The Saudi-Iranian Cold War

By late 2017, about the only thing lower than President Donald Trump’s approval rating was the likelihood of a near-term Saudi-Iranian rapprochement in the Middle East. Five years of constant low-level regional proxy conflicts between the states during the Arab Spring and its aftermath have increased the long-standing animosity and security fears of the two countries, and brought this rivalry into the public eye. It’s now widely accepted that Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a ‘Cold War’-style struggle for primacy of the Middle East.

But while there are some aspects of this picture that are accurate, it is also an oversimplification of a complex regional environment. This narrative also underplays the extent to which U.S. foreign policy in recent years has helped to shape today’s regional conflicts, a mistake that the Trump administration’s one-sided approach to the region risks exacerbating.

The description of Saudi-Iranian tensions as a new “Cold War” did not originate in a direct comparison to the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, but in the 1950s-1960s regional struggles dubbed by the historian Malcolm Kerr the “Arab Cold War.”1 This earlier rivalry between Nasser-style Arab nationalism and regional monarchies was driven in part by domestic political factors-notably fears about regime stability-and in part by insecurity and a zero-sum picture of regional power dynamics. Instead of direct military conflict, states focused on proxy conflicts and support for non-state actors to gain the upper hand. The similarities today are clear.

But while the pithy ‘Cold War’ framing has become shorthand for media stories about Saudi-Iranian tensions, relying on it to actually understand regional dynamics is problematic.2 For one thing, it implies a struggle over ideology comparable to that of the United States and Soviet Union, with many outside observers focusing on the idea of a sectarian religious conflict to explain the rivalry. Yet the notion of monolithic Sunni and Shi’a blocs of states struggling against one another is largely inaccurate.

Rising bipolar tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are real, and have serious implications for U.S. foreign policy.

Instead, there are strong divisions inside the Sunni camp, which Gregory Gause has described as an “intra-Sunni Cold War.”3 These divisions are most clearly visible in the ongoing Saudi embargo of Qatar, a country not only culturally and religiously similar to Saudi Arabia, but also a fellow member of the Gulf Cooperation Council. They also played a key role in worsening the post-Arab Spring wars: the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia each backed different foreign rebel groups often directly at odds with one another. And there are many regional flashpoints-from Kurdish separatism to the role of the Muslim Brotherhood-that will never fit into this simplistic bipolar frame.

Nor is the tension between Iran and the Sunni states driven purely by sectarianism. In fact, scholars have often noted that while sectarianism is clearly apparent in today’s tensions, causality appears to mostly run the other way. Regional governments themselves encourage sectarian identity to build support for their foreign policies and increase regime stability.4Sectarianism may be more of a tool for these states in achieving their foreign policy goals than a cause of their foreign policy orientations.

Treating the Iranian-Saudi rivalry as a ‘Cold War’ also helps to obscure domestic politics, which scholars have long highlighted as pivotal to the international relations of the Middle East. The fact that most states in the region ‘underbalance’ against threats has often been explained as a function of domestic constraints (for example, public opinion on Palestine makes it difficult for Saudi Arabia to ally with Israel). And fears about domestic regime stability have often been a key driving force for states’ foreign policy decisions.

The bottom line is simple: rising bipolar tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are real, and have serious implications for U.S. foreign policy. Yet claiming that the current situation is easily explicable as an endogenous or ideological ‘Cold War’-style rivalry oversimplifies the issue and makes it more challenging to formulate a coherent and effective U.S. policy response.

To understand the potential implications of this rivalry for U.S. foreign policy, policymakers first need to understand why it is happening now. Saudi Arabia and Iran have never been particularly friendly; tensions have fluctuated for years. But there are two key reasons why tensions are today at an historic high.

The first is domestic. As Marc Lynch describes in his recent book, the wars now roiling the Middle East originated in the domestic revolutions of the Arab Spring.5 Though it will be many years before scholars fully understand the causes of the Arab Spring movements, it is clear that economic malaise and long-running political repression played key roles in popular mobilization and unrest. This unrest led to upheaval in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon and elsewhere, providing a convenient space for both Saudi Arabia and Iran to seek to expand their regional influence, as well as an impetus to do so lest the other gain an advantage.

The second reason requires U.S. policymakers to look closer to home: America’s policies in the Middle East in recent years have also contributed to these tensions. The overthrow of the Iraqi government in 2003 helped to turn one of the Middle East’s most populous states — and one that had been at least somewhat stable — into the exact kind of weakly institutionalized state perfect for regional proxy struggles. The invasion also substantially increased Iranian influence inside Iraq, a shift in the regional balance of power that increased Saudi perceptions of threat.6

As the Arab Spring revolts unfolded — and anticipating the potential U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal-Saudi leaders reacted by supporting groups in Syria and elsewhere. The Iranian government, meanwhile, faced with the prospect of losing a traditional ally in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the example of another U.S. regional intervention against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, fought all the harder to hold their ground. Threat perceptions drove both states to intervene throughout the next few years, perhaps most notably in the 2015 Saudi intervention in Yemen.

It’s important, therefore, to understand that U.S. foreign policy is not exogenous to today’s regional tensions. Nor can U.S. policy necessarily provide a solution. The Obama administration’s relatively even-handed approach to the region-concluding the nuclear deal and refusing to help the Gulf States overthrow Bashar al-Assad-still tended towards supporting America’s traditional Gulf State allies, particularly in support for their war in Yemen. In doing so, it served to worsen tensions.

The Trump administration appears to be willing to go much further, effectively backing Saudi Arabia by dialing up diplomatic pressure, and placing troops in Syria with the express purpose of countering the ‘strategic threat’ from Iran.7 Such moves are likely only to increase Iranian threat perceptions, encouraging them to engage in further asymmetric actions. Nor will this approach likely yield good outcomes for U.S. foreign policy: it undermines the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), drives continued regional conflict, and makes diplomacy more difficult.

This is unfortunate, as the so-called Saudi-Iranian ‘Cold War’ offers a chance for U.S. policymakers to reconsider our approach to the region. Though policymakers are quick to fall back on historic ties to the Gulf States and animosity towards Iran when formulating U.S. policy, it is worth questioning how relevant this framing still is. American and Saudi interests are no longer as aligned as they were when the Soviet Union still stood. Modern Saudi foreign policy-particularly its focus on proselytizing abroad-has undoubtedly contributed to the spread of more extreme and intolerant variants of Islam. Even as the Saudi government has been an active partner in fighting the War on Terror, its citizens and religious missions have undermined it.

At the same time, Iranian and American interests sometimes overlap, in a way they did not thirty years ago. Tehran still engages in much of its traditional destabilizing behavior, but Iran has also played an active role in the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and in recent years has shown itself to be willing to negotiate on key issues like the nuclear question. Some of the criticisms that are commonly used to describe Iran as a pariah state, though they may be accurate, ignore the broader picture. Tehran is no democracy, but its citizens have more rights than their counterparts in the Gulf States. Iran continues to develop missiles in part to maintain military parity with Saudi Arabia and other neighboring states who have also obtained such capabilities.8 And the last five years make it abundantly clear that while Iran funds and arms non-state actors throughout the region, other states are also heavily reliant on this tool of foreign policy.

The Iranian-Saudi rivalry thus offers an opportunity for policymakers to consider whether a more balanced approach to Middle Eastern policy might produce better outcomes. Such a policy would continue the Obama administration’s attempts to increase engagement with Tehran, criticizing when necessary, but negotiating on key issues, attempting to empower moderates, and seeking to reintegrate Iran into the global economy. At the same time, it would seek to maintain good ties with Riyadh, but dial down U.S. support for its more aggressive foreign policy initiatives, ending U.S. military support for the war in Yemen and refusing to deploy U.S. troops to fight Iranian proxies in Syria.

The idea of a new Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a passable metaphor for today’s Middle East, but a poor way to actually understand the causes and impact of today’s regional tensions. The Trump administration’s one-sided approach to the region-which appears to buy into this simplistic, good versus evil narrative-will do little to lower tensions. Instead, policymakers have an opportunity to question America’s regional strategy and consider whether a more balanced approach will produce a better outcome in the long run.


  1. Malcolm Kerr, The Arab Cold War (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).
  2. Zack Beauchamp, “Iran and Saudi Arabia’s Cold War is Making the Middle East Even More Dangerous,” Vox, 30 March 2015,
  3. F. Gregory Gause III, Beyond Sectarianism: the New Middle East Cold War (Doha: Brookings Doha Center 2014),
  4. “The Politics of Sectarianism,” Project on Middle East Political Science Brief #4, 13 November 2013,
  5. Marc Lynch, The New Arab Wars (New York: Public Affairs, 2017).
  6. Frederick Wehrey et al, The Iraq Effect: The Middle East after the Iraq War (Washington, D.C.: RAND Corporation, 2010),
  7. Liz Sly and Carol Morello, “U.S. Troops will stay in Syria to counter ‘strategic’ threat from Iran,” The Washington Post, 17 January 2018,
  8. Jeff Stein, “Exclusive: CIA Helped Saudis in Secret Chinese Missile Deal,” Newsweek, 29 January 2014,
Emma Ashford is a Research Fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. Her work on U.S. policy towards the Middle East has been published most recently in U.S. Grand Strategy in the 21st Century: The Case for Restraint (Routledge, 2018).