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The Middle East is experiencing unprecedented upheaval, and by all indications the region is likely to remain in turmoil for the foreseeable future. From Yemen to Bahrain to Syria and Lebanon, the sectarian agendas and geopolitical maneuverings of the two regional heavyweights – Iran and Saudi Arabia – will likely remain the key drivers fueling the regional fire.
Despite the pledge by Iranian authorities to be committed to the principle of vahdat-e Eslami (Islamic Unity), their perspective on Saudi Arabia, Iran’s chief Sunni rival, has always been one of religious suspicion and regional competition. To be fair to the Islamic Republic’s leaders, Iran’s troubles with the Saudis predate them by some time. Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been geopolitical rivals in the Persian Gulf, including during the reign of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941-1979). The establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979 only exacerbated tensions and in particular heightened sectarian differences. Tehran was busy seeking to export its revolutionary Shia ideology while the Saudis were increasingly bankrolling anti-Shia Sunni radical movements from the Indian subcontinent to the Levant.
When the United States removed Saddam Hussein, paving the way for the Shia to seize political power in Baghdad, the Saudis were both indignant and increasingly committed to stopping Iran and its Shia regional allies. This is where we are today. The most recent chapter in the Iranian-Saudi race for influence is unfolding on Riyadh’s doorsteps in Yemen, where the anti-Saudi Shia Houthi movement has seized the capital, Sana’a.
In the context of Iranian-Saudi competition, perceptions matter a lot, and help shape countermoves. While Tehran probably had very little to do with the latest events in Yemen, the Saudis are bound to see Iranian machinations at work. As the Saudis contemplate their next move against Tehran, here are four Iranian capabilities they should keep in mind.
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