, all these similarities have not been able to bring them closer but have given impetus to sectarian divide, which has now grown to such a proportion that it has upset the entire Middle East.

A major irritant in Arab-Iran relations is the nuclear deal struck between Iran and the big powers. Arab states have always felt uneasy about its outcome and have been suspicious about Iran’s intentions. Tehran has insisted that its nuclear programme is a peaceful one.

A conflict involving two major crude oil producers would send oil prices sky-rocketing as a big share of the trade relies on the route through the Persian Gulf. And if the two nations do clash, other players are unlikely to just stand by.

While there is little possibility of a direct immediate military confrontation between Tehran and Riyadh, the new UN-sponsored road map for resolving the Syrian crisis, backed by all big powers, is in danger of being negatively affected by the Saudi-Iran stand-off. It is now important that the international community ensures that the road map stays on track at all costs.

Besides the international community efforts, individual initiatives are very much welcomed such as the announcement made on February 14, 2016 when the government of Switzerland declared that it will represent Saudi interests in Iran and Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia.