The escalating tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the story of a declining state desperately seeking to reverse the balance of power shifting in favor of its rising rival.
History teaches us that it is not rising states that tend to be reckless, but declining powers. Rising states have time on their side. They can afford to be patient: They know that they will be stronger tomorrow and, as a result, will be better off postponing any potential confrontation with rivals.
Declining states suffer from the opposite condition: Growing weaker over time, they know that time is not on their side; their power and influence is slipping out of their hands. So they have a double interest in an early crisis: First, their prospects of success in any confrontation will diminish the longer they wait, and second, because of the illusion that a crisis may be their last chance to change the trajectory of their regional influence and their prospects vis-à-vis rivals. When their rivals — who have the opposite relationship with time — seek to deescalate and avoid any confrontation, declining states feel they are left with no choice but to instigate a crisis.
Saudi Arabia is exhibiting the psychology of a state that risks losing its dominant position and whose losing hand is growing weaker and weaker. This explains why an otherwise rational actor begins making seemingly panicky and incomprehensible moves. From its decision to give up a seat on the United Nations Security Council — after having campaigned for it for over a year and celebrated its election to the UN body only a day earlier — to its reckless and failing attack on Yemen, to its push against the nuclear deal with Iran, to the deliberate provocation of executing Shia political dissident Nimr al-Nimr, its conduct is that of a sunsetting power.
Iran, on the other hand, is by all accounts a rising power. Ironically, much of Iran’s rise is not due to its own actions, but must be credited to the reckless mistakes of its adversaries. The U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq eliminated Tehran’s primary nemeses to its east (the Taliban in Afghanistan) and its west (the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq). In addition, Iran’s own Machiavellian maneuvering also ensured that it — and not the U.S. — has become the most influential outside actor in those two.
Even though the Syrian civil war has been very costly to Iran in terms of resources, soft power and standing in the Arab world, Tehran views the survival of its ally, the Bashar al-Assad regime, as reconfirmation of Iran’s power and deterrence. Although Iran cannot be declared a winner of the Arab spring, it has probably lost the least compared to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the U.S. Moreover, the nuclear deal has opened the door for Iran’s rehabilitation among the community of nations. Once a pariah in the eyes of many key states, Iran exercises power and influence in the region that is now increasingly accepted.
Furthermore, the European Union has made no secret that it views the nuclear deal as a first step towards a broader rapprochement with Iran and recognizes that the international community must work with Iran in order for it to be a force for stability. In fact, the EU’s support for reengagement with Iran is partly driven by its assessment that the West’s current relationship with Saudi Arabia isn’t sustainable. As the New York Times has reported, in the current standoff between Saudi Arabia and Iran, EU sympathies tend to lean toward Tehran.
To make matters worse for the Saudis, the Chinese have shifted their position in the Persian Gulf to reduce their dependency on Saudi Arabia and strengthen their ties with Iran. “China wants stability in the Persian Gulf,” an analyst close the the Chinese government recently told me, “and it sees Iran as the most stable country in the region, while it is very worried about Saudi conduct.”
Yet, despite all of these windfalls for Iran, it is not yet acting singularly as a rising power. The patience and prudence characteristic of rising states whose path for greater influence and role has been paved by the international community’s approval, certainly was not on display when a crowd of angry protesters attacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and torched it while Iranian police largely stood by and watched.
There’s a duality in Iran’s conduct. There’s the more mature and prudent approach lead by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Their leadership gave much of the international community hope that Iran can act as a responsible rising power. But there is also a reactionary and intransigent segment led by a powerful minority of hardliners who see their own power protected through Iran’s continued isolation and conflict with the outside world. Their conduct is more reminiscent of a declining, anti-status quo power.
This internal tension does not bode well for the region or for Iran. The international community’s willingness to bet that a more powerful Iran will be a more responsible and prudent Iran is contingent upon this contradictory behaviour coming to an end.
The Rouhani government appears to recognize this. The Iranian president quickly condemned the attack on the embassy and called it “totally unjustified.” But perhaps more importantly, conservative voices have also come out and blasted the attack. Brigadier General Mohsen Kazemeini of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps condemned the torching of the embassy as “totally wrong” and as an “ugly, unjustifiable act.”
It took almost a year before hardliners in Iran grudgingly admitted that the 2011 sacking of the British embassy was wrong. But for the first time now, hardliners are paying a price and facing resistance almost immediately after committing a transgression of international norms and law.
But for Iran to rise as geopolitical stars align in its favor, condemnations after a transgression is not enough. “Totally unjustified” acts must be prevented, not just denounced. The region simply cannot afford having both of its leading powers acting like declining states.