Commentators who analyze the anxious Saudi reaction to the recent Iranian charm offensive and Iran’s subsequent rapprochement with the US tend to downplay Saudi concerns as overblown and see Saudi Arabia’s problem with Iran as little more than a competitive tussle for regional leadership and influence. Some have gone so far as to argue that recent events should bring both Iran and Saudi Arabia to their senses so that they can move away from “childish” competition and toward “mature” cooperation.
While such an optimistic outcome would be delightful, a more cynical analysis of these developments might conclude that, if anything, the Saudis should be even more nervous than they are because Iran’s recent diplomatic success may have actually increased the risk of an Islamic Republic–based existential threat to the Sunni Arab ruling order in the Gulf.
One may see the Iranian threat as real or illusory, depending on what track one predicts the Islamic Republic will take going forward. Many argue that the Iran of today is tired and that its people are fundamentally pro-American who desperately want to rejoin the international community and who have no patience for anything that might hinder Iran from achieving that goal. The Iranian people want to enjoy life, have iPhones, travel, etc., and they are sick and tired of conflict, sacrifice, and revolutionary Islam. Consequently, the argument continues, the Iranian regime has no choice but to respond to its people’s yearning, get off its revolutionary high horse, and start delivering growth and prosperity.
The inevitable conclusion, in light of this argument, is that the Iran of the future will strive to reintegrate into the global community of nations, focus inward on its own economic development, and ultimately prove to be a force of stability and progress in the region. That argument, of course, presupposes that the current regime retains the option of realistically meeting such high expectations. This, unfortunately, is hardly the case.