March 31, 2015 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1150

Tehran vs The Awakening Sunni Arab Camp: Significance And Implications

March 31, 2015 | By Yigal Carmon and A. Savyon*
Iran, Saudi Arabia, The Gulf, The Gulf | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1150


The March 26, 2015 attack by the Saudi-led coalition on the strongholds of Iran's proxy in Yemen, the Houthi, sent shockwaves through Tehran. The rousing of the Sunni Arab camp, and the formation of a fighting coalition, as well as the backing of the entire Arab League - all within the short space of a few weeks - took the Iranian regime completely by surprise.

In recent years, and especially in the last few months, Tehran has ratcheted up its direct involvement in several Arab countries, thanks to the silence on the part of the U.S.; this silence has been interpreted in the Arab world as support for Iran becoming a hegemonic military and political regional superpower. The Sunni Arab camp has appeared to be in a state of disintegration and division both politically and militarily, after nearly five years of internal erosion following the Arab Spring.

In this situation, official Iranian spokesmen had stepped up their threats against Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states,[1] as well as against the U.S. military. These threats were backed up by maneuvers conducted by naval, ground, and missile forces, and by advanced weaponry development.[2] Several Iranian officials spoke of Iran's control of four Middle East capitals and four seas.[3] A senior advisor to Iranian President Hassan Rohani, Ali Younesi, even declared that the Persian Empire was now revived.[4]

The surprise Sunni Arab move blocked Iran in Yemen, and is a warning sign of Sunni camp intentions to cut Iran back down to size and to let it know that it is no empire, as Younesi said, but rather a mere 10% of the Islamic world - the vast majority of which is Sunni.

The political and military echelons of Iran's leadership - Supreme Leader Khamenei, IRGC commander Jafari, and Basij commander Naqdi - from which many threats have emanated, have not yet responded. However, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif expressed willingness to cooperate and help promote comprehensive internal dialogue in Yemen, as his Houthi allies fell under Sunni coalition bombardment.

However, there were threatening declarations from Iran's pragmatic camp, specifically Hashemi Rafsanjani, filling the vacuum left by Supreme Leader Khamenei's failure to respond.[5] Rafsanjani expressed his outrage at the Saudi-Arab operation, but his threats were vague, due perhaps to his wish to avoid impacting the nuclear talks that are currently underway.

Significance And Implications

The Iran Nuclear Dossier

In light of the resurgence of the Sunni Arab camp, and its aim to set Iran back, Tehran can ill afford - now less than ever before - to sign away the deterrent of its military nuclear capabilities and global recognition of it as a threshold nuclear state.

Relations With The U.S. And The U.S.-Iran Nuclear Agreement

The U.S.'s immediate and public show of support for the Sunni camp is a harsh blow for both Khamenei's ideological camp and for the pragmatic camp of Rafsanjani and Rohani. The ideological camp believes that it has successfully forced its position on the U.S., and Tehran seems to have dictated its demand for regional hegemony to it.[6] However, the American show of support for the Sunni coalition has reshuffled the Iranian deck, and could cement the Iranians' belief that the U.S. can never be trusted and that Tehran must obtain all of its demands, such as a complete lifting of the sanctions as a condition for its signing a nuclear agreement.

Two Models For Tehran's Political And Military Conduct

Two distinct models characterize Tehran's geopolitical and military conduct vis-à-vis its rivals in the region and internationally:

1.  The "Intimidating Bully" model - Used vis-├á-vis the U.S. The latter has been forgiving and sympathetic to the Iranian regime's demands and to its expansion in the region, in addition to seeing it as a partner in its strategic interests, such as the fight against ISIS - despite Iran's international terrorist activity. The U.S. has even shown willingness to grant Tehran limited nuclear status despite its violations of Security Council resolutions and IAEA regulations. Iran has continued its military and political expansion in the region alongside its ongoing issuing of threats, even against the U.S. military.[7] It has become clear that the U.S.'s sympathetic stance has neither softened nor curbed Iran's offensive activity in the region, but has only encouraged its hostile policy.

2.  The "Paper Tiger" model - Faced with the empowered military and political Sunni Arab bloc, which is stronger than Iran, the Iranian regime could back down, revealing itself again as a paper tiger. This model has come into play twice, with Iran hesitating to implement its threats: first in 2003, when the U.S. besieged Iran from the south (Iraq) and the east (Afghanistan), and again in Bahrain in 2011, when a pro-Iranian Shi'ite coup was thwarted by a show of Saudi-Gulf military might.


* A. Savyon is Director of the MEMRI Iranian Media Project; Y. Carmon is President and Founder of MEMRI.



[3] See MEMRI TV Clip #4530 - Iranian Analyst Mohammad Sadeq Al-Hosseini: Saudi Arabia Is on the Verge of Extinction; We Are the New Sultans of the Mediterranean, the Gulf, and the Red Sea, September 24, 2014. In a September 24, 2014 interview with Mayadeen TV, which is close to Hizbullah, Mohammad Sadeq Al-Hosseini said, "The Saudi ruler represents a tribe on the verge of extinction" and "a third world war has begun." He added, "We in Tehran, Damascus, [Hizbullah's] southern suburb of Beirut, Baghdad, and Sana'a will shape the map of the region." See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5858, Associates Of Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei: Saudi Arabia Is The Source Of Scheming Against The Islamic World; The Al-Saud Family Is Of Jewish Origin - And Its Turn To Fall Has Come, October 14, 2014.

Share this Report: