The outlines of this contest are well known. The two countries are dominated by separate sects of Islam, and each claims to be the regional leader—Saudi Arabia through its custodianship of Islam’s main shrines, its natural dominance in a majority Sunni Muslim world, and its checkbook diplomacy; Iran thanks to its revolutionary ideology and anti-Western rhetoric, which it exports to countries with large Shia populations, such as Iraq and Lebanon, or longtime allies, such as Syria. And while they have for decades hurled angry rhetoric at each other, they have so far not gone to war against each other—the bloodletting is done by proxy.
But the contours of the competition are also changing under Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS. The prince has rejected the traditional, consensual way of ruling favored by his elders, opting against the compromise and preservation of the status quo that they preferred, even in their dealings with Iran. In doing so, he has injected a new element of uncertainty into a 40-year-old game.
So while an American strike against Iran in response to last month’s attack on Saudi oil facilities seems to have been averted for now, tensions in the region will not abate and will, if anything, worsen; today, both Tehran and Riyadh seem determined to go for an all-out victory for dominance of the region, at all costs and using all means, short of an all-out war. And whereas the Iranians are upping their use of proxy groups and asymmetrical warfare across the region, MbS is banking on a unique set of circumstances: Aside from his own brazenness, he is helped by an American president who is unpredictable, but intent on squeezing Iran and an Israeli prime minister willing to strike Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria. Conveniently, the war footing helps MbS further consolidate his position internally, as Saudis are called on to close ranks.
Since 1979, the rivalry has followed predictable patterns of tension and détente. Once friendly rivals, twin pillars in the American effort to oppose communism in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran became bitter rivals in the year that followed the Iranian revolution, which turned the country into a theocracy, with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as supreme leader. Khomeini had a visceral hatred of the Saudi royals, whom he described as “camel grazers of Riyadh and the barbarians of the [Saudi desert of] Najd.” Khomeini also envisioned himself as a pan-Islamic leader, which rattled the Saudis, who feared for their own role as custodians of Islam’s two holy mosques, in Mecca and Medina.
What ensued was a cycle of alternating decades of war and peace, beginning with the devastating Iran-Iraq War, when the Saudis provided billions of dollars to the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to fight Iran, essentially on their behalf and that of the rest of the Gulf. At the height of the conflict, when the Saudis feared an all-out Iranian victory, they offered Tehran a cease-fire and huge sums of reparations, but the Iranians refused. The 1990s were the era of peace, during which then–Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and Iran’s President Hashemi Rafsanjani and his successor, Mohammad Khatami, entertained cordial ties, exchanged visits, and even signed cooperation agreements, a blossoming relationship that frustrated the United States. (When Iran was blamed for the 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers in the kingdom, which killed 19 American airmen, Saudi Arabia appeared to drag its feet in cooperating with the FBI investigation, eager to shield its newfound friendship with Iran.)