Over the past seven years in Syria, war has claimed more than 500,000 lives and displaced millions more. Yemen’s war has shattered the country’s infrastructure, leaving millions on the brink of starvation amid the fastest growing cholera epidemic in history. In Iraq, swathes of towns and cities lie buried under rubble as the country tries to recover from the swift, deadly rise of ISIS.
In the background of these three Middle East conflicts is a geopolitical rivalry between Shia-majority Iran and its Sunni-majority neighbor, Saudi Arabia. It’s a rivalry that’s helped prolong and deepen the strife, as both nations have infused weapons, money and proxy forces into conflicts that have exacerbated sectarian tensions in the region.
“This Saudi-Iranian competition is primarily a competition about the direction of politics in the Middle East,” said Randa Slim, a director at the Middle East Institute, in an interview for the FRONTLINE documentary Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia. “Sectarianism is an instrument, is a tool that is used in the waging of this competition.”
This wasn’t always the case. Forty years ago, Iran and Saudi Arabia co-existed as Western-friendly oil-rich monarchies that successive U.S. administrations viewed as pillars of security in the Gulf. But starting with the Iranian revolution in 1979, the two countries have been locked in a battle for influence. The revolution was a galvanizing moment for Shiites and many Sunnis in the region, but for Saudi Arabia’s royal family, it was perceived as a threat to the legitimacy of their rule.
Ever since, the two powers have been caught in a feverish cycle of mutual distrust and animosity that has played out to devastating impact across the region.
Iran: Exporting the Revolution
To understand the roots of this rivalry, you need to go back to 1979. That year, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini emerged as the leader of an Islamic revolution to overthrow Iran’s Western-backed monarch, the Shah, and establish a Shia theocracy. Before the revolution, Middle Eastern states had embraced nationalism, socialism and communism. That year, Iran embraced Islam. Khomeini referred to America as “the Great Satan,” and described Islam as fundamentally opposed to monarchies.
Iran’s actions since then, experts say, have been driven by a desire to excise Western influence from the region, and export Khomeini’s revolution.
“Khomeini very much saw Iran’s revolution as a precursor to a sort of broader revolution in both the Muslim world, but also more broadly in the Third World against Western imperialism, Western colonialism and Western interference,” Afshon Ostovar, author of Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, told FRONTLINE.
Saudi Arabia: Shoring Up Legitimacy
Saudi Arabia’s royal family watched Khomeini’s revolution with alarm.
“Khomeini really rattles the Saudis because the supreme leader was, in essence, undermining the Saudi royal family’s own credentials as the leaders of the Muslim world because they are home to Mecca and Medina, the two holy sites in Islam,” said Kim Ghattas, an author and journalist who covers the Middle East. “This is what gives them a leadership role in the Middle East.”
Later that year came another threat for the royal family. For decades, the monarchy had drawn its legitimacy from a pact with fundamentalist clerics from the Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam. Months after Khomeini overthrew the Shah, Wahhabi extremists who opposed modernization efforts in the kingdom attacked the Grand Mosque in Mecca, challenging the House of Saud’s religious authority.
Facing threats from two flanks, the royal family moved to solidify support from the Wahhabis. It reversed signs of liberalization at home, banning women announcers from TV, closing music shops and movie theaters, and started investing more heavily in exporting Wahhabi teachings that reinforced sectarian identity to nations abroad.
“They have to double down after 1979,” said Bernard Haykel, author of Revival and Reform in Islam, “because they have these zealots internally. They have the threat of Iran. So, they mobilize all their religious resources. They pump a lot of money into religion, basically, both domestically and internationally, in order to boost their legitimacy and in order to ward off and fight the Iranian threat.”
Iraq: Sectarian Forces Unleashed
Iraq today is a nation with deep scars from the Iran-Saudi rivalry. In 1980, Iran’s new theocracy was still finding its footing when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, sensed an opening and suddenly attacked. Iran’s forces managed to push Iraq back, but rather than accept a ceasefire after two years of war, they decided to continue fighting, hoping to overthrow Saddam. Saudi Arabia would earn Iran’s lasting enmity when it decided at that point to back Saddam. Support from the Saudis and other allies would help Saddam survive, but not before more than one million lost their lives in the brutal eight-year long war.
When Saddam was toppled after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran would get an opportunity to expand its influence inside the Shia-majority, Sunni-ruled country. The Saudis had warned the U.S. that invasion would fuel instability in the region, and in the post-war power vacuum, chaos ensued. Sunnis felt marginalized by U.S. policies that dramatically reshaped their influence in government and the military. In the following years, Sunni militants carried out bombings of embassies and mosques. Bloody reprisals by Shia militias, many of them trained, funded and ideologically aligned with Iran, helped turn the unrest into a deadly sectarian war.
Meanwhile, young Saudi volunteers showed up to join a Sunni insurgency in Iraq, saying they had been encouraged to fight the Shia. They were facilitated by “preaching networks, charity networks, volunteer networks,” according to Steve Coll, author of The Bin Ladens. Money flowed from Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, to Sunnis who took up arms. Some of that money ended up with extremist groups like ISIS’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq.
A surge in U.S. troops, a crackdown on Sunni fighters by the Iraqi government and cooperation with Sunni tribes would finally quell the insurgency before American troops withdrew in 2011.
However, the abuse and humiliation of Sunnis by the forces of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, allowed ISIS to rise from the ashes of the insurgency. As ISIS grew and seized major cities like Mosul, Shia militias backed by Iran became integral to the counterattack - gaining legitimacy and popularity in the process.
In today’s Iraq, ISIS is on the retreat, and Iran has emerged with the upper hand, according to experts, with some of the militias it backs now trying to parlay their popularity into political power. The more they succeed, the more Iran will be insulated from any threat from Iraq in the future, said Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq. For Iran, Crocker said, “The real objective is to ensure that conditions will never again arise when any government in Baghdad can even contemplate an attack on Iran.”
Syria: A War of Attrition
The Syrian war began as a civil uprising in 2011, but when President Bashar al-Assad responded to mass demonstrations with a brutal crackdown, the conflict turned into an armed rebellion. In time, Iranian-backed Shia militias rallied to defend Assad, while Saudi-backed Sunni militants hijacked the rebellion for their own aims.
Syria had been an enduring ally for the Islamic Republic since 1979, and its territory provided a land bridge between Iran and its strongest proxy force - the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. Iran saw supporting Assad as key to helping secure their regional interests, even though Syria, a majority Sunni country, was being led by a relatively secular government. Iran backed Assad not only with money and weapons, but by sending military advisers from the country’s elite Quds Force and fighters from its proxy forces - Hezbollah, Iraqi militias and Shia fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan - to fight the rebels. Iran maintains that it doesn’t have a military presence in Syria, and only sends advisers at the Syrian government’s request.
For Iran’s rival, Saudi Arabia, the uprising presented an opportunity to topple a leader allied with Tehran. The Saudis became one of many backers of the Syrian rebels, along with Turkey, the United States, the European Union and other Gulf countries. While weapons were funneled to Syrian civilians, army defectors, and in some cases, groups vetted by the Pentagon or CIA, the war also attracted remnants of Iraq’s Al Qaeda affiliate and extremists released from prison by Assad. The jihadists soon became among the most lethal factions in the fighting.
The last few years have seen a grinding war of attrition in which Assad’s forces were accused of using barrel bombs and chemical weapons and targeting hospitals and schools, while extremist groups like ISIS flourished in the chaos.
Iran claims its intervention on behalf of Assad was to prevent ISIS from taking over.
“If you look at the situation in Syria, undermining the government in Syria is tantamount to giving [ISIS] Damascus on a platter,” Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, told FRONTLINE in an interview for Bitter Rivals.
The Saudis have argued that Assad is the larger threat. “Who has killed more than 300,000 Syrians?,” Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence minister, said in a 2016 interview with FRONTLINE. “Who has dislocated millions of Syrians … It is Assad. For us to defeat ISIS, Assad has to go.”
It seems unlikely that Assad will go anywhere now, with opposition forces and battered civilians concentrated in two remaining strongholds under intense bombardment. The United States, Russia, Turkey and Israel have each waded into Syria to varying degrees. Peace talks have collapsed, and the death toll continues to rise.
Yemen: Humanitarian Catastrophe
The war in Yemen began in 2015 when the Houthis, a rebel movement that follows the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam, moved against a weak national government that was backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
Saudi Arabia saw the Houthis’ aggression as a sign of Iran’s hand, and feared Yemen would be another country - right along the Saudis’ southern border - to fall under Iranian influence, like Iraq and Syria before.
“The war in Yemen is not a war that we chose. It’s not a war that we wanted,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told FRONTLINE, adding that the country had been “taken over by a militia allied with Iran and Hezbollah that is now in possession of ballistic missiles and an air force.”
In March 2015, a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia launched a military campaign in Yemen to help restore control of the country to their ally, President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The Obama administration, whose negotiations with Iran on a nuclear deal had rattled Saudi Arabia, backed the coalition, selling weapons, and providing assistance with refueling and targeting.
“We know that Yemen is important for Saudi Arabia, and we never want to stab Saudi Arabia in the back,” Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said. “We sent messages to them before Yemen erupted into this that Yemen is in turmoil; let’s work out something.”
The Houthis have fired missiles toward Saudi Arabia on multiple occasions since the war began. In November 2017, Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for such a missile launch, saying it was a “blatant act of military aggression by the Iranian regime” that “could rise to be considered as an act of war.”
“What you’re seeing with the Saudis in Yemen is the building of their military capacity,” said Haykel. “Not with the aim of destroying Yemen. But building up the capacity to be able to confront Iran, should there ever be a war with Iran.”
The conflict has devastated Yemen, already the region’s poorest country. More than 8 million people live on the brink of famine, and the United Nations has warned that the Saudi-led coalition is using “the threat of starvation as a bargaining tool and an instrument of war.” A cholera outbreak has already killed more than 2,000 people, roughly half of them children, and more than a million are thought to have been infected. The last time the U.N. released a death toll for the conflict was more than a year ago: 10,000 civilians killed. U.N.-mediated peace talks have stalled for more than a year.