Analyzing and forecasting the Gulf Cooperation Council's geopolitical environment

The Asymmetry of Asymmetry in the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry

By Justin McCauley
March 11, 2016

As the power contest between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran intensifies, an important factor is Iran’s advantage in the area of asymmetric warfare, particularly with regard to Yemen and Syria. A major driver in the rise of the so-called “Shi’ite Crescent” has been Iran’s ability to spread its influence through a combination of well-placed and robustly supported proxies (both state and non-state), as well as a nuanced capacity to leverage parochial ethnic and sectarian conflicts to Tehran’s strategic benefit.

Saudi Arabia has not even sought to acquire this skillset. Over the years Riyadh has consistently invested in the kingdom’s military capabilities, but such efforts have focused on building a well-equipped conventional force – one geared largely toward territorial defense. While Saudi Arabia has prepared itself well for an interstate conflict, it has failed to establish the kind of asymmetric capabilities that Iran has used so effectively to build geostrategic alliances and influence battlefields and political systems alike. These capabilities could prove to be a strategic game-changer as the Saudi-Iranian rivalry further intensifies.

Why has Tehran been so successful? Why has Riyadh faltered?

The Iranian Advantage

Iran has excelled at asymmetric warfare since the inception of the Islamic Republic. The foundation of the Sepa-e-Pasdaran – the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – and within it the Quds Force, alongside its regular armed forces, created in 1979 a military formation dedicated to nontraditional warfare and strategically indispensable expeditionary operations. The Quds Force specializes in what the U.S. military calls ‘Unconventional Warfare’ (UW), ‘Foreign Internal Defense’ (FID), and ‘Information Operations,’ i.e. organizing and leading guerrilla groups, assisting allied governments against insurgencies and revolutionary movements, engaging in psychological warfare, and carrying out “hearts and minds” operations.

The best example of the Pasdaran’s strategic efficacy is of course Hezbollah. The Iranian hand in the creation of Lebanon’s Party of God is well-known. A few dozen Quds Force officers infiltrated Lebanon, commandeered a barracks in the Beka’a Valley, recruited top-notch talent such as the infamous Imad Mughniyah (a.k.a. Hajj Radwan), and produced the inchoate Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO). In a few short years the IJO, before its metamorphosis into Hezbollah in 1985, drove the U.S. from Lebanon and forced the Israelis into what became an 18-year quagmire. Now, as the most powerful force in Lebanon’s political arena, with an armed wing larger than the entire Lebanese Army, Hezbollah remains beholden to Tehran.

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Justin McCauley is an independent analyst based in Dubai specializing in terrorism, geopolitics, and security affairs in the greater Middle East and the post-Soviet space.