Much attention has been focused on the possibility of a rapprochement between the United States and Iran, expressed most recently in a letter President Obama addressed to Iran’s supreme leader, which was leaked to the media. But another diplomatic encounter could prove almost as consequential: the possible thawing of bad blood between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
These two longstanding rivals have lots of reasons to hate each other: Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran are competing for leadership of the Islamic world. But it’s not just 14 centuries of sectarianism that divides them. Saudi Arabia is run by a royal family, while Iran is run by revolutionary clerics who overthrew a royal family. For decades, these two countries have competed with one another for dominance in the region in a Cold War-style conflict that has fanned the flames of sectarianism across the Middle East. Indeed, the civil war in Syria can be viewed as proxy war between Saudi Arabia, which funds Sunni rebels, and Iran, which uses Shiite militias to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad, who belongs to a Shiite minority sect.
The situation has left US foreign policy in a straitjacket: If the United States tries to topple Assad, then Iran’s Shiite militias will take their revenge in Syria and Iraq. But if the United States makes an accommodation with Assad, then Saudi Arabia will feel betrayed, and lash out by funding ever-more radical Sunni insurgents.