Interview. The Middle East scholar Lara al-Raisi speaks with us about her new book, ‘Arabie Saoudite. Le choc des Titans,’ published now in French.

‘Clash of Titans,’ a story of the cold war in the Middle East

“Iran and Saudi Arabia proclaim themselves to be the defenders of the two branches of Islam and carry on what looks like a religious war. However, faith is instrumental to many economic and geopolitical interests. They’re ready to do whatever it takes to defeat their enemy.”

That’s the picture given by researcher Lara al-Raisi of the University Mohammed V, in Rabat, Morocco. She has just released her latest work Iran, Arabie Saoudite. Le choc des Titans (“Saudi Arabia: The Clash of the Titans”), published by French editor Erick Bonnier. The strong hostility between Tehran and Riyadh is manifest since the 1979 revolution that has turned Iran into an islamic Republic. Since that moment, the two countries started a war that had an impact on the whole Middle-East.

How important is crude oil in the war between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

Saudis believe that an increase of the barrel’s price would favor Iran. This is why they want to impose their decisions on OPEC, the cartel of oil-producing countries in which Tehran comes second. In spite of playing an influential role, Iranians can’t get their policy accepted — they’d like to reduce production and raise prices.

Why has Washington picked the Saudi side, in spite of their involvement in international terrorism?

Saudis can ensure a continual and cheap energy supply to the U.S. As long as the world depends on crude oil, Washington cannot do without Riyadh. This is the reason why Saudi citizens are not included in Trump’s decree against Muslims, although their involvement in several terrorist attacks was clear, including 9/11. The alliance with the U.S. remains solid as they share many strategic interests since the Iranian revolution in 1979, when Riyadh became the only pillar of American foreign policy within the Gulf.

How do you explain the latest alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel?

They share the same fears toward Tehran, especially concerning the expansion of the Iranian long-range missiles program, which could hit both the Gulf states and the Jewish nation.

Why do you speak about a cold war between Tehran and Riyadh in your book?

Because there’s no direct confrontation and they’re clashing elsewhere, forcing the nearby countries to take a position.

In this war of the titans, why has Syria become a battleground?

It’s the only Arab country to have a strong relationship with Tehran, and Damascus is controlled by Assad, who belongs to the Alawite minority, the Shiites. Saudi Arabia is bothered by such alliance, but the tension between Riyadh and Tehran has not undermined Syrian stability for decades. But the Arab Spring changed this situation, as the Sunni’s protests gave Saudis a reason to interfere. While the Iranians want Assad to control the area, Saudis aim to start a new Sunni regime to be their new ally, in order to change the balance in the region.

Yemen is another battleground: how is Iran supporting the Houthi rebels, and why is this Shiite minority seen as a danger by Saudis?

Saudi Arabia and Iran exploit the crisis in the region in order to weaken each other. As for Yemen, the conflict was even more evident there due to the cohabitation of Sunnis and Shiites on the same soil, with the latter belonging to the Zaidiyyah sect.

Houthi rebels have been subject to Salafite infiltration in the northern region of Sa’da for decades.

Yes, Houthis have been trying to obtain their autonomy for decades, with Iran trying to help them, supplying them with weapons and international support. Saudi Arabia has opted for a military intervention to prevent the formation of a Zaidiyyah state, and hence a Shiite one. Yemen is key to Riyadh in terms of geographic proximity.

How has the cold war between Tehran and Riyadh evolved?

Iran and Saudi Arabia have gone from provocations to a proxy war, and they don’t hesitate to involve other countries in the region. In 2016 they even broke diplomatic ties.

They broke diplomatic relations when the Saudis hanged and crucified Saudi ayatollah Nimr al-Nimr, as the Iranians reacted by attacking the Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad. Do you think there’s a solution to this?

Alliances are formed and broken. Wars rage and countries get destroyed. It is all about fueling the conflict. They’ve crossed the red line more than once, and there are no steps forward. It’s hard to find a solution in a short-term period, especially because religion is exploited.

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