Iran-Saudi Relations: Rising Tensions and Growing Rivalry

march IranFor decades, the Persian Gulf region – subsumed under a latent Sunni-Shia divide – was animated by a drama of Iraq-Iran rivalry; each power balanced the other. The elimination of Saddam Hussein, by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, introduced a new chapter in the regional affairs – Saudi Arabia and Iran as the twin pillars of the regional power-configuration. Historically, despite numerous efforts by each party to improve bilateral relations and deepen cooperation, Iran-Saudi relations have been fraught with intermittent rhetorical wars and grim strategic competition.

In the last decade, Iraq, Lebanon, occupied Palestine, Afghanistan, and Yemen have served as a chessboard for Iran-Saudi strategic maneuverings. However, worries over Iran’s growing regional influence and burgeoning nuclear program are beginning to accentuate the deepening fissures in Saudi-Iran relations. Recent developments, specifically the alleged Saudi-Israeli coordination on a planned “surgical strike” against Iran’s nuclear facilities, plus Iran’s accusation of a “Saudi connection” vis-à-vis the abduction of an Iranian nuclear scientist, are beginning to escalate the bilateral tensions to new heights.

A Love-Hate Relationship

One can choose his friends, but not his neighbors. In many ways, this describes the dilemmas and interests that have shaped the dynamics of Iran-Saudi relations for almost a century. Despite immense differences in religious beliefs — Saudis as Wahabis and Persians as Shias — and strategic outlook, both countries sought to improve relations in their modern history. Diplomatic relations date back as early as 1928, however, it was only in 1966 and 1968 that their respective rulers, King Faisal and Mohammad Reza Shah, visited each other’s country.

The elevation in diplomatic relations was directly related to the efforts by both sides to resolve disputes over the two islands of Farsi and Arabi, which they eventually succeeded in doing. Although Saudis continuously irked Iran over issues such as labeling the Persian Gulf as the “Arabian” Gulf — a very sensitive issue that would haunt bilateral relations for decades to come — and the Iranian province of Khuzestan as “Arabestan,” Cold War priorities and opposition to Nasserite Arab nationalism precipitated cooperation, convergence, and mutual understanding. In 1968, by militarily disengaging from the Persian Gulf, Britain bequeathed regional leadership to monarchs in both Iran and Saudi Arabia.

However, under the Shah, Iran was elevated to the status of the “Police of the Persian Gulf.” This was accomplished on two levels: first, Iran engaged in a massive program of military build-up and modernization; second, the United States designated the Iranian potentate as its main strategic partner in the key oil-rich region of the Persian Gulf. Iran, the anointed regional powerhouse, used this opportunity to flex its muscles and consolidate dominance in the region. The shah reluctantly abandoned his country’s control over the small Arab kingdom of Bahrain, and refused to back-down from its territorial disputes with United Arab Emirates (UAE), instead fortifying Iran’s control over the Greater and Lesser Tunb and Abu Mousa islands. This did not sit well with the Saudis, who viewed themselves as the guardians of Arab and Sunni interests in the Persian Gulf.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution — Shia in spirit and nationalist in fervor — sent ripples across the region. Saudi Arabia, together with other Arab states in the region, felt threatened by Iran’s revolutionary zeal that seemingly had a hegemonic trajectory. As host to large disgruntled Shia minorities that could be potentially mobilized by Iran’s revolution, the Arab monarchies feared for their regimes’ survival.

Under such political calculation, the region’s monarchies actively supported Saddam’s invasion of Iran in 1980. This would intensify animosities and deepen enmities between post-revolution Iran and Saudi Arabia. In 1981, in order to solidify Iran’s containment, Saudi Arabia co-founded the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The council was a collection of Persian Gulf Arab states that were determined to keep Iran at bay. Saudi Arabia dramatically increased its oil output to support Saddam’s military incursions and to offset oil prices — to the detriment of Iran’s oil-dependent economy. According to British journalist Bill Fisk, Saudi Arabia is estimated to have contributed $25 billion dollars to Iraq during the latter’s invasion of Iran.

Iranians would not forget how Saudi Arabia aided Iraqi efforts, which inflicted losses amounting to almost $100 billion in accounting costs, and possibly $1 trillion in opportunity costs. More importantly, Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran led to the death of almost half a million Iranians. These traumatic memories of war are embedded in Iran’s post-revolution national psyche, and undoubtedly influence the social predispositions of the Iranian people, if not the contours of its foreign policy.

In 1987, amidst growing tensions, a tragic event would spell the end of bilateral diplomatic ties. The Mecca Massacre, when Saudi security forces opened fire at protesting pilgrims in the holy city, resulted in the death of 275 Iranians and injury of hundreds more. In response, scores of Iranians attacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, and thousands of protesters called for the overthrow of the Saudi Monarchy. The violent clash and popular response marked an unprecedented degree of deterioration in bilateral relations.

The Reconciliation

The end of the protracted Iran-Iraq War evinced a new phase in Iran’s foreign policy posturing. As the realities of 20th century international politics confronted Iran’s revolutionary idealism, the country began to adopt a pragmatic stance toward its foreign relations. Nevertheless, Iran’s strategic doctrine remained as Primat der Aussenpolitik — the primacy of foreign policy.

Intent on revitalizing Iran’s battered economy after eight years of war and the United States’ unilateral embargo, President Hashemi Rafsanjani sought to ameliorate relations with neighboring Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia. By proposing an inclusive “Security Community” in the region, taking Kuwait’s side when Saddam invaded it, and tacitly supporting the UN coalition’s liberation of Kuwait, Iran scored major diplomatic points with neighboring Arabs. By 1991, Iran-Saudi relations were getting back on track, and the 1990s marked a sustained phase of growing bilateral cooperation.

The election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 buttressed Iran’s détente with Saudi Arabia, and instigated a period of deepening cooperative relations. In 1997, Iran’s Foreign Minister Akbar Velayati visited Saudi Arabia. Saudis reciprocated the visit during the 1997 Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) Summit in Tehran by sending Crown Prince Abdel Aziz al-Sa’ud. The tit-for-tat strategy would optimistically persist in following years.

In 1998, former President Rafsanjani visited Saudi Arabia to succor the cooperative momentum, which was increasingly shaping Iran-Saudi ties, by opening discussions on three levels: re-allocation of Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC) quotas for oil production, economic cooperation, and the establishment of a regional security alliance. Rafsanjani’s visit was followed by President Khatami’s trip to Saudi Arabia in 1999. The visit aimed at expanding Iran-Saudi cooperation on a range of issues including socio-cultural cooperation, security cooperation, and approaches to the post-Gulf War Iraq. In the same year, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia urged the Persian Gulf countries to mend ties with Iran. In the following years, both countries would sign a series of security agreements to cement their positive gestures.

The Fall of Iraq and a New Regional Set-Up

Despite a decade of détente between the two Shia and Sunni powers, the post-Saddam period explicitly accentuated underlying conflicts of interests. At the dawn of the 21st century, the revelation of Iran’s latent nuclear program and the elimination of Iraq from the regional power configuration ushered in a new phase of rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. With the fall of Taliban in Afghanistan and the Ba’athist Party in Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia jostled to fill the power vacuum in the region.

Helped by the United States’ elimination of regional rivals in Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran’s meteoric rise in the last decade has reinforced Arab fears of a “Pax Persiana” in the region. The election of President Ahmadinejad in 2005 introduced a new flavor to Iran’s foreign policy maneuverings as well, initiating more hawkish foreign policy posturing, which supplanted Khatami’s conciliatory, dovish approach. This policy shift and indeed, Ahmadinejad’s election was, at least in part, a response to President Bush’s neo-conservative foreign policy positioning, which discredited Khatami’s overtures and consistently threatened regime change in Iran.

In the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War, amidst growing tensions between Iran and the West, Iran — under Ahmadinejad — would elevate its regional ambitions to a new level by explicitly supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran’s grand designs were now manifesting themselves in clearer terms. By solidifying its alliance with an ascendant Hezbollah and vigorously supporting Hamas in Gaza, Iran was gradually establishing its foothold in the Levant region.

Iranian and Saudi-backed factions were practically using Lebanon’s political landscape as a site for their proxy wars. In the midst of this, President Ahmadinejad courted the Arab streets, intensifying Iran’s public diplomacy, openly challenging the Arab monarchies – especially Saudi Arabia – and calling upon the Shia minority to fight for their rights. Iran was becoming hegemonic in the eyes of the Arab regimes.

Despite having invited President Ahmadinejad to the 2007 Gulf Cooperation Council meeting, Iran’s perceived actions became the Arab states’ primary barometer for assessing the country’s intentions.

In the last decade, Iran and Saudi Arabia increasingly challenged each other in numerous international arenas. For instance, among OPEC countries Iran, together with Venezuela, has been challenging Saudi Arabia over issues like oil production quotas. In the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), Iran adopted a tougher stance against Israel and America in an effort to overshadow the more cautious Arabs.

However, Iraq remains a bitter battleground for Saudi-Iranian rivalry. The emergence of a dominant Shia bloc in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon were alarming enough in Saudi eyes. Yet, it was the Shia rebellion in Yemen that profoundly exposed growing fissures between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Sa’dah insurgency in Yemen — involving the Iran-backed Shia Houthi rebels fighting against the Saudi-backed Yemeni government — placed Tehran and Riyadh on a collision course.

In the most recent out-break of large-scale clashes, Saudi Arabia launched unprecedented military aerial raids — the largest since the Gulf War — on the Shia Houthi rebels.

This was met with immense verbal condemnation from Iran. In one domestic visit, Presidential Ahmadinejad retorted, “Saudi Arabia was expected to mediate in Yemen’s internal conflict as an older brother and restore peace to the Muslim states, rather than launching military strike[s] and pounding bombs on Muslim civilians in the north of Yemen.”

Saudi Arabia’s anxieties over Iran’s maneuverings in the Arabian Peninsula have an even more immediate concern at heart. Since the revolution, Iran has been vocal about its support for disenfranchised Shia minorities, who are concentrated in the world’s most oil-rich region of Dammam, in Saudi Arabia. The prospect of an Iran-backed Shia rebellion in such a strategic region is a nightmare for Saudi rulers. Machtpolitik (power politics) became the main feature of regional politics in the Gulf.

Connivance with the Enemies

Since Iran’s revolution, the Persians have openly criticized Saudi Arabia and other Arab leaders for the latter’s alleged connivance with the U.S., and even Israel. Iran cites Egypt’s 1979 peace deal with Israel, Jordan’s 1994 peace agreement with Israel, and Saudi Arabia’s 2002 Saudi Peace Plan — indicating a commitment to recognize Israel’s sovereignty — as signs of Arab acquiescence in the face of Israel’s aggression and Palestine’s “gushing wound.” Iran’s brand of Shia Islam also poses a counter-discourse to the Sunni-dominated Arab world, with Saudi Arabia as its main leader.

However, Iran’s enmity towards Saudi Arabia has a more immediate strategic reasoning. Not foregoing memories of Saudi support for Iraq during the latter’s invasion of Iran, Tehran’s main annoyance stems from the belief that Saudi Arabia is covertly cooperating with its enemies on three fronts: cooperation with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on the abduction of an Iranian nuclear scientist, coordination with Israel on a potential “surgical strike” against Iran’s nuclear facility, and ideological-material support for Iran’s main domestic terrorist group, the Jundullah.

During a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in February 2010, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said, “But we see the issue [Iran’s nuclear program] in the shorter term maybe because we are closer to the threat…. So we need an immediate resolution rather than a gradual resolution [sanctions].” By June, as the UN Security Council passed a new round of sanctions against Iran, The Times (London) published a report stating that, “…defense sources in the Gulf say that Riyadh has agreed to allow Israel to use a narrow corridor of its airspace in the north of the country to shorten the distance for a bombing run on Iran.” These reports and statements did not sit well for Iran’s leadership.

Additionally, in an attempt to further isolate Iran, Saudi Arabia was reported to have provided energy counter-offers to Iran’s major partners such as China. During the February U.S. trip to the Persian Gulf, the United States and the Saudi-led GCC discussed plans to offset energy losses for China in the event of an invasion of Iran. Saudi Foreign Minister al-Faisal stepped up the rhetorical pressure by stating that, “China is perfectly aware of the scope of its responsibilities and its obligations [with regards to Iran’s nuclear program], including in the position it holds on the international stage and as a permanent member of the Security Council.”

Meanwhile, Iran accused Saudi Arabia of cooperating with the CIA in the 2009 abduction of the Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri in Mecca. Upon his return from the U.S., Amiri said that he was “kidnapped with the help of Saudis.”

Currently, the Jundullah insurgency is one of Iran’s main domestic national security considerations.
In October 2009, 28 people were killed, along with high-ranking members of Iran’s elite revolutionary guard (IRGC), in a suicide attack conducted by Jundullah. This event associated Saudi Arabia again with another major national security concern for Iran.

In November 2009, Kuwaiti Daily Al-Watan published the text of a letter by Abdul-Malek Rigi (the Jundullah leader) to King Abdullah, asking the king to lend “more support” to the group. This was followed by another suicide attack in July 2010, claiming the lives of many, including IRGC members. Both attacks were staged in retaliation for Iran’s execution of Rigi brothers (the organization’s leaders).

Within the last year and so, attacks were staged in the aftermath of the execution of each of the brothers; in many of the reported media pronouncements the group claimed that their attacks were in retaliation for the executions. Although their strategic goals are obviously beyond mere vengeance, the timing of the attacks had a subliminal message.

In late June 2010, Iran was again a central topic of discussions when King Abdullah met President Obama in the White House. The two leaders talked about plans to curb Iran’s nuclear program, and possibly strengthen the Kingdom’s defensive position vis-à-vis Iran by a potential agreement on the purchase of 72 F-15 Eagle tactical fighters.

Tensions have been so high in the region in recent years that the 2010 Islamic Solidarity Games (supposedly hosted by Iran) were canceled due to the differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia on the issue of putting the label of “Persian Gulf” on the medals.

Growing tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, the elimination of Iraq as the main regional counter-weight, and the Islamic Republic’s expanding influence in the Middle East will continue to guide Saudi Arabia’s calculations with respect to its relations with Iran. The evolution of the post-9/11 regional order has made it extremely difficult for both sides to deepen their cooperation and considerably normalize their bilateral relations. These developments are defining the new chapter of Iran-Saudi relations.

FPIF contributor Richard Javad Heydarian is an Iranian observer and analyst of developments in the Middle East. He is based in Manila.