Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is a specialist on Iran. Diwan spoke with Sadjadpour on the tense relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia, amid their ongoing regional competition for power. Of Iran’s regional ambitions, he says, the Islamic Republic’s underlying aims have long been consistent, but its strategy for achieving those objectives is flexible. However, rampant sectarianism and antipathy toward Iran in the Sunni Arab world represent obstacles to its ambitions. Iran may help win the war in Syria, Sadjadpour predicts, but it cannot win the peace.  

Michael Young (MY): Recently we saw something unprecedented when Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, took to the New York Times opinion page to condemn Wahhabism, and through this, to put Saudi Arabia on the defensive. What was the thinking behind the move?

Karim Sadjadpour (KS): There has been a relentless Iranian public relations campaign against Saudi Arabia for over a year. Zarif seemingly understands that Saudi Arabia’s image in the United States has never been worse, even in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. One of the arguments Zarif makes is that, contrary to media perceptions, the biggest clash in the Middle East is not between Sunnis and Shia, but between Saudi-Wahhabi-inspired and -funded Sunni radicals and everyone else. However, Zarif is an ineffective messenger. Iran’s condemning Saudi support for Islamic radicalism is akin to Vladimir Putin denouncing Robert Mugabe’s authoritarianism. It throws stones from a glass house. 

Second, while officials such as Zarif are seemingly trying to persuade Washington that Tehran is a more reliable regional partner than Riyadh, more powerful Iranian officials—such as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—continue to denounce the United States as an implacable enemy. Despite growing disenchantment with Saudi Arabia and the allure of Iran, the U.S. government faces a simple reality: The Saudi Arabia government wants the U.S. as an ally, while the most powerful elements of the Iranian government want it as an adversary. 

MY: Saudi Arabia is currently under close American scrutiny, with the U.S. Congress having just overridden a presidential veto on a bill that would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts over its alleged involvement in the 2001 attacks. Do you feel the tide is shifting in the U.S. and the West, with public opinion considering the Saudis the villains, while Iran is seen in a better light because it opposes them?

KS: Saudi Arabia’s image in the U.S. has suffered greatly in recent years, perhaps even more so than the aftermath of 9/11—when fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were revealed to be Saudi citizens. Daily news stories conflate Saudi Arabia with the Islamic State and highlight the country’s intolerant treatment of women, dissidents, gays, and religious minorities.

Though Saudi Arabia spends a substantial amount of money on lobbying efforts and public relations firms in Washington, the U.S. Congress has indeed just passed a bill known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which will allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Riyadh for compensatory damages in U.S. courts. 

Iran doesn’t employ public relations agencies, but there is a large Iranian-American community that plays an active role in the policy debate as journalists, analysts, and scholars. While many of them are not sympathetic to the Iranian regime, they try to portray a positive image of Iran’s culture and people. Saudi Arabia is disadvantaged by the fact that it doesn’t have a large diaspora community and there is not a visible Saudi presence in Western media.

The next U.S. administration—particularly a Hillary Clinton administration, if she wins—may attempt to “reset” relations with Riyadh. The question, however, is whether popular perceptions of Saudi Arabia are merely a reflection of bilateral tensions during the Barack Obama years or whether there has been a fundamental shift of popular attitudes in the U.S. regarding the kingdom. I have spoken to Saudis who recognize that American millennials will never have warm feelings for a country that prohibits women from driving and persecutes gays. Iran has a higher rate of execution than Saudi Arabia and also treats its women, gays, and religious minorities as second-class citizens.   

MY: The Saudis see Iranian power as an existential threat to them in the region. What is the Iranian plan for the region, and can we assume that the Islamic Republic is pursuing a form of regional hegemony?  

KS: Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.com, once described his company’s philosophy as “stubborn on vision, flexible on details.” I think the same can be said about Iran’s foreign policy. The underlying objectives have been consistent for four decades, but Iran’s strategy for achieving those objectives is flexible. 

Since 1979 the three pillars of Iran’s regional policy have been, first, opposition to U.S. influence; second, opposition to Israel’s existence; and third, rivalry with Saudi Arabia. There have been periods—such as the 1990s—when Tehran and Riyadh had a decent working relationship. But today regional conflicts such as Syria’s and Yemen’s have exacerbated mutual mistrust, which, in turn, further exacerbates regional conflicts.  

The advantage Iran has at the moment is that Middle Eastern powers (such as Egypt and Turkey), like global powers (such as the U.S. and Europe), are so mired in internal politics that they have a limited bandwidth to invest more time and resources in regional war zones. Iran, on the other hand, appears relatively stable and is very effective at wielding influence amidst chaos. 

One of the critical differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia was reflected in their different approaches to the Syria conflict. Whereas Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is commonly photographed on the ground in Syria, or in combat there, Saudi Arabia’s efforts to aid the Syrian opposition were conducted from Amman, Jordan. 
MY: In Syria, as you just mentioned, Iran has played a key role in bolstering Bashar al-Assad’s regime. How do you feel the Islamic Republic can consolidate its gains there? Some have spoken of sectarian cleansing, others of settling Shia populations in Syria. Your thoughts?

KS: Iran and Assad appear to be winning the war at the moment. Given Syria’s demographic realities, however, they won’t be able to win the peace. As Machiavelli wrote, “[A]lthough one may be very strong in armed forces, yet in entering a province one has always need of the goodwill of the natives.” Iranians, Hezbollah, Pakistani, and Afghan mercenaries may win military battles in Syria, but they will never earn the goodwill of the natives.

Tehran has justified its support for Assad by saying he is an integral part of the “resistance axis” against Israel. In other words Iran has been an accomplice in the death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, and the displacement of millions more, in order to ostensibly fight Israeli injustice. Today, far more Syrians have been killed and displaced over the last five years than Palestinians over the last seven decades.  

MY: To what extent was Yemen the result of a deliberate Iranian strategy to tie the Gulf states down in a debilitating conflict in the Arabian peninsula? 

KS: I suspect Iran’s support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen was not intended as a long-term strategic investment—as in Lebanon or Iraq—but a short-term tradable asset, in exchange for Saudi Arabia ceasing its involvement in Syria, for example.   

While it may have been simple opportunistic adventurism for Iran, Saudi Arabia perceived it as an existential threat. The Saudi author Ali al-Shihabi has written that, for Saudi Arabia, Iran’s role in Yemen has created anxieties in the kingdom equivalent to what America would have felt had “Mexico [had been] overthrown by a Soviet-supported militia during the Cold War.”

What’s alarming is that the contempt between governments has seemingly seeped down into the two societies. Iranian nationalism and Saudi nationalism is increasingly premised on chauvinism toward the other side. To quote the Chinese proverb, “He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for his enemy and one for himself.” 

MY: What vulnerabilities do you see in Iran’s regional strategy? And how extensive are they to threaten the Islamic Republic’s plans? 

KS: In the coming months and years Iran’s regional strategy could face several challenges. A sustained period of depressed oil prices would accentuate the financial burden required to keep the Assad regime in Syria solvent, as well as regional militias in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere. That said Iran has always prioritized its regional adventurism over the economic wellbeing of its people. I suspect that people will go hungry in Shiraz before Iran stops funding Hezbollah.   

Rampant sectarianism, and widespread antipathy toward Iran in the Sunni Arab world, is another vulnerability. There was a time when Iran wielded enormous soft power in the Muslim Middle East, but today it must rely primarily on hard power to assert its influence. Iran cannot be a “successful regional power”—to borrow from President Barack Obama—if most of the region’s inhabitants resent it. 

The most effective means for Iran to try and rehabilitate its image among Sunni Arabs is through another Arab or Palestinian conflict with Israel. When Arabs newscasts are dominated by coverage of an Iranian-backed dictator, Bashar Assad, slaughtering Sunni Arabs, Iran’s reputation suffers. Iran does well when Arab anger is directed against Israel and the United States—such as what happened in summer 2006, when Israel was bombing Lebanon and the U.S. was bogged down in Iraq. 

An important question will be the strategy of the next U.S. administration toward Iran. The Obama administration hoped that the nuclear deal would facilitate regional cooperation between the U.S. and Iran but that hasn’t been the case. Although the administration denies it, there’s certainly a widespread perception that the White House has refrained from countering Iran’s regional activities for fear of jeopardizing its major foreign policy achievement: the nuclear deal.

I think the next U.S. administration, particularly a Clinton administration, would be less reticent to challenge Tehran’s regional ambitions. But there is a legitimate concern that coercive tools—including sanctions—that may be deployed to counter Iran’s regional activities, could inadvertently trigger an escalation and an eventual unraveling of the nuclear deal.