from Center for Preventive Action

Managing the Saudi-Iran Rivalry

Insights From a CFR Workshop

October 24, 2016


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Saudi Arabia


Defense and Security

Radicalization and Extremism


The growing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran—and by extension, their allies and proxy forces in the region—will likely shape the Middle East for many years, and possibly even decades, to come. The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, while historical and religious in origin, has evolved into a geopolitical competition. The Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations convened an international group of twenty experts at the Tufts University European Center in Talloires, France, on July 6–7, 2016, for the workshop "What to Do About the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry?"

Workshop participants analyzed the Saudi-Iran rivalry—in particular its evolution, drivers, current manifestations, and plausible trajectories—while assessing policy options to help manage the conflict. Participants discussed what the United States and Europe can do collectively and with partners in the region, and also with other international actors (e.g., China, India, and Russia) that have growing interests in the Middle East. Although the rivalry has manifested itself mostly in the Middle East—namely in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Bahrain—general instability and war threaten broader security, and the West could experience spillover effects if a war were to actually break out between the two countries.

The report, which you can download here, summarizes the discussion's highlights. The report reflects the views of workshop participants alone; CFR takes no position on policy issues.

Framing Questions for the Workshop

Understanding the Saudi-Iran Rivalry: Sources and Dynamics

What are the principal sources of rivalry and friction? To what extent are these national, political, religious, economic or military in nature? How has the relationship evolved historically, and what accounts for periods of relative cooperation and confrontation? How might the rivalry evolve as a result of internal political changes in either country? How likely are such changes in the foreseeable future? Will the rivalry evolve primarily as a consequence of internal changes or external pressures?

Assessing the Risks of Saudi-Iranian Rivalry: Current and Emerging Concerns

What is the likelihood that the current Saudi-Iran rivalry will intensify in the short term (one to three years)? What are the principal areas of contention and axes of escalation? What are the most serious risks—political, security, economic, humanitarian—primarily for the United States and Europe, should the rivalry intensify? What new areas of competition and friction might evolve in the longer term? For example, what happens after the terms of the JCPOA expires?

Managing the Present: What Should or Can the United States and Europe Do?

What are the broad strategic options for the United States/Europe to manage the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and reduce the associated risks to the West? What are the policy implications of each and their relative merits and shortcomings? How can the United States and Europe manage, if not resolve, the specific sources of tension and competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, especially the ongoing proxy wars? What are the West's principal instruments of leverage and opportunities for exerting influence, either directly or indirectly, through other actors? Failing active mitigation efforts, how can the United States and Europe contain, or otherwise limit, the harmful spillover effects on their regional interests and national security?

Shaping the Future: Forestalling Dangerous New Developments

What initiatives could be taken to minimize new and potentially dangerous avenues of competition and, more broadly, promote stability in the Gulf region? This can include unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral initiatives having to do with, among other things, arms sales, security assistance/guarantees, arms control agreements, economic aid, and regional institution-building. How much would such initiatives hinge on near-term efforts to manage the Saudi-Iranian rivalry? How can other important international actors—for example, the UN as well as major powers with a growing stake in the Gulf, such as China and India—be engaged in support of U.S./European goals?