Why the West Can Side with Iran in the Recent Feud with Saudi Arabia

Why the West Can Side with Iran in the Recent Feud with Saudi Arabia January 10, 2016
Embassy of  Saudi Arabia in Tehran. Photo by مانفی. Via Wikipedia.
Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Tehran. Photo by مانفی. Via Wikipedia.

I wanted to write about the recent diplomatic tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. To recap: Recently Saudi Arabia executed Nimr al-Nimr, a Saudi Shiite cleric with close ties to Iran, which caused riots all around the region in Shiite countries. In Iran extremist Shiites attacked Saudi embassy, and in response to that Saudi Arabia cut all diplomatic ties with Iran and many Sunni-dominated countries followed suit. In this latest feud in the region, it’s wise for US and the West to not automatically side with the Saudis.

Noah Feldman at Bloomberg View says:

More broadly, this shift reflects increasingly overlapping U.S.-Iranian interests. Both want to stabilize Iraq, including by keeping the Iraqi Sunnis in a secondary position. Both would like to defeat Islamic State, a relatively low priority for the Saudis, who either don’t fear the Sunni militant group or fear it so much they don’t want to join the battle.

There are still plenty of points where U.S. and Saudi interests converge, and oppose Iranian interests. Both sides dislike Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and want Hezbollah to have less, not more power in Lebanon. Both want to restabilize Egypt and indeed the region more broadly, creating a broad-based Sunni alliance to balance Iranian expansion.


The painful truth for the Saudis is that the U.S. and Iran are plausible strategic allies, whose once close relationship was disrupted by the Islamic Revolution. The U.S. preference for Saudi Arabia in the Gulf was the result of Iranian intransigence and ideology, not any inherent strategic advantage possessed by the kingdom.

All this is pretty much true. However, there are aspects of Feldman’s analysis I pretty much disagree with. Feldman calls Iran’s behavior “clever” and acts as if the Iranian regime acted with a singular mind, but that is false. People who attacked the embassy pretty much wanted to damage Rouhani’s agenda, and they succeeded.

Rouhani’s agenda has a single goal: deescalation and reconciliation. Rouhani wants to improve relations with USA and Europe, and the nuclear deal was a big part of that. But he also wants to improve relations with the countries in the region. Political scientist Mahmoud Sariolghalam is an unofficial adviser to President Rouhani, and his entire thesis is that the problem of Middle East will not be solved unless Middle East is governed like Europe, through a cooperative body like the EU.

Now that we are in a diplomatic crisis, Rouhani’s agenda has been served a rather decisive blow. People who did this knew this would happen and this precisely why they did it.

Attacking the embassy was an illegal and immoral act of radicals with the purpose of undermining the moderates. However, Saudi Arabia’s reaction was completely irrational too. Saudi Arabia should try to quench the fires of the region not to set them even more ablaze. Iran and Saudi Arabia need to deescalate. However Saudis baited radical Shiites by executing a Shiite figure and used that situation to create more crisis.

Also, Sunni Shiite ethnic divide is the most pressing concern of the region, and Saudi Arabia is not helping by executing a Shiite cleric.

All of this amounts to an important factor: Currently, the West’s policy in the region is too much tilted toward Saudi Arabia. It’s time to tilt this to strike a balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and such a move would be good for the West, the region, and stability.

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