International Relations Theory
April 27, 2018
Iran and Saudi Arabian Competition
The puzzle of my research revolves around the regional competition of Iran and Saudi Arabia. I plan to identify which theories of international relations explain the competition of these countries by analyzing historical, social and political factors of the competition. I will then define realism and a theory of international relations and define liberalism as a theory of international relations. Finally, I will discuss how these theories explain the regional competition of Iran and Saudia Arabia.
Historical evidence proves a relationship between these two countries that has been, at times, problematic and at times, cordial (Kelkitili, 2016, p. 26). The two main spheres of competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia can be categorized as ideological and geopolitical (Tzemprin, 2015, p. 189). Additionally, the Gulf region is important to the international community because much of the world’s economy depends on energy resources found there (Kelkitli, 2016, p. 25). In reality, the Persian Gulf has scarcely achieved the conditions for peace since the 1970s (Kelkitli, 2016, p. 13). Instead the region has become known for “destructive wars, revolutions, failed revolutionary attempts and political upheavals (Kelkitli, 2016, p. 13).
Within Iran and Saudi Arabia are two denominations of Muslim religious groups that play an important role in understanding the competition between the two countries. The Shiites of the region are supported by the government of Iran (Bzeina, 2015). Additionally, Iran supports Shiites in other countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain causing unrest in the government and uprisings amongst heavily financed militia groups (Bzeina, 2015). To further complicate matters, the Shiite sect of Islam has a presence in both Saudia Arabia and Iran giving the supporting nation opportunity to incite them when it is in the nation’s best interests (‘The Saudis Little Cold War, 2016). This further explains why Saudi executed Shiite cleric Nimr Al-Nimr who was accused of inciting terrorism in the country in 2016 (‘The Saudi’s Little Cold War’, 2016). Shiites in Iran responded by storming the Saudi embassy in Iran, causing the severance of diplomatic ties between the two countries as well as deepened tensions in the middle east (‘The Saudi’s Little Cold War’, 2016).
The divide of the Shiites and Sunnis can be traced to the 7th century when the conquest of the Persians spread Islam to the Gulf region (Tzemprin, 2015, p. 189). It was not until the 17th century that Shiiism spread to Iran (Tzemprin, 2015, p. 189). Consequently, Saudi Arabia sees itself as the protector of Sunni Islam and has the most important religious sites of the sect in its territory (Treverton, 2014, p. 22). Lebanon’s weak central government has attracted the Shiite-led group, Hezbollah while Saudi Arabia supports Sunni populations there by backing pro-western Sunni-led populations (Bzeina, 2015). The competition is for influence in countries that are close to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Some of the actions of these countries can be attributed to the fact that, “The Persian Gulf is composed of states among which there exists high level of security interdependence that is their national securities cannot be considered apart from each other” (Kelkitli, 2016, p. 25).
The ideological competition between these two groups is both political and religious in nature. For example, Iran disagrees with monarchy as expressed by Saudi Arabia (Kelkitli 2016, p. 27). In 1979, a Saudi Mosque was seized as by those who claim that the Al-Saud dynasty was not legitimate and should not rule the region (Kelkitli 2016, p. 28). Iranians link this political dissatisfaction and the perceived regional hegemony of Saudi Arabia to call for Muslim leaders in the region to return to the principles of the early Islamic years (Kelkitli 2016, p. 28). Iran has codified this stance against Saudia Arabia in government programs aimed to oversee religious activities in other countries and also to aid foreign Islamic movements (Kelkitli, 2016, p. 27). Overall, it is Iran’s discontent with the international order that is the driving many of the reactions of Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries (Nazer, 2016, p.10). As a result, Saudi Arabia sees Iran as the main security threat in the region which brings to the fore the ongoing struggle for security in a region that is heavily guided by interconnected security schemes or the lack thereof (Berti, 2015, p, 26)
Iran has one of the largest and most technically advanced military in the middle east (Rich, 2012, p. 472). Iran’s growing nuclear capability, growing military, exercises in the Persian Gulf and military exercises are threatening to Saudi Arabia (Kelkitil, 2016, pp.41-43). The fear of Iranian expansion in the Middle East is greatly attributed to the nuclear threat which is an ongoing dispute between Israel, Iran and United States though it greatly affects the neighboring countries (Tzemprin, 2015, p. 195). Saudi Arabia also opposes nuclear deals with the west stating that, “The normalization of relations between Iran and the West and Iran’s heightened regional role is for Tehran a chance to achieve regional dominance and further encourage Shiite populations to oppose their Sunni rulers in the Gulf monarchies including Saudi Arabia.” (Tzemprin, 2015, p. 197).
In summation, the 2003 American attacks on Iraq weakened a regional political balance that included Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia (Kelkitli, 2003, p. 26). Iraq and Saudi Arabia were then positioned as regional powers though ideological and geopolitical differences caused and is causing conflict in the region. Iran is dissatisfied with the international order and seeks regional supremacy through the religious radicalization, the threat of military force and by inciting political revolution regionally. Saudi Arabia seeks to maintain the status quo as a powerful and western-allied country in the region with substantial natural resources (Rich, 2012, p. 471). Both countries are major suppliers of energy to the international community making their skirmishes extremely important to the world at large.
Theoretical explanations for the Competition Between Iran and Saudi Arabia
Realism as a theory of international relations assumes that self-interest is the primary motivating force over moral principle in international relations (Morkevi?ius, 2015, p. 11). The theory also rests on a few other key assumptions. The first assumption is that the international system is hierarchical meaning that states must consider their own interests and security because there is no higher power than the state to judge and guide interactions (Morkevi?ius, 2015, p. 14). This aspect of the theory also posits that war is inevitable. Another key assumption is that survival is the underlying motivation for states actions (Morkevi?ius, 2015, p. 15). This is not to say that states do not have other concerns, it simple highlights the idea that states cannot realize other concerns until survival and, consequently, security, is established (Morkevi?ius, 2015, p. 15).
Liberalism as a theory of international relations emphasizes the primacy of societal actors in the interactions between, among and within states (Moravcsik, 1997). The individual and private group is rendered fundamental to this theory and these actors are regarded as rational, and risk averse (Moravcsik, 1997). These actors are theorized to define their values apart from political considerations and then advance their interests politically and through collective action (Moravcsik, 1997). According to this theory, the state is not an actor but a protector of the desires of the people and constantly subject to the interests of social actors (Moravcsik, 1997). The final assumption that this theory makes is that states realize their interests under the varying constraints imposed by other states (Moravcsik, 1997). This political, social and economic interdependence is a hallmark of the theory and seeks to explain the variation in the substantive content of foreign policy (Moravcsik, 1997).
Issues of security in the Persian Gulf clearly illustrate realist motivations for acting. Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons has driven Saudi Arabia to develop domestic initiatives and seek foreign support in securing its survival in the region. For example, the Kingdom has taken steps to develop nuclear weapons for peaceful purposes and has also developed a security scheme that is led by the United States and Western powers (Kelkitli, 2016, p. 43). Another example with harsher and immediate implications is the Iranian and Saudi response to the Bahranian uprising of 2011 (Kelkitli, 2016, p. 33). Iran interpreted the demonstrations following the mass demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011 as an act inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution. (Kelkitli, 2016, p. 34). Iran proceed to instigate the demonstrations by supporting terrorist groups and subversive forces there (Kelkitli, 2016, p. 35).
The Saudi response was to send 1,000 troops to Bahrain to ensure its national security (Kelkitli, 2016, p. 35). The motivation for this action on the part of Saudi Arabia was survival. Saudi forces were afraid that Iran would continue to expand influence and, consequently, the nuclear threat by inciting and recruiting subversive forces in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia assumed that if Bahrain was under Iranian control, the threat of nuclear war was eminent so it took precautionary measures to prevent this. Furthermore, if Iranian did not have military power in the region, the Bahranian protests might not have been as important to Saudi Arabia’s national interests. According to realists’ theory, the Saudis sent troops to Bahrain in 2011 because the demonstrations were supported by a rival state (Iran) who had the ability and interest in impeding Saudi Arabia’s survival by way of nuclear threat.
The Syrian civil war is one that highlights Iran acting uncharacteristically and is explained through a liberal lens. Iran is generally known to be pro-revolution and encourage the toppling of regimes in the region through the funding of state and non-state actors. In this example, Syria’s leader, Bashar al- Assad, was kept in power by strong Iranian forces (Kelkitli, 2016, p. 36). In this scenario, Iran sees Syria as a gateway to the Arab world and of key strategic importance (Kelkitli, 2016, p.36). While the ideological ambitions of Iran might prompt it to act differently in a different scenario, this example highlights the interdependence of Syria and Iran (Kelkitli, 2016, p. 36). Iran uses Syria to supply and fund Hezbollah, a powerful insurgent group in the region (Kelkitli, 2016, p. 36). Uninhibited by legal, political and social restrictions, Hezbollah can act freely on behalf of Iran’s interests making it a key player in the overarching goal to gain regional dominance (Kelkitli, 2016, p.36). In order for Iran to continue building Hezbollah, it must maintain a good relationship with Syria and needs Syria’s al-Assad to prevail (Kelkitli, 2016, p. 36). Syria has also demonstrated allegiance to Iran in the Iran-Iraq war when it supported Iranian efforts (Kelkitli, 2016, p. 36). Liberal theory would suggest that this relationship is made possible by economic and security interdependence as well as the interests of non-state actors in Syria and Iran who approve of the relationship. The fact that Hezbollah is a private non-state actor also highlights the liberal theoretical assumption that individuals and non-state actors can influence the actions of states which are subject to their values and interests.
Take again the Bahranian example mentioned above. The involvement of the Saudi forces can be seen from a realist perspective as an act to acquire security for the Saudis. Additionally, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are economically interdependent as they partner in the oil industry (Tzemprin 2015, p. 191). This minor detail influences the potential motivation for the deployment of over 1000 troops to the region in 2011. Bahrain is also an ally to the United States and houses a fleet there making it a center for power and stability in the region (Tzemprin, 2015, p. 191). Saudia Arabia could have seen Bahrain as a key ally and strategic economic partner in the region above and beyond the looing nuclear threat of an indirect confrontation with Iran. Saudia Arabia. Additionally, the 2011 demonstrations were enacted by individuals and private non-state actors who drew the attention of foreign military, economic and political powers to Bahrain (Tzemprin, 2016, p. 191). The internal discomfort of Shiite and Sunni populations inspired the international attention which initially attracted Iranian supporters and the Saudi response (Tzemprin, 2016, p. 191). Overall, the explanation for 2011 Bahranian military confrontation and quashing of mass demonstrations can be attributed to the liberal theory that assumes that individuals are the actors in the international system, that interdependence guides state actions and that the state is subject to the interests of the people they govern.
Overall, the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia can be attributed to the three causal factors of conflict that occur in the liberal theoretical tradition. The first causal factor is divergent fundamental beliefs (Moravcsik, 1997). The Sunnis and the Shiites have fundamentally different views on how their religion should be incorporated into society and how the government should be run (Tzemprin, 2015, p. 190). The second causal factor of conflict in the region is inequalities of political power (Moravsik, 1997). For example, Iran is generally unhappy with its standing in the region and Saudi Arabia enjoys its political position in the region (Nazer, 2016, p. 10). This causes Iran to constantly challenge the position of Saudi Arabia while Saudi Arabia reacts in defensive and, in return, offensive ways.
From the realist perspective, the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia as a whole is credited to state interests that center, wholly on survival. For Iran, survival is relative to its military strength so it continues to build an arsenal to protect itself, secure its current position in the region and achieve more political power which will act to improve its chances of survival (Berti, 2015, p. 26). Additionally, Saudi Arabia desires to maintain its position in the regional and international order so it continues to work with other countries when it is in its best interests to do so (Berti, 2015, p. 24). The ability of both countries to achieve their self-interests rests on their capabilities- for Iran that includes a strong military system and for Saudi Arabia that includes using its economic advantages to work with powerful countries.
The two selected theoretical explanations offer explanations for the relations of Iran and Saudi Arabia in part but do not cover every dimension of their regional rivalry. In general, the two theories are compatible. Many of the actions of Iran and Saudi Arabia can be traced to realist and liberal world views. The liberal explanation is more convincing and explains the conflicts in the region by including the conditions in which conflict happens according to liberal theory. Even the Saudi development of nuclear weapons plan is attributed to a peace measure- a way to ensure peace by eliminating the security dilemma imposed by Iran’s nuclear program and military exercises (Kelkitli, 2016, p. 43). Considering the immense oil wealth in the region, I am sure that the region desires to attain stability in order to focus on trade and improving the infrastructure of their cities (Kelkitli, 2016, p. 29). If selfish state interests were primary objective of the region, they would not be so open to sharing their oil wealth and stepping in to regulate prices and production as needed. After all, with so much of the world dependent on natural resources of the region, they could easily cut supply and interrupt the international system.
Additionally, if Iran was operating from a purely realist perspective, it could simply use its nuclear power to destroy enemies in the region. The realist perspective also does not account for the heavy influence of the Sunni and Shiite populations on government actions. In fact, these populations greatly influence the economic, political, religious and military priorities of both countries and have for many years. Both states are operating under the liberal assumption that the state is subject to the interests and priorities of the people and private groups that it serves.
In conclusion, the Iranian Saudi Arabian competition is an interesting mix of realist and liberal theoretical motivations that continues to shape the region and affect the world. The most important question is not how to solve the issues there but rather what theories best explain the conflicts in the region so that scholars, leaders and citizens can better understand the priorities and needs of these states and individuals. I conclude that the region is more guided by liberal theory of international relations and seeks dominance in the region for a variety of reasons that include but are not limited to security and selfish state interests. The prominence of the Sunni and Shiite populations in this competition continue to guide state actions and affection regional neighbors although the solution to their disagreements is more personal than political. It is in the best interests of all involved to achieve stability as a region that the international system depends upon for energy.
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