Iran, Saudi Arabia And ISIS

Iran, Saudi Arabia And ISIS

The religion of Islam has been criticised for presenting a very autocratic power to the ruler under which a ruler of a Muslim state can rationalise extreme forms of punishment for dissenters of the government’s policies.[1] These countries, most predominantly Saudi Arabia, have been blamed for the increase in Islamic fundamentalism in the global landscape in recent years. The latest creation of this attitude is the Islamic State in Syria, or ISIS. While there are also other reasons for the rise of ISIS, like the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by forces led by the United States, the main reasons for this phenomenon is steeped in deeper issues.[2] What we are actually witnessing firsthand in the ISIS issue is the failure of the multi-ethnic model for countries that are ruled with particular interpretations of Islam. The states that are also trying to battle against the ISIS forces all have their own specific agenda to push. We do not expect all the states to have a Good Samaritan approach to the conflict but the fact the interests of certain states are in conflict with each other will leads to a very difficult and uneasy alliance that is based on gossamer strands.

The different stakeholders

The reason for Turkey’s apparent alacrity in dealing with the ISIS issue seems to be that any kind of disintegration of the Syrian government will inevitably lead to the Kurdish minorities in the area being given an opportunity to garner even more support for the shared sentiment in favor of Kurdish nationalism.[3]This may well prove to be disastrous for Turkey as it may yet again be faced with civil unrest.

Wahhabism, the official religion of Saudi Arabia, is blamed for the ideology of ISIS and regardless of this issue the Saudi State continues to effusively enforce this religion.[4] The State does share certain sensibilities with the ideology of ISIS that are often hard to miss. The fact that Saudi Arabia has only recently decided to mobilize ground forces against the ISIS after almost two years of minimal support for the cause seems to be very incongruent with its professions of being strictly anti-terrorism. Indeed the Kingdom was questioned continuously[5] for it’s lackluster involvement in the air strikes carried out by the U.S led coalition for the past two years.[6] Additionally the reason for the sudden interest shown by Saudi Arabia in the ISIS issue seems to arise from a very real threat by ISIS to the power of the House of Saud.[7]

Iran and Saudi Arabia

So why the lag in providing military support to combat the ISIS threat? The reason seems to be that until most recently Saudi arabia was engaged in a ‘proxy war’ with it’s main rival in the Middle Eastern region, Iran. This made it difficult for the Kingdom to mobilise its forces to play a more active role in the assault on ISIS strongholds. As the Iran-supported Houthi rebels, seized Sanaa in 2014 a coalition formed by Arab states was launched aggressively to clamp down the unrest. This caused the forces of some of the strongest countries in the Middle East to be engaged in constant airstrikes against Yemen thus effectively pushing the ISIS threat to the background.

Another major factor to consider is that the Arabian peninsula is ruled by a very strong anti-Iran sentiment. The naming dispute of the 1970s was a starting point for these differences and eventually it grew into a strong divide between the Sunni majority and Shiite majority states.[8] Saudi Arabia is one of the strongest as well as financially established of the Middle Eastern countries so it makes sense that other countries like Kuwait and Bahrain were quick to side with it in most Saudi Arabia-Iran disputes.

ISIS was, for quite some time, the enemy of enemies of most of these Middle Eastern states; Bashar al-Assad as well as Iran. This made it even more tempting to leave the issue to Iran to deal with. The tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, recently came to a head after a prominent Saudi-Shiite cleric was executed by Saudi Arabia and Iran responded in kind to the act by ransacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran and putting it on fire.[9] Both the countries are now vying for for influence as well as dominance in the area of Middle East.

The ISIS issue

For the time being the ISIS issue needs to be juggled, and very skillfully, by the United States of America.  The major actors in the conflict need to look beyond the future of the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the issue of sectarianism. This is easier said than done as the struggle for legitimacy between both Iran and Saudi Arabia has only increased momentum in the face of the Iran Deal between America, an old ally of Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

However as there is a kaleidoscope of dynamics in effect in current issue the path to an understanding about the future of the Middle East needs to be dealt with patience and resilience. The main issue seems to be that which side will emerge as the victor after ISIS inevitably loses its stronghold in Syria in face of increased resistance; Iran or Saudi Arabia? The answer to this question will decide the future of the Middle East and all the major stakeholders in the ISIS issue.



[1] See ‘Saudi Arabia Uncovered – Exposure Episode 1’ (“ITV Press Centre”, 2016)

[2] Jonathan Eyal and Elizabeth Quintana, ‘Inherently Unresolved: Regional Politics And The Counter-ISIS Campaign’ (Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies 2016)

[3]Supra, 5.

[4] For a history of the modern Saudi arabia and its courtship of Wahhabism see ‘You Can’t Understand ISIS If You Don’t Know The History Of Wahhabism In Saudi Arabia’ (The Huffington Post, 2016)

[5] CNN Nick Thompson, ‘War On ISIS: Why Arab States Aren’t Doing More’ (CNN, 2016)

[6] Also see Ian Black, ‘Arab States Under Pressure To Do More In Fight Against Isis’ (the Guardian, 2015)

[7] Jonathan Eyal and Elizabeth Quintana, ‘Inherently Unresolved: Regional Politics And The Counter-ISIS Campaign’ (Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies 2016)

[8] Iran called the ‘Arabian Gulf’ the ‘Persian Gulf’ and Saudia Arabia termed it as the ‘Arabian Gulf’. This led to the recent Sunni-Shiite debate that the region is engaged in currently. See ‘Iran And Saudi Arabia: Posturing And Reality | Geopolitical Futures’ (, 2016)

[9] Ben Hubbard, ‘Iranian Protesters Ransack Saudi Embassy After Execution Of Shiite Cleric’ (, 2016)


Mendelsohn B and McCants W, ‘Experts Weigh In: What Is The Future Of Al-Qaida And The Islamic State?’ (The Brookings Institution, 2016)

Ryland A, ‘ISIS On The Run? Recapturing Ramadi And The Future Of Iraq » Page 2 Of 2 » Second Nexus’ (Second Nexus, 2016)

‘Saudi Arabia’S Master Plan Against ISIS, Assad And Iran In Syria’ (The National Interest, 2016)

Slawson N, ‘Saudi Execution Of Shia Cleric Sparks Outrage In Middle East’ (the Guardian, 2016)


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any organization with which she might be associated.

Abiha Mohsin

Author: Abiha Mohsin

The writer is currently working as an associate in Islamabad with Naqvi Law Associates with a special interest in research as well as criminal and family law cases.