FPI Conference Call: Escalating Saudi-Iran Tensions

Listen to a recording of this conference call here.

Key Quotations

Saudi Concerns

“The [Saudi] royal family was…frustrated with Washington for appearing to give in to Iran all the time on matters like ballistic missile testing or an exercise involving rockets in the Strait of Hormuz just as a U.S. carrier was coming through the strait. And they wanted to attract the attention of Washington and say that they were unhappy, and therefore doing their own thing in regard to how they deal with Shiite terrorists and criminals and indeed how they deal with Sunni ones as well—hence the mass executions.” – Simon Henderson

“The Saudis in particular are concerned about what they see as a shift by the U.S. ever since the beginning of the nuclear negotiations not so much to fully pull away from the Arab states but to rebalance in Iran’s favor and I think there’s a concern that the U.S. is taking this approach. The U.S. would argue that they [are] trying to allow the regional states to work on issues among themselves more, and to not have the U.S. be the arbiter in every conflict.” – Matthew McInnis

“As far as I can see…White House seems more upset that the executions had taken place than the Iranians effectively allowed the Saudi embassy in Tehran to be burned down.” – Simon Henderson

“Where things have gone wrong over the last few weeks and months is that the U.S. diplomatically and politically is making the GCC [i.e. Gulf Cooperation Council] states doubtful about the U.S. security guarantees.” – Simon Henderson

The Iranian Response and Saudi Intentions

“[The Iranians] saw [the execution of Sheikh Nimr] as a great affront to them. The Iranians see the Shia population worldwide as part of their responsibility and they want to be able to protect the Shia. So this is something I could see the Iranians went out of their way to show their anger about that. At the same time…this is not something that will escalate to actual direct conflict because…the protection of Shia clerics or other Shia populations is not something that Iran will typically go to war over.” – Matthew McInnis

“It would seem that Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic war against Iran is petering out. So what happens now is the big question, and I think that the indication is that both Saudi Arabia and Iran are trying to cool the situation. Mohammed bin Salman, who is the deputy crown prince and defense minister as well as the son of the king of Saudi Arabia, said yesterday that he didn’t see there was going to be an all out war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and that’s good news. So the tension will decline, what it means though, for example, the Syria peace talks, we’ll have to wait and see.” – Simon Henderson

Challenges for U.S. Foreign Policy

“The more we are able to show stronger resolve in [this] field, I think the Saudis and our other allies will be more reassured and frankly I think we would see a toning down of some of this behavior from some the Arab Gulf States that frankly has been problematic and complicating for the U.S.” – Matthew McInnis

“[Iran is] going to be pushing the envelope as much as they can on the terms of the agreement and I think that if we don’t actually push back on the missile testing, on support for terrorism, be willing to still either enforce more strongly existing sanctions on those issues or impose new sanctions, then we’re going to set ourselves up for an Iran that feels the nuclear deal has given them cover to realign the region in a way that’s favorable to them and to conduct activities that are frankly contrary to us and our allies’ interests.” – Matthew McInnis

“Show either diplomatic or military strength, but [don’t] necessarily use it. But an important part of showing that power is that any possible adversary isn’t quite certain when you will use that power.  Now, the trouble with the situation at the moment is that most potential adversaries of the United States anywhere in the world realize that the United States is probably not going to use its power and so they can call the bluff of Washington, and this is what has been so frustrating for the Arab Gulf States.” – Simon Henderson

Speaker Biographies

Simon Henderson is the Baker fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute, specializing in energy matters and the conservative Arab states of the Persian Gulf. A former journalist with Financial Times, Mr. Henderson has also worked as a consultant advising corporations and governments on the Persian Gulf. He became an associate of the Institute in 1999 and joined the staff in 2006. He started his career with the British Broadcasting Corporation before joining the Financial Times. His experience includes serving as a foreign correspondent in Pakistan in 1977-78, and reported from Iran during the 1979 Islamic revolution and seizure of the U.S. embassy. Mr. Henderson writes and appears frequently in the media discussing the internal political dynamics of the House of Saud, energy developments, events in the Gulf, and Pakistan's nuclear program, including the work of Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan.

J. Matthew McInnis is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he focuses on Iran, specifically its intentions, strategic culture, military power, and goals. He also works on US defense and regional security issues in the Persian Gulf (Iran, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula) and on the effectiveness of the US intelligence community. Before joining AEI, Mr. McInnis served as a senior analyst and in other leadership positions for the Department of Defense. Mr. McInnis has a master’s degree in international relations from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and another master’s degree in European studies from New York University. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in international studies from Eckerd College in Florida.

Dr. David Adesnik is the Policy Director at the Foreign Policy Initiative, where he focuses on defense and strategy issues. Previously, David was a visiting fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. For two years, he served as deputy director for Joint Data Support at the U.S. Department of Defense, where he focused on the modeling and simulation of irregular warfare and counterinsurgency. David also spent several years as research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses. In that capacity, he spent several months in Baghdad as an operations research and systems analyst for Multinational Corps – Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.  In 2008, he was part of the foreign policy and national security staff for John McCain’s presidential campaign. David holds a doctorate and master’s degree in international relations from Oxford University, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar. His dissertation focused on the Reagan administration’s approach to democracy promotion. David received a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the Council on Foreign Relations, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Harvard University, and the University of Virginia. His work has been published in Foreign Policy, The Weekly Standard, The National Review, The Washington Free Beacon, The Washington Quarterly, Forbes.com, FoxNews.com and The Daily Caller. David has served as a commentator on several cable television networks and radio programs.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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