The current crisis between Iran and Saudi Arabia started on Saturday when Riyadh executed a prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, and in response an angry mob was allowed to set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Saudi Arabia then announced it was breaking off diplomatic relations with Iran, and was followed in that step by Bahrain and Sudan. But this week’s events were only a spark to very dry tinder. Iran and Saudi Arabia view themselves as engaged in a set of proxy wars for control of the Middle East. This is not a budding hot war, and not a Sunni-Shiite struggle, though each side attempts to use ideological affinity as a recruiting tool. Rather, it is a power game, reminiscent of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Why have Iran and Saudi Arabia gone toe to toe in the region? First, they believe that they have emerged as regional powers, and since the 19th century, great powers and regional powers have spheres of influence over small countries. Second, the uneasy balance of power between the two has been upset. It was first disturbed by the Bush administration’s overthrow of secular Sunni power in Iraq in favor of pro-Iranian religious Shiite power, which shifted Iraq in some important ways from the Saudi to the Iran side of the ledger. The balance of power was further upset in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria, by the revolutions and wars that began in 2011. These events imply that Riyadh and Tehran might not be able to maintain the status quo, and that the balance of power in the Middle East may tip toward one or the other when the smoke clears. Each wants to be on top when that day comes.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have cut off diplomatic ties before, as in the 1990s, but in 1997 they were restored when reformist Mohammad Khatami won the presidency of Iran. Analysts agree that there is little prospect of the two countries’ going to war. The United States lends Saudi Arabia, which produces about 11 percent of the world’s petroleum every day, a security umbrella and would never countenance an Iranian attack. Even if the United States weren’t in the picture, it just isn’t a very likely scenario at this time. Iran is a country of some 78 million with an experienced army of over half a million and some 800,000 Basij irregulars. But note that a lot of its military resources are sewn up in Syria. Saudi Arabia is a country of 17-20 million citizens with a largely untested army of a little over 200,000. American military doctrine is that a country should only attack with a three-to-one manpower advantage. This principle suggests that Saudi Arabia is very, very unlikely to begin hostilities with Iran. Nor is there any sign that Iran wants a hot war.
The two countries do not share a land border. Neither has much of a navy, and while the Saudi air force is respectable, the Iranian air force is a joke. As oil producers, both would be economically crippled by any hostilities that spun out of control. Even during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–88, a viciously fought replay of World War I with trench warfare and mustard gas, the two countries only occasionally struck at each other’s oil facilities, yet the price of petroleum plummeted from $40 a barrel to less than $10 a barrel during the course of the war.