Aug 11, 2010
Iran-Saudi rivalry deepens
By Richard Javad Heydarian
For decades, the Persian Gulf region - subsumed under a latent Sunni-Shi'ite
divide - was animated by a drama of Iraq-Iran rivalry; each power balanced the
other. The elimination of Saddam Hussein, by the 2003 United States 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 past 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-a-vis the abduction of an Iranian
nuclear scientist, are beginning to escalate the bilateral tensions to new
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 Wahhabis and Persians as Shi'ites - 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
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
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
The 1979 Iranian revolution - Shi'ite 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 Shi'ite 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 US$25
billion 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, amid 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 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 United Nations
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
detente 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 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 detente between the two Shi'ite 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 past decade has reinforced Arab fears of a
"Pax Persiana" in the region. The election of President Mahmud 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 US President George W 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, amid 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, Ahmadinejad
courted the Arab streets, intensifying Iran's public diplomacy, openly
challenging the Arab monarchies - especially Saudi Arabia - and calling on the
Shi'ite minority to fight for their rights. Iran was becoming hegemonic in the
eyes of the Arab regimes.
Despite having invited 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 past 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
However, Iraq remains a bitter battleground for Saudi-Iranian rivalry. The
emergence of a dominant Shi'ite bloc in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon were
alarming enough in Saudi eyes. Yet, it was the Shi'ite rebellion in Yemen that
profoundly exposed growing fissures between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Sa'dah
insurgency in Yemen - involving the Iran-backed Shi'ite Houthi rebels fighting
against the Saudi-backed Yemeni government - placed Tehran and Riyadh on a
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
This was met with immense verbal condemnation from Iran. In one domestic visit,
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 Shi'ite minorities, who are
concentrated in the world's most oil-rich region of Dammam, in Saudi Arabia.
The prospect of an Iran-backed Shi'ite 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 alleged connivance with the US, 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 Shi'ite
Islam also poses a counter-discourse to the Sunni-dominated Arab world, with
Saudi Arabia as its main leader.
However, Iran's enmity toward 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 Jundallah.
During a meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in February, 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 US 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 US, Amiri said that he was "kidnapped with the help of Saudis".
Currently, the Jundallah 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 Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC),
in a suicide attack conducted by Jundallah. 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
Abdulmalik Rigi (the Jundallah leader) to King Abdullah, asking the king to
lend "more support" to the group. This was followed by another suicide attack
in July, claiming the lives of many, including IRGC members. Both attacks were
staged in retaliation for Iran's execution of Rigi brothers (the organization's
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 Barack 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-a-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.
(Posted with permission from
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