Media Call: Tensions Between Saudi Arabia and Iran

Philip H. Gordon

Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Ray Takeyh

Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Anya Schmemann

Washington Director, Global Communications and Media Relations, Council on Foreign Relations

Mehdi Ghasemi/Reuters
Mehdi Ghasemi/Reuters

Council on Foreign Relations senior fellows discuss the current tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.


SCHMEMANN: Thank you, and good morning, everyone. I’m Anya Schmemann, Washington director of communications at the Council on Foreign Relations, and this is an on-the-record call to discuss tensions this week between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

As we know, Saudi Arabia executed 47 men on Saturday, including the prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. And after violent protests at the Saudi embassy in Tehran on Sunday, Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Iran. Some of its allies have followed suit, and the United States and its partners are now seeking ways to de-escalate the crisis.

I’m pleased to be joined this morning by two CFR senior fellows: Philip Gordon, who was most recently White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf; and Ray Takeyh, who was a senior adviser on Iran at the State Department. Thank you both for joining us this morning.

Philip, let me start with you. What message was Saudi Arabia trying to send with the execution of this cleric and then the severing of ties with Iran? What role is Saudi Arabia trying to play in the region?

GORDON: Thanks, Anya. And good morning, everybody.

I think it’s a good place to start on, messaging, because that more than anything is what this was about. I think there were multiple messages. In other words, it wasn’t just that the justice system ran its course and it was time to go ahead with an execution of someone they saw as a threat to the state. The timing of this execution was quite deliberate, to send a number of messages.

One, to the Shia community in Saudi Arabia, that questioning of the legitimacy of the kingdom will not be tolerated, and they’re not going to stand for any threats.

Two, to the Sunni community in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, that Saudi Arabia is a rampart against sectarian—against Shia encroachment on Sunni interests. So, again, a deliberate—while they were executing 46 Sunnis, they had to send a message that this was not—they weren’t just going after ISIS, al-Qaida, and Sunnis, but they were the country that was going to stand up for Sunni rights, even after going after some Sunnis.

And then I think there was a deliberate message to the United States. And in this sense, I think that the Iranian response and the sectarianism that we’ve seen in the wake is not an accidental result of the execution, but actually a deliberate one in the sense that Saudi Arabia, in some ways, has an interest in the growing sectarianism. Things are not going particularly well in the kingdom when you’ve got falling oil prices and budget deficits and a very difficult conflict in Yemen and lack of success in Syria and a potential transition coming up. Saudi Arabia has an interest in reviving sectarianism and showing that they’re going to be the stalwarts in standing up to it, in some ways changing the subject and in some ways, frankly, legitimizing their rule in Saudi Arabia.

So in that sense, I think this shouldn’t be seen as something that just went ahead and now they’re unfortunately coping with the rise in sectarianism, but actually it was a deliberate message that they’re not afraid to stand up to Iran. And if the United States—I guess this would be my last point—message to the United States: if they thought—if the United States thought that Saudi Arabia’s willingness to sit down at the table with Iran in the context of Syria was a sign that things were getting better and they were willing to compromise and cooperate with Iran, this was a very deliberate signal that that is just not the case.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you.

Ray, over to you. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been strained, with differences over Yemen and Syria. What are the consequences for the region of this breakdown of relations between Riyadh and Tehran?

TAKEYH: They’ve been long-strained—sporadically strained since 1979, with pragmatic voices on both sides at times trying to bring the relationship to a more steady path. There are—there are no pragmatic voices in either country today. Neither of them are really looking to kind of patch things up, as they have since previous incidents over hajj, over Khobar, and so on and so forth.

This is not a consequence of—the sectarian division in the Middle East is not a consequence of Iran-Saudi spat. Iran-Saudi spat is a consequence of the sectarian demarcation of the Middle East. Today, I think, you know, the region is very disorderly. It is polarized. It is polarized along sectarian lines. What the Saudis see is projection of Iranian power where it had not been before over the past 10, 11 years: Iraq, the Levant, Lebanon always. And what Iranians see is a beleaguered Saudi state that is engaging, frankly, in some self-defeating moves, such as the recent execution, which only accentuate the domestic difficulties the Saudis have otherwise.

So this conflict will go on. I don’t know how it ends, but the tension between the two states is likely to continue. And I think you’ll see it not so much in direct confrontation between them, but you’ll see it as they’ve tried to empower their surrogates, they’ve tried to empower their proxies. It will contribute to further radicalization of the region’s political culture and further polarization of the sectarian sides in the region.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you. And repercussions for Syria. Will these two countries be able to work together through the Vienna process, or are prospects for Syria now endangered?

TAKEYH: I don’t know if the Vienna process ever had a prospect. The Syrian civil war at times is wrongly compared to the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s. There are a lot of differences.

First, there was this sort of arrangement in Lebanon between sectarian groups that fell apart. There was never such an arrangement in Syria.

Second of all, the Lebanese civil war came to an end for a number of reasons. Number one, the local actors wanted to bring it to an end. Second, the regional actors—Iran, Saudi Arabia—wanted to bring it to an end. The superpower—in that case, the United States—wanted to bring it to an end. And ultimately, what was brokered in the Taif Accord was sustained by a Syrian occupation. None of those factors are obvious in the Syrian civil war today. The local parties are not inclined to bring it to an end. The regional actors are not inclined to bring it to an end, and they may in fact try to intensify it. And you have superpowers—one of them is militarily involved, Russia I guess you can call a superpower; the other one is reluctant to be involved, for lots of reasons. And even if there is brokered agreements on paper in Vienna, somebody has to enforce them. There is no external actor that is willing to do so in a—in a significant nationwide manner as, frankly, the Syrian occupation did in Lebanon for a long time.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you.

And, Philip, what are the repercussions for Syria of this event?

GORDON: So I agree with Ray. I mean, one shouldn’t overstate the progress that was made in Saudi Arabia sitting down at the same table with Iran. I mean, the gap remained enormous. Now, it was, I think, a positive thing that they were at least willing to come to the same table. But keep in mind, when they came to the table, Saudi Arabia made perfectly clear that it wasn’t changing its objectives and absolute insistence that Assad go and Iranian influence be limited in Syria. Indeed, the Saudis were saying quite clearly they did see a military solution. So it would be wrong to think that somehow we were on the verge of a big breakthrough and compromise, and then now, unfortunately, because of this execution we aren’t. The gap was already enormous, but now, unfortunately, it’s even bigger. And again, I fear that some degree of Saudi-Iranian tolerance—not rapprochement, because that’s just, you know, too unlikely—but some modus for them and willingness to tolerate each other’s influence is a prerequisite for bringing the war in Syria to an end. And what this latest intensification of the rivalry suggests is that’s not going to happen anytime soon. So, you know, so long as you have an Iran absolutely determined to back Assad militarily and financially and politically, but a Saudi Arabia absolutely determined to overthrow him and drive Iranian influence out of Syria, the war is going to go on. So it was already a longshot before last week, but that longshot got longer with the events in the past few days.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thank you.

Well, let’s open up for questions. For anyone who is joining us late this morning, I’m Anya Schmemann and I’m joined by two colleagues, Senior Fellow Philip Gordon and Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh, and we are discussing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and repercussions for the region.

And with that, Operator, if you could give instructions for how to get into the queue, please.

OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am. At this time we’ll open the floor for questions.

(Gives queueing instructions.)

Our first question comes from Doyle McManus from the Los Angeles Times.

Q: Good morning and thank you to all three of you. This is a question principally, I guess, for Phil. Is it accurate to say that the Saudis are in effect saying to the Obama administration: You have to choose between these two regional powers which one you’re going to consider your ally or your partner? And that the preferred position of the administration really was, no, we’d rather move toward a world in which we didn’t have to choose and could count and could eventually have both of our partners? That’s part A of the question. Part B is, there has been détente in the past between Saudi Arabia and Iran for periods. They have been able to deal on some things pragmatically. What would be needed to get back to that happy place?

GORDON: Yeah, good questions—yeah, thanks, good questions, Doyle.

On the first, absolutely. I do think that one of the messages from the Saudis was to the United States about the need to choose. That’s what I meant by if anyone thought—and I think they feared and suspected the United States might have thought that their willingness to sit down with Iran was a sign that maybe some compromise could be reached. And I think they heard that we in the United States were starting to think, you know, maybe we just ask the Saudis to make a few concessions here or there, maybe live with Assad, maybe accept Iranian influence in Syria and it’ll be OK. And with this, they’re basically saying to the U.S., no, you’re not going to get up to compromise along those lines. Besides, are you going to give into Iran. And if you are, you’re going to be facing resistance from us. Or, are you going to stand with us?

And in a way, it’s also a response to what they see as U.S. unilateral decisions that go against Saudi Arabia. You know, we’ve had some real differences over the past couple of years, and the Saudis have made no secret of the fact that they were unhappy about U.S. policy in Egypt, of not backing Mubarak, about U.S. policy in Iran, you know, a secret deal—secret talks and then a nuclear deal that frees up Iranian assets, which the Saudis are worried about. In Syria, the whole redline business with chemical weapons. All these were U.S. decisions for our own reasons that the Saudis didn’t like. And here they are, I think, responding by saying, fine, you can do things that you say are in your national interests, but we will do the same. And it was, in that sense, a very clear message to the U.S.

On your second point, absolutely right that there have been periods in which the Saudis and Iranians have gotten together reasonably well. And that’s why, you know, this notion of sectarianism and eternal hatred, you know, it has not been all-out war between Sunni and Shia for 1,400 years. There have been times when they have been able to cooperate. And those times end when there are political reasons for them to end, you know, after the Iranian revolution, when whether within a country or between countries there’s some change in the regional order. So in the ’79 revolution in Iran, after the U.S. 2003 invasion of Iraq. If you change the balance between Sunni and Shia, again either between countries or within countries, you get the rise in tension.

And I think this latest spate comes from the post-Arab Spring area, where in the absence of these authoritarian regimes it became an open question of who’s in charge. And it’s in that context that you get people rallying to Sunniism or Shiism. And it is also—you know, as puts countries like Yemen and Syria, so to speak, up for grabs, that stimulated the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran because they’re competing for power in those places where there’s a vacuum. So I think that we are not near the end of this completion. And until somehow those regional questions get answered, we’re just going to see this geopolitical rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is layered on top of the sectarian rivalry between Sunni and Shia just there on through this.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thank you. We’ll take the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Karl Vick from Time Magazine.

Q: Hi. I’m just curious of what your sense of the stability or the internal dynamics on the house of Saud is now? There’s been, as you know, some roiling, and some open letters, and there’s been stuff in the press indicating that King Salman is not enjoying the support of everyone. Whatever you can say.

SCHMEMANN: Phil, do you want—

GORDON: I can start—yeah, I’ll start with that maybe Ray will want to add something. But, look, no one should feel confident to make any predictions about the future of any of these countries. But what I can say is that clearly there are stresses and challenges that Saudi Arabia hasn’t faced for a long time, by which I mean—I already mentioned a little bit about the context. Falling oil prices or extremely low oil prices, which are—(inaudible)—behind the rising concern, which puts enormous pressure on the budget and doesn’t allow Saudi Arabia to keep its people happy, whether that be princes or the wider population, in the same way as it has in the past.

And they’ve actually faced in recent months some real challenges in terms of, you know, subsidies, and infrastructure spending, and a lot of the things the regime was able to do to satisfy its population, and running a real budget deficit. Now, fortunately they have quite substantial reserves, so this can go on for some time. But it can’t go on forever. That, on top of the conflict in Syria, which is not only draining the budget, but it’s not achieving the aims of the government, conflict in Yemen which is costing even more financially but also in terms of casualties and the perception that Saudi Arabia’s not proceeding and Iran is encroaching. And then, you know, obviously, what is seen as Iranian expansionism in the region.

So we have all of these domestic and foreign challenges at a time when inevitably there’s going to be a transition. And this time it’s going to be a transition to a new generation. So you have a relatively elderly king, who is the last of that generation of brothers to rule the kingdom. And so I think there’s increasing nervousness that the country is facing these huge challenges at a time when it might also be facing a transition that is less obvious than usual, with the King’s son as the deputy crown prince, but a crown prince in between the king and his son. So I don’t think any of that means that the kingdom is somehow on the verge of collapse, but it does mean that there are real enormous challenges that it faces. And if all of these things continue, you could get a sort of perfect storm of threats to Saudi stability.

SCHMEMANN: Ray, anything on this question or the previous question?

TAKEYH: I would say if you look at the history of Saudi Arabia and the house of Saud, you can talk about the very unusual, parochial economy that the country has, mainly as a distribution of welfare state, and whether that’s affordable in the future with the changing complexion of the energy and the demographic pressure is valid. However, when you look at the history of Saudi Arabia, the internal stability of it has usually be contingent on regional stability. When the region is this unstable, you begin to see that seep into Saudi internal politics. It was the way in the 1960s and ’50s with the rise of Nasserism.

In 1979, Iranian revolution had an impact on Saudi stability, in the sense that at least for a moment it proved attractive to a segment of the Shia community, and that triggered Sunni extremism. Two events happened in 1979, the seizure of Grand Mosque and the Iranian revolution. And they’re related. In the aftermath of 9/11, again, the regional instability has had an impact on Saudi stability itself. And, you know, the current Saudi regime, for a variety of reasons, Phil kind of alluded to them, has not been able to manage the domestic situation as adroitly as previous King Fahd and King Abdullah, both of whom had a measure of reforms in terms of bringing in the Shia community, trying to address its grievances, trying to afford some respect for its religious sensibilities. And they certainly had interlocutors in the Shia community.

The current execution, to me, reflects misreading of Saudi politics by the house of Saud. And it further polarizes the domestic—the domestic complexion of the country. You know, over the past hundred years, everybody has always predicted the demise of the house of Saud. And they have survived. I think they can survive and will survive into the future. The challenges they face are extraordinary, and in some cases unique. But I think they have the resources to manage it. But at this point, it’s not so much the question of resource. It’s a question of wisdom and ingenuity. And that seems particularly lacking in this particular order—monarchical order with the prince—the crown prince, the this, the that.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you. We’ll take another question. And, operator, please remind folks how to get into the queue.

OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question comes from—(inaudible).

Q: Hi. Thanks for taking the question.

So I wanted to ask about the immediate response that we’ve seen from Western governments in the wake of the execution on Saturday. One of the things we’ve seen is David Cameron potentially cancelling a trip where he was going to try to encourage fighter sales in Saudi Arabia. We’ve seen Germany reconsidering potential arms sales. In fact, that arms sales link has been a significant component of, I’d say, bridging between Saudi Arabia and some Western governments. What impact would it have if those sales are curtailed or if we don’t see the same kind of transfer of arms. Does it have a significant meaning for Saudi Arabia itself, and what does it mean for the relations between the kingdom and those Western governments?

GORDON: Yeah, thanks. First, I don’t think arms sales will be cancelled over this. I think what this shows is that, you know, Western governments face a real dilemma in the relationship with Saudi Arabia, because they—notwithstanding all of these differences and challenges and even the degrees that they think that the execution was misguided and not helpful, they have an interest in preserving the relationship with Saudi Arabia. And not just to sell arms or buy oil, but for all of its flaws and problems it not nonetheless remains a partner and a partner in intelligence against extremist groups. And instability in the kingdom or worse, some sort of collapse, would hardly be in the Western interest.

So it’s—you know, the United States and its European partners face a real dilemma where on one hand they want to press Saudi Arabia, and they may not in favor of some of its decisions—whether it’s the execution of the clerics or the intervention in Yemen—but they need and want to preserve the relationship. And that’s why you see this sort of ambiguity and unwillingness to really criticize or challenge, because they don’t want to make things worse and they do want to preserve cooperation with Saudi Arabia. But at the same time, don’t want to encourage certain Saudi actions like, you know, all-out war in Syria, or Yemen, or confrontation with Iran. So that’s, you know, why you see this sort of reluctance to add fuel to—fan the flames by all-out criticism or, I think, cancelling arms sales. But just efforts to sort of walk on eggshells and not make it worse.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you. Ray, anything on that side?

TAKEYH: I think the executions have to be criticized and condemned. There’s no question about that. And most of the Western countries have done that. This particular act stems from Saudi vulnerabilities. And at time when their vulnerabilities are as accentuated as they are today, I’m not quite sure that it’s useful for kind of talk about severance of relations and reconsidering and so on. But there’s no question that the Saudi—this sort of mass execution has to be subject to some measure of criticism on humanitarian grounds, on rule of law grounds, and all that.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you. I know we have a number of people on the phone but I don’t see any more questions at this point. Are there any more questions from our participants?

OPERATOR: I am showing no other questions from the queue.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

SCHMEMANN: OK, while we just wait one minute, Ray, a question for you. This crisis comes on the heels of the Iran nuclear deal and is a test of sort of the new U.S. more open relationship with Iran, if you will. Do you think that the Iran deal is imperiled in any way by these developments?

TAKEYH: I’m not sure if it is. The people who were in favor of the Iran deal suggest that it was about arms control and not about Iranian regional behavior and so on and so forth. And I think that’s still the case. But since the advent of the deal in July, Iran has become more aggressive in the region, more repressive at home, and less compliant with its arms control obligations, as is—and when it scoffed and derided a U.N. resolution on previous military dimensions of this program. That was, after all, whitewashing its previous military activities. It has tested the limits of international patience with its ballistic missile test—provocative ballistic missile test, in periphery of American naval vessels. But in terms of the actual components of the accord, I think the accord was very favorable to Iran it would be in their interest to sustain it.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you. OK, and we will wrap up this call a little early since our fellows are rushing off to other appointments. But, Phil, the last question is to you. You know, obviously this region controls access to a third of the world’s oil supply. What might be the repercussions for oil and gas if this—if these tensions continue?

GORDON: Well, one interesting thing is that in the short term there haven’t really been any. It says something about, you know, the oil market now. I mean, in the past years or decades, tensions to this degree would have sent, you know, oil prices rising just on, you know, uncertainty. But they’re—that hasn’t happened in this case. And I think it has to get a lot worse before it does. But the broader point about that, I think, is people sometimes overstate the degree to which U.S. energy independence allows us not to care about oil from this region. Oil is, of course, you know, fungible in global markets. And if others are dependent on Middle Eastern oil, whether it’s China, or India, or Europe, or anyone, it still matters for the United States.

So that’s what gives us the real stake in the region and in continued stability in Saudi Arabia. And it would be wrong to somehow conclude that because we are more energy independent than we were before, we can be indifferent to this. And again, it goes back to what I had said about the previous question about U.S. and other policies. For all of our concerns, and criticism, and discomfort with certain moves, you know, by Saudi Arabia or others, no one has a plan for a transition or a different sort of regime. The Western interest in stability in Saudi Arabia and in the region, you know, remains very strong.

SCHMEMANN: OK. Thank you. Well, thank you both. And thank you to all our participants who listened today. Once again, this was an on-the-record call with Philip Gordon and Ray Takeyh. And the transcript and audio of this call will be posted online at shortly. You can also find a number of resources including backgrounders, analyses, interviews, op-eds, and more on So we encourage you to go there and visit. And once again, thank you to our scholars and thank you to all. And we will wrap up the call at this point.

"Saudi Arabia has an interest in reviving sectarianism and showing that they’re going to be the stalwarts in standing up to it, in some ways changing the subject and in some ways, legitimizing their rule in Saudi Arabia."
- Philip H. Gordon
"The tension between the two states is likely to continue. And I think you’ll see it not so much in direct confrontation between them, but you’ll see it as they’ve tried to empower their surrogates, they’ve tried to empower their proxies."
- Ray Takeyh
"If the United States thought that Saudi Arabia’s willingness to sit down at the table with Iran in the context of Syria was a sign that things were getting better and they were willing to compromise and cooperate with Iran, this was a very deliberate signal that that is just not the case."
- Philip H. Gordon
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