U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States

The current strategic landscape in the Gulf is shaped by a competition between Iran, Iraq, the US, and the individual Southern Gulf states for influence in the military, political, and economic realms.  Iran is making broad efforts to expand its influence over the entire Gulf, as well as to deter US military action, reduce US influence, and establish itself as the dominant power in the region. In recent years, Iran has pursued this strategy by building up its capability to pose a missile, nuclear, and asymmetric threat; exploiting the Arab-Israeli conflict; attempting to discredit the US; expanding its influence over Iraq’s Shi’ites; and by making direct country-to-country contacts with each of its Southern Gulf neighbors designed to increase its influence and leverage.

The Burke Chair at CSIS has already developed a series of reports covering this competition. A new report analyzes the nature of the competition between Iran and the US in each Arab Gulf country, paying special attention to Saudi Arabia’s major role in this competition. The full report, “U.S. AND IRANIAN STRATEGIC COMPETITION:  Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States” can be downloaded at: https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/101207_US_Competition_with_Iran_Saudi_Arabia.pdf

The report shows that the US has sought to contain Iran, and limit its influence over the Southern Gulf countries, by strengthening relations with each Arab Gulf state, working with allies like France and Britain, by helping to negotiate an Arab-Israeli peace, and by establishing a mix of US, Iraqi, and Southern Gulf capabilities for deterrence and defense that will contain Iran. As part of this effort, the US seeks to limit Iran’s ability to use its political influence, ties to other regional states, influence over Iraq, exploitation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and capabilities for asymmetric warfare to dominate the region.

Saudi Arabia is now the most important US ally in the Gulf, and will remain so as long as Iraq’s political and strategic alignments are uncertain- and Iraq remains a weak power caught up in its own internal struggles.  This does not mean that Saudi Arabia’s interests always coincide with those of the US: they do not.  It does mean that the US and Saudi Arabia share a common interest in limiting and containing Iran, and in ensuring the security of the Gulf and the stable flow of Gulf oil exports.

This relationship is reinforced by a long history of US and Saudi military cooperation and the US role in arming and developing Saudi forces.  Furthermore, both nations have a common interest in dealing with the challenges of terrorism, the problems posed by Yemen, and the growing instability in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea.  While both countries are divided in their approach to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, they share a common interest in ending it and removing it as a cause for extremist action and a political tool that Iran can exploit in dealing with Lebanon, the Palestinians, and Arab popular anger.

The end result is a complex set of relations shaped by Saudi competition with Iran and the factors that shape Saudi cooperation with US policy, by US policy towards Saudi Arabia and how it uses this policy to confront Iran, and finally, by Iranian policy towards Saudi Arabia and how it also uses bilateral relations to compete with the US.

Strategic completion in the Gulf, then, plays out with the US and Saudi on one side, and Iran on the other, each side seeking to advance their interests in each separate Gulf country based on the complex political context there. However, the smaller GCC countries display various levels of support for each side and play distinctly different roles in this competition:

  • Kuwait is most similar to Saudi Arabia in its approach to US-Iranian strategic competition. It considers Iran a serious threat to its stability because of its perceived interference in Kuwait’s Shi’ite population, its growing military capabilities, and its nuclear program. Kuwait is one of the US’s major military allies in the region, and cooperates with the US on a number of levels, including providing essential bases for US troops.
  • Bahrain, with a Sunni elite and a majority Shi’ite population, feels threatened by perceived Iranian meddling within the disaffected Shi’ite population. It tempers this threat by maintaining strong political and security relations with both the US and Saudi Arabia. It is the home to the 5th Fleet headquarters and receives major US military funding.
  • UAE practices a more nuanced approach because of the difference in perceptions of Iran in each Emirate. The dispute for control over the islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs shapes perceptions of Iran everywhere except in Dubai. Dubai maintains positive relations with Iran because of shared financial and trade networks. The UAE is also using its wealth to purchase advanced weapons from the US, and likewise strengthen its security ties to the US.
  • Oman has a unique role in the region. It is generally accommodating towards Iran, has tensions with Saudi Arabia, close ties to the UK, and serves as a major strategic ally for US military and diplomatic interests.  As a result, it often plays the role of intermediary and has some diplomatic leverage over Iran.
  • Qatar has exploited the strategic competition between US and Saudi interests and Iranian interests in order to create an independent role in the region. Within this role, it tilts more towards Iran than Saudi Arabia while also hosting major US military bases to deter Iranian pressure.
  • Yemen is increasingly a broken state whose regime is too caught up in internal issues and threats to pay a significant role in the competition. However, a variety of factors make it strategically important, although often as a liability rather than an asset. Both Iran and the US accuse the other side of meddling in Yemen’s internal affairs but both desire some level of stability there.

As the US strengthens its military partnership with the individual Gulf states in an effort to both decrease the threat of terrorist activity and to combat Iranian influence, the strategic competition with Iran will continue to heat up. This competition in the Gulf is subject to a number of variables in the current political system, including the character of the future Iraqi government, the effect of international sanctions on Iran’s policy calculus, Saudi succession, developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and global economic stability.

In spite of these variants, it seems likely that the competition will play out in much the same way as it has in recent years. Bilateral relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia will be characterized by public accommodation and underscored by fundamental distrust and competition in the economic, political, and military realms. Iran will continue to exploit divisions between the other Southern Gulf states in order to gain influence and undermine the US policy of military and security cooperation in the Gulf.

The US will continue to strengthen its military partnership with Saudi Arabia based on their mutual interest in deterring the Iranian threat to the Gulf’s economic stability. In order to achieve this, the US will continue to supply the Saudis with counters to Iran’s growing naval asymmetric and missile capabilities. However, the US will simultaneously seek to avoid arming the Saudis at the expense of other Arab Gulf countries, or Israel. As a result, the stepping up of arms deals with Saudi Arabia will be followed by a series of deals with other Gulf allies, including the likely provision of the THAAD missile system to the UAE, and ongoing cooperation with all Gulf states to increase security cooperation.

What is not clear, however, is how or if Iranian foreign policy calculus will change in response to these developments, international sanctions, or domestic pressure. What is clear is that Iran and both the US and Saudi Arabia have legitimate and structural grounds for competition in Iraq, both economically and militarily. It is unlikely that these grounds for competition will disappear in the near future, and as a result, Iran will continue to compete with both the US and Saudi Arabia for influence in the region.  

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy

Marissa Allison