Key point: Saudi Arabia wants to roll back Iranian influence in the Middle East, by any means necessary.
On July 9, 2016, Prince Turki bin Faisal, former Saudi intelligence head, unprecedentedly attended a rally for the notorious Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK) and called for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran. His remarks were immediately followed on July 30 by a meeting between the head of the MEK, Maryam Rajavi, and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in Paris. Earlier before, in late March, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), which has not taken up arms against Iran for roughly twenty years, suddenly waged a vicious insurgency against Tehran, leading to bloody skirmishes between the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iranian Kurdish peshmerga in northwestern Iran. These sequential events herald a new era in confrontation between Tehran and Riyadh.
The growing escalation between Tehran and Riyadh has been sometimes mentioned in the context of a new geopolitical “Great Game.” Both countries have been engaged in a decades-long strategic contest for regional supremacy in an area stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean and Arabian seas. The two powers are backing different sides in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and finally Yemen.
In the pre-9/11 era, Saudi Arabia used to regionally contain Iran and its foreign policy of “exporting the revolution” by siding with the Baath regime of Baghdad and later with Kabul’s Taliban. Despite grave ideological differences, Riyadh’s leaders backed Saddam Hussein in the bloody eight-year war with Iran. Rooted in King Faisal’s financial support for the extension of Wahhabism in Pakistan and then backing the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979–89), the Saudis had also a key role in establishing the fundamentalist Taliban in Kabul. By the late 1990s, Saudi Arabia’s achievements in containing Iran reached their peak.