Cold War and the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Reasons for the absence of interstate war

Bachelor Thesis, 2018
52 Pages, Grade: A


Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction
Research Objectives
Significance of Research
Research Questions
- Internal Factors
- Domestic Institutions
- Assessment of Military Powers
Research Methodology
Research Design

Chapter 2. Literature Review & Theoretical Framework

Chapter 3. Foreign Policy of Iran and Saudi Arabia
Iran’s Aims and Perspectives
Saudi Arabia’s Aims and Perspectives

Chapter 4. The War Period
Iraq- Iran War
- Internal Factors
- Domestic Institutions
- Assessment of Military powers
Gulf War
- Internal Factors
- Domestic Institutions
- Assessment of Military powers

Chapter 5. The Escalation of Crisis
1987 regional crisis
- Internal Factors
- Domestic Institutions
- Assessment of Military powers
2015-present crisis
- Internal Factors
- Domestic Institutions
- Assessment of Military powers

Chapter 6. Conclusion


Prima facie, I am grateful to God for the knowledge and understanding of the issue upon which this paper focuses. I wish to express my sincere thanks to my supervisor and Assistant professor, Dr. Saqib Waraich; for helping, explaining and providing the best guidance for the research. I place on record my sincere thank you to Prof. Dr. Khalid Manzoor Butt, Head of the Department for Political Science. I am also grateful to Miss Sadia Rafique, Assistant professor in the Department of Political Science. I am extremely thankful and indebted to her for sharing expertise on Middle Eastern Studies, and sincere and valuable guidance and encouragement extended to me for this research. Above all, I thank everyone for supporting my research.


A cold war is a state of conflict between two world leading nations that does not involve direct military action. The conflict is primarily pursued through economic and political actions, including propaganda, espionage and proxy wars, where countries at war rely on others to fight their battles. This dissertation analyzed that why both countries; Iran and Saudi Arabia, lack in direct war. This dissertation analyzed the keynote elements that lead to decreased threat of direct war. This dissertation took the cases of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran in interstate warfare with the same country, Iraq: Iran-Iraq War and The Gulf War 1991; and it also analyzed the crisis escalation of 1987 and 2015- present. In this way this research would analyze the factors of internal scenarios, types of domestic institutions and their aftermath and the assessment of their own military capacities. These three major key elements would determine the Cold War between both countries and why there has been a lack of interstate war. The War period would explain the reasons why and how both KSA and Iran goes to war; and what determinants are necessary for their initiation of warfare. The escalation of crisis would deal with inter rivalry of KSA and Iran; and what factors have stopped them in going for a direct war. Henceforth, this dissertation would then conclude in accordance with the hypotheses that why Iran and KSA are at low risk of interstate warfare amidst their rivalry.

List of Abbreviations

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Chapter 1: Introduction

“Relations between Riyadh and Tehran have gradually deteriorated since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, and, despite intermediate periods of comparative quiescence, in recent years the Cold War has transformed into proxy wars in various theaters such as Yemen, Syria and Iraq.”[1] “The hegemonic aspirations of Iran, coinciding with the ascent and assertiveness of the Saudia Arabia, Iran’s regional entanglement, the deterioration of the relationship between the US and Iran and the role of Russia, further exacerbated an already highly combustible situation of Middle East.”[2]

Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, a grave paradigm change has occurred in the Middle East. Since then, the Middle East has two major power players, Iran and Saudia Arabia. “The rivalry between both countries due to various political, social, and religious reasons, have embarked on the Middle East on an onset of proxy warfare yet avoiding the direct war between each other.”[3]

The rivalry between Sunni Arab monarchy and Shia Persian theocracy has been labelled as sectarian conflict more than a political one. At core, however, the rivalry composes of the hegemonic struggle in the region whether it’s politically, economically or militarily motivated. The Kingdom of Saudia Arabia (KSA) and the Islamic Republic of Iran are both rivals in the most strained and extremely perplexed region, where the fight for dominance is unprecedented.

What has made them avoid any direct warfare even after having so much rivalry and proxy warfare? This is the fundamental question and research problem for this research. Obviously, to find out the answer, this research will have to look into the various historic precedents and crisis that emerged between Iran and Saudia Arabia. From starting crisis of 1979 of illegal possessions of Shiite province in Saudia Arabia and the severity of diplomatic ties in 2016. The question is crucial for both the players are the top leading bloc of Middle East. One leads the Sunni bloc and the other leads the Shia bloc. And as the region is critical due to various reasons, their relationship is pivotal for the stability of the region. Yet, no thorough explanation for this game has been set forward to comprehend this game in the region. Thereby, this research has more significance in relation to the crisis going on, several conflicts emerged in the region, and the power strings attached to these two major actors of the region.

The region has been known for its two distinguished political traits. First the region is conflict zone. The countries have been in a state of war or conflict with each other. “Moreover, the region being oil riched have made it more charged, making its smaller states more prosperous, financially strong, yet simultaneously politically and militarily vulnerable and susceptible to all forms of foreign direct or indirect interventions, foreign envies, and even long lasting invasions.”[4] Though, being oil rich zone should have made them advantageous in terms of financial security and military capability, yet the invasions or involvements couldn’t be stopped by their advantageous factor as they were not capable enough to restrict invasions or interventions especially coming from larger western powers like the US. The extended factor for their incapability also lies upon the premature regimes in the region, lack of modern administrative power and least experienced governments like Saudia Arabia was founded almost 8 decades ago and many smaller Arab nations are only four decades older.

Second trait that the region possesses is that it is a region of externally influenced-driven system. For centuries, scholars have admitted that, the foreign powers’ indirect or direct influence upon the region has been profound. This is because of their lack of inner progressiveness and direction or that historically internal dynamics have always been externally controlled. “Further, the Gulf region is geographically set in the wider Arab world as centripetal area where it naturally affects the political arena of the whole Arab world in the most facile way”[5]. Yet, the region is pivotal for the capitalist world as it is financially and commercially integrated. This system holds huge influence and control over the choices- economic changes and developmental strategies for the region.

Research Objectives

This research seeks to uncover the research objectives as the reasons behind the absence of interstate war from 1979 onwards between the Middle East’s most powerful rivals, Iran and Saudia Arabia.

1. This research will define interstate warfare as a state of open and declared armed conflict between states or nations, resulting in a total of 1000 or more battle deaths.
2. The research aims to present multiple aspects which require analysis: the conflict-zone orientation, external-power influential characteristics of the region; the regional hegemonic game in which the countries engage; the domestic and internal factors’ considerations affecting decision-making; the major internal issues at stake.
3. Due to the complexity of the topic, the research aims to present a comprehensive analysis based on Realist and Constructivist concepts and ideas, while also delving into relevant domestic and ideological factors.
4. This research aims to construct an analysis of the literature on the factors affecting the presence or absence of interstate war coupled with an analysis of four different events that explains that a combination of three key elements influence the decision of whether or not the two states will confront in war. The main elements most likely to affect the possibility for interstate war for Iran and Saudia Arabia are 1. Internal factors and their effects; 2.domestic institutions; 3. Their assessment of their own military powers.
5. In order to comprehend the importance of these elements, this research will be discussing four case studies: the Iran-Iraq war; Saudia Arabia’s involvement in the 1991 Gulf War; the events of 1987; and the events of 2015 and the years that followed. The first two represent instances in which Iran and Saudia Arabia have engaged in interstate war, and the latter represent two crises in the history of these countries which have witnessed escalation but not war. By using these four events the research seeks to uncover the reasons behind each country’s decision to go to war, as well as the mechanisms kept their moves from transforming into war.

Significance of Research

Prosperity and stability in the Middle East are the fundamental interest of the world at large and the region in specific. Saudia Arabia and Iran’s dynamic and unique warfare in the region has serious effects on political order, economic growth and human development of the region. Saudia Arabia and Iran’s geopolitical rivalry and hegemonic struggle in the region makes the region complex in socio-political terms. The Saudia-Iranian confrontation is further increased by a religious and ideological rivalry, with systematic constraints attached to their aims and perspectives in the region to overcome the leadership of the Muslim world. These religious enmities overwhelmed by Sunni Wahhabi school of thought and Shia Khomeini school of thought caused the escalation of many crises in the region. This Shia-Sunni dominance has affected the bilateral relations and foreign relations in the region. These crisis are questioning the geopolitical strategic phenomenon of Middle East.

As the rivalry is increasingly durable, this research is critical at the moment. In order to comprehend the full consequences of the Saudia-Iranian rivalry, it is significant to analyze the bilateral dynamics between Saudia Arabia and Iran and analyze how Saudia Arabia and Iran aggravate through politicizing their allies in war and support sectarianism. When analyzing the enmity, many Middle Eastern scholars and experts have directed its connotation towards “Middle East Cold War” between Saudia Arabia and Iran. There are many grave and huge consequences of the cold war in the Middle East and it is centripetal to comprehend how having so much enmity still has not resulted into direct warfare. Thus, to understand the lack of interstate warfare with respect to two major powers: Iran and Saudia Arabia; this research is significant to answer this research inquiry.

Research Questions

This research proposes three questions which seek to question the problem or inquiry of the research which is the absence of interstate war between Iran and Saudia Arabia. Firstly, this research questions on internal factors: religious, political ,economic issues which decrease the risk of interstate warfare between them. Secondly, it also questions the types of domestic institutions and their influence in decision making which will also lead to a decreased risk for interstate warfare. Lastly, this research also questions the negative overview of their own military powers which will also decrease the risk for interstate warfare.

-Internal factors

For better comprehension of the first hypothesis, we need to understand the issues related to these countries which make them contagious. These factors include religion, ideology, economy and territory. As Vasquez believes “that issues like ideology and religion are foremost pivotal point for conflict escalation.”[6] Yet if the factor/issue is related to economic market such in this case- oil pricing negotiations, then the conflict orientation would be reduced. Territory also plays a fundamental part in warfare escalation. Hence, we can expect that the tangible issues like economic factors would result in reduced conflict contrary to religion and ideology. As the disagreement between Saudia and Iran presides over economic level, it will reduce the confrontation for negotiations through OPEC would resolve the crisis soon. Religion on the other hand is one of the fundamental tools that can cause a national sentiment for warfare and this same goes for ideology. Thereby, Iran and Saudia confrontation in proxy wars in the region is dependent upon its Shia-Sunni divide. As national sentiment is directly proportional to religion. Yet though Saudia being the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” makes Iran not to go for direct warfare as it would lead a huge sympathy with Saudia upon the basis of protection of the two Holy Mosques. This sentiment would help Saudia regime amongst the whole Muslim world. Hence, it reduces the interstate warfare.

Iran has been economically isolated due to sanctions and embargoes, thereby its direct warfare would cause more economic downfall like it did after eight years war with Iraq. Moreover, even Saudia direct confrontation might not be possible due to territorial factor. As territory is fundamental for warfare, it is also fundamental for reduced warfare. As Iran has allied regionally with Shia groups and backing governments, it is very difficult for Saudia to go on full scale warfare with Iran as it might get help from other areas of the region which would make the Kingdom vulnerable. Secondly, Saudia involvement in other areas for its influence like in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and even Iraq has seen its massive defeats. These defeats in these areas has made Saudia reluctant to fight directly with Iran. Unlike Iraq, where the territory was fundamental for both Saudia and Iran and as Iraq threatened their territory directly, both countries waged wars with Iraq. Yet Iran and Saudia is being reluctant to go over each other territories for they know it might escalate the confrontation. “But the regional confrontation in terms of proxy warfare in various states has resulted in this territorial confrontation reduced and hence interstate warfare is at the lowest level.”[7]

The Chapter 3 will discuss this hypothesis of internal factors in the case studies of Iraq-Iran war and First Gulf War when territorial factor became pivotal for increased interstate warfare because these countries were contagious. Yet Iran and Saudia as aforementioned weren’t contagious in that way and hence reduced the risk of interstate warfare.

-Domestic Institutions

As aforementioned, Iran is a parliamentary theocracy having a Supreme Leader whereas Saudia Arabia is an absolute monarchy. Hence both are autocracies. “Yet Iraq was also an autocratic regime but Geddes ordained Iraq system as personalist”.[8]

“The Islamic Republic of Iran’s decision making process involves a final discretion of the Supreme Leader yet there are other institutions which legally exist and compete in elections, and institution of foreign affairs is composed of the complex institutional interactions in Iran. “Iran relies upon all-encompassing ideology to legitimize [its] rule, and is governed by cohesive political elites who operate within broadly accepted hierarchies, both of which composes single-party regimes.”[9]

The Iranian government contains personalist- regimes characteristics as during the 1979 revolution, Ayatollah was the main personality to decide the future of Iran for decades. All the decisions were concentrated under his supervision and final say, especially the foreign affairs. Yet, after 1989, changes were made to the constitution and powers were distributed amongst other domestic institutions- the president, the parliament, the revolutionary guard and other religious elites. Hence, though the Supreme Leader still has the final say but the decisions are affected by all-encompassing domestic institutions rather one person.

“As Geddes does not categorize Saudia Arabia monarchy and does not clarify whether the leader of monarchy is responsible all in all. Scholars have described that dynastic monarchies are different from non-dynastic monarchies.”[10] As dynastic monarchies include a whole family which form an institution to rule and hence many key actors play a huge role in decision making process. Non dynastic monarchies resembles with personalist regimes where one ruler concentrates the powers in its own hands. “The decision making process is totally under one ruler.”[11] Though the dynastic monarchies like Saudia Arabia has a whole ruling family which has control over the appointments and even rejection of monarch decisions and even monarch’s appointment is in the hands of royal family. Thereby, the family can exert pressure upon the monarch in terms of state affairs. Beyond family, other elites such as ulema, ministers and government officials also can exert internal pressure regarding decision making.

In the proposed hypothesis, one can only link the possibility of decreased warfare to type of regime or domestic audience through knowing the probability of pressure built upon the ruler while in crisis. Hence, if Saudia regime is analyzed, it is as dynastic monarchy where the elites have a huge influence over the monarch and the elites are civilian based which might not approve of direct warfare comparatively to military official who have least influence in decision making. Similarly, Iran also composed of different domestic institutions whose complex interactions and influences determine the policies of state including defense and foreign affairs. Thereby, as Jessica Weeks also explained that “the Supreme Leader is also not above the influence of other institutions and take advisory from its domesticity.”[12] Iran also has more civilian based audience/institutions that inhibit any interstate warfare.

Hence, one can see that regimes which have more domestic civilian based institutions are less likely to go for an interstate war comparatively to personalist regimes like Iraq under Saddam where no other official could dare to dissent with the policies of Saddam. Hence, we saw a great interstate warfare under his regime as no one could pressurize him over crisis. Hybrid regimes like of Saudia and Iran have to cope with its institutions in making policies comparatively to personalist regimes where one man decides everything without objection. This really affect the possibility of interstate warfare.

-Assessment of Military powers

After the 1979 revolution, Iran military capacities were classified as underrated. “Its aged military equipment had not seen large-scale access to modern weapons and military technology necessary to replace its equipment.”[13] “During the Iraq- Iran war, a shell of its former self, having lost between 40 and 60 percent of its manpower due to desertions and purges; the army personnel numbered 150,000 (from its former glory of 285,000), its air force dropped from 100,000 to 65,000 personnel, and the navy lost 5,000 men.”[14] “Shortages of spare parts, loss of foreign technicians and military leadership, and the lack of advanced and basic training left the military in disarray.”[15]

Iranian had faced huge losses during Iraq-Iran warfare and lacked the modernization and accessibility of stable parts of its equipment. The ongoing sanctions on arms deal and sales; downfall of USSR- a pertinent source of military aid for Iran. “Throughout the 1990s defense spending fluctuate because of lower oil revenues, but the turn of the century witnessed a relative recovery in Iranian defense spending, which was still about 25% of what was needed to modernize and recapitalize the armed forces to their pre-1979 levels.”[16] Despite the sanctions and restrictions, Iran is feasibly getting advanced in technical military equipment and in the near future its weapons are increasing in effectiveness, efficiency and accuracy. This directs Iranian intention towards nuclear weapons but it has been inhibited by JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).

Contrary to that, Kingdom of Saudia Arabia has more military advanced yet the manpower is limited. “Countries like Iran and Iraq are the ones where man power is great because of their mandatory conscription by law, whereas Saudia only contains military recruitment voluntary. -256,000- stands at roughly a third of that of the Iranian army – 934,000, while its navy strength numbers a total of 55 naval assets (as opposed to the nearly 400 which the Iranian army boasts of).”[17]

The kingdom armed forces has allegiances to tribal, regional, religious and class factions, with sections like the National Guard remaining firmly tied to their tribal base. This causes grave factor especially that of control and centralization –it is highly difficult to command and guide an army whose sections have their allegiances first to their tribes and then to state.

Kingdom of Saudia Arabia has also a dependency factor. US ensure all kind of support to Saudia Arabia including settling its troops there in the region. Hence, in the time of interstate warfare, KSA would look for US protection and aid in every way to win the war. This factor has rendered Kingdom that in times of crisis, US intervention would be inevitable and might be dangerous to its own soil.

The proposed hypothesis is the negative assessment of one's own military capacities. As the positive aspect or the advantageous part of military might lead to increased risk of interstate warfare. Yet the negative aspect or disadvantageous position would decrease the risk of interstate warfare. Moreover, the relationship between decision making and military capacities is that if governments have the means of force, they will use it. Yet seeing KSA and Iran, it can be deduced that both states have positive and negative assessment of their military capacities, yet they prefer negative assessment to caution themselves of the consequences. This assessment has always decreased the risk of interstate warfare.

Also, that both countries have civilian domestic institutions involved in decision making, then it also decreases the risk of interstate warfare comparatively to those which have military oriented institutions. Iraq is an example for this aspect. Chapter 4 will explain how Iraq-Iran war and First Gulf war was the outcome of military capacities’ factor related to Iraq.


Chapter 1 presents the introduction of the topic where it explains the research problem. It then proceeds to research objectives, significance of research, hypotheses, and methodology and research design. Chapter 2 explains the literature review on the main elements which make the interstate war less possible. It also explains the approaches to Middle East. And Chapter 3 explains the aims and perspectives of Iran and Saudia Arabia. Chapter 4 discusses two of the case studies of war period, the Iran-Iraq War and the First Gulf War. Each case study has 3 subsections which provides to the 3 hypotheses presented in Chapter 1, making to explain the 3 main elements: internal factors, type of domestic institutions, and military assessment. Chapter 4 presents the 1987 and 2015 crises, with each section having the same 3 main elements’ sub-sections presented in Chapter 3: factors, domestic institutions, and military assessment. Chapter 5 provides the analysis of the research conducted to justify the hypotheses of lack of interstate warfare. It presents the reader with a conclusion and an assessment of the three hypotheses presented in Chapter 2, and of their explanatory power when seeking to understand the power play presented: the absence of interstate war between Iran and Saudia Arabia from 1979 onwards.

Research Methodology

The research uncovers a research question, thereby the methodology is descriptive and analytical. As descriptive research is the type of research which determines the status quo with current variables and issues at hand. Descriptive methodology is the methodology which directly reports upon the happenings of the issue. Whereas, Analytical research focuses upon why the issue came and how the variable affect the happenings. This research inquires about the lack of inter state war between Iran and Saudia Arabia. Thereby, the methodology applied deals with both the determination of variables leading to lack of war and also it describes why and how they are affecting this lack of war.

As the research focuses upon the variable of absence of interstate war between Saudia Arabia and Iran since 1979. This research has proposed three hypotheses to uncover the reasons behind the absence of interstate warfare. This research has brought forth IR scholars’ theories on war causes and preventions. This research highlights the variables and elements present in answering the research question.

The study will highlight the absence of interstate warfare in the light of three proposed hypotheses. This research would explain it through chain of events of first war period and then escalation of crisis which reduces the possibility of interstate warfare. Explaining firstly the class of events which involves the aforementioned variables through which the interstate warfare remained blurred.

The chapter 1-3 are descriptive as they describe the main elements affecting the lack of inter state war. Also, these chapters focuses upon the existing facts regarding the issue. Chapter 2 provides the theoretical framework which identifies the approaches taken to comprehend the hypotheses or variables. Chapter 3 focuses upon Iran and Saudia Aims and perspectives which directs the variables influencing the major issue of lack of inter state war.

Chapter 3 and 4 highlights the analytical approach. In chapter 4, the two case studies present warfare of both Saudia and Iran against other state in order to analyze the reasons of the interstate warfare while applying the hypotheses. Whereas Chapter 5 focuses two major crisis which could have led to interstate war yet both avoid war. In this way, these chapters prove why and how these hypotheses/variables affect the lack of inter state war.

As the study is descriptive, the information is primarily sourced from reports, books, journals and newspaper or web articles which are from Middle East experts.

Research Design

This research has been constituted into 6 chapters. As the research is qualitative, the research uncovers the inquiry of absence of interstate war between KSA and Iran. The first chapter provides the research problem of how the KSA and Iran are triggered upon political, ideological, religious and social differences, yet both lack interstate warfare which culminates it to be cold war.

The first chapter reveals the research objectives that highlights the definition of interstate war and how Iran and Saudia lack that. It also focuses on IR theories of Realism and Constructivism in order to take approach to Middle East cold war. The objectives of the research also highlights the main elements which are affecting the decision making process of the states in order to have a war. The first chapter provides the hypotheses which is also the part of research objectives. The hypotheses justifies the inquiry of lack of interstate war between Iran and Saudia Arabia. These include the internal factors (ideological, political, economic, and social), type of domestic institutions, and negative assessment of their own military powers. Moreover, it moves towards chapterization and research methodology to determine the qualitative study.

Chapter 2 focuses on theoretical framework. It provides a literature review which highlights the contributions of realist and constructivists in Middle East crisis. The literature review explains how war causation theories apply to Iran and Saudia Arabia. Moreover, it also bases the idea of security dilemma and probability of war amongst states. The theories focuses upon relationship of interstate war and military power, regime types and ideological issues.

Chapter 3 makes the Saudia Arabia and Iran’s aims and perspectives in international realm. These aims and perspectives explains the foreign policy towards each other. This chapter uses the concepts of realism to endure the hegemonic rivalry in the region. Henceforth, explaining the goals of both states in the region.


[1] Abdulla, “Gulf War: The Socio- Political Background”, (London: Pluto Journals,1994), p.2

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid, p.3

[4] Abdulla, “Gulf War: The Socio- Political Background”, (London: Pluto Journals, 1994), p.4

[5] Michael Herb, “All in the Family: Absolutism, Revolution, and Democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies. Albany”,(New York: State University of New York Press, 1999), p.23

[6] Vasquez, “The Tangibility of Issues and Global Conflict”, International Studies Review XX, (2014), p. 54

[7] Robert Mason, “Foreign Policy in Iran and Saudia Arabia”, (Cairo: IB Tauris Publishers, 2014) p. 37-38

[8] Robert Mason, “Foreign Policy in Iran and Saudia Arabia” , (Cairo: IB Tauris Publishers, 2014), p. 40

[9] Ibid, p. 41

[10] Barbara Geddes, “Paradigms and Sand Castles”, (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2003), p. 126

[11] Barbara Geddes, “Paradigms and Sand Castles”, (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2003), p. 130

[12] Jessica Weeks, “Dictators of war and peace”, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014), p. 136

[13] Robert Mason, “Foreign Policy in Iran and Saudia Arabia” , (Cairo: IB Tauris Publishers, 2014), p. 40

[14] Ibid, p. 41

[15] Ibid, p. 43

[16] Ibid, p. 53

[17] Edward Wastnidge, “Diplomacy and Reform in Iran”, (London: International Library of Iranian Studies, 2016), p. 34

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Cold War and the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Reasons for the absence of interstate war
GC University
BA (Hons) Political Science
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
cold, iran, saudi, arabia, reasons
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Saqib Yaqoob (Author), 2018, Cold War and the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Reasons for the absence of interstate war, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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