Iran and Saudi Arabia: Regional rivalry

Tuesday, October 4 15:00 UK / 10:00 EDT

A war of words between Iran and Saudi Arabia broke out on the eve of the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei described the Saudi royal family as "puny Satans", accusing the kingdom of murdering injured Iranian pilgrims after the fatal hajj stampede last year. In response, the senior Saudi cleric charged that Iranians were not Muslims at all -- and other officials on both sides weighed in. There have been no diplomatic relations between the two states since January, and Iranian pilgrims could not join the hajj this year.

The conflict is not just rhetorical -- the two countries are engaged in active proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, as well as a bitter fight for influence in Lebanon. But could it become more direct? There are indications of escalation: Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of supporting Sunni separatists within its borders, while Saudi Arabia has asked the UN Security Council to condemn Iran for arming the Huthis in Yemen.

Feeling the lack of US support since the Iran nuclear deal, what unilateral steps might Saudi Arabia take to preserve its security? And how might Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seek to pre-empt them?

This rivalry raises a broad swathe of regional questions:

• What would be the warning signs of a direct military confrontation?
• How does the issue play out in Saudi royal family politics?
• Is Yemen a genuine proxy conflict -- can Iran control the Huthis?
• Could the common enmity towards Islamic State group (ISG) prompt a rapprochement?
• Has the new Iran-Russia alliance changed the balance of power?
• Can Turkey remain neutral in this confrontation?
• How could the conflict be affected by the outcome of the US presidential election?