Saudi king's death unlikely to change rivalry with Iran

Saudi king's death unlikely to change rivalry with Iran
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and others offered official condolences on the death of Saudi King Abdullah, but not much more was said publicly. (Vahid Salemi / Associated Press)

In Iran, Saudi Arabia's longtime rival for influence in the Middle East, there is little expectation that King Abdullah's death will alter the deep enmity that has helped fuel hostilities and proxy battles throughout the region, including in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain.

"In the near future, there will not be any letup between the two adversaries," said Nader Karimi Juni, a political analyst in Tehran. "Iran and Saudi Arabia will never be friends. Each country has a hostile ideology toward the other."


President Hassan Rouhani and others offered their official condolences, but not much more was said publicly. Abdullah died Friday at age 90.

Press TV, the state-run English language news service, reflected the official view when it noted that, under Abdullah's rule, Saudi Arabia "became an incubator for groups promoting extremism," including Al Qaeda offshoots such as Islamic State, which regard Iran as a bitter enemy.

The ill will between Saudi Arabia and Iran predates Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. But many in Iran recall bitterly how Saudi Arabia backed former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war that left hundreds of thousands dead.

The geopolitical rivalry between the two regional giants has often become entwined with sectarian concerns centering on Islam's two major branches. Officials in both Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia view themselves as global leaders of Islam.

Many Saudis do not view Shiites as true Muslims, and Iranian clerics routinely condemn Saudi Arabia's severe Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, which is also embraced by many Sunni militants who target Shiites as apostates.

In recent years, Iran has more than held its own in its regional rivalry with Saudi Arabia, despite Riyadh’s oil riches and its close ties to the United States. That has clearly frustrated Saudi officials and their allies in Washington. Saudi Arabia, like Israel, also views with alarm the prospect of U.S.-Iranian political rapprochement, should world powers finally reach an accord on Tehran’s nuclear program.

The collapse this week of the Saudi-backed government in Yemen — and the rise there of the Houthi minority, regarded by Riyadh as an Iranian proxy — was a blow to the late king's regional strategy. Saudi Arabia now faces the disquieting prospect of an Iranian ally governing along its southern border. But that was just the latest regional setback for the monarchy.

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which toppled Hussein, a Sunni, led to an upsurge in sectarian tension throughout the region. The U.S. invasion also had the unintended consequence of flipping Iraq toward Iran. Iraq's Shiite majority gained power in Baghdad. Riyadh fumed and funneled support to Iraq's disgruntled Sunni minority.

During the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, Saudi officials decided they could not risk a similar outcome in Bahrain, the Persian Gulf nation where a Sunni monarchy governs a Shiite majority. Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to quell a Shiite-led revolt.

In Syria, Iran has backed the government of President Bashar Assad, a member of the Shiite Alawite sect, while Riyadh has funneled funds and weapons to the Sunni-dominated opposition. Three years ago, it looked like Assad's government was on the brink of collapse. No more. With the help of Iran and Hezbollah, Iran's Lebanese ally, Assad has held out and pushed back Saudi and U.S.-backed rebels.

In Lebanon, where Hezbollah has carved out a dominant position against its Saudi-backed Sunni rivals, power-jockeying between the two camps has contributed to a virtual government paralysis. No one expects it to end anytime soon. Tiny Lebanon is one more country where Saudi Arabia and Iran engage in their complex geo-political board game.

Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut.

Twitter: @mcdneville