Iran-Saudi Arabia: a troubled affair

A detente between the two countries is crucial to regional stability and to their national interests.

Saudi Arabia-Iran relations turned sour after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran [Reuters]

As senior diplomats from Iran and the six world powers (P5+1) were set to return to the negotiation table in Geneva this week, there is more optimism that an interim deal would be made this time to ease international concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The mere possibility, however, that a deal could be reached soon, has drawn a storm of protest from Israel and Saudi Arabia, both close allies of Washington. The Saudis – in particular – would consider a deal between the big powers and Iran over its nuclear issue as US submission to Tehran’s “hegemonic ambitions” in the Middle East. This explains why the bombing, which targeted the Iranian embassy in Beirut on November 19, was widely viewed in Tehran as aiming to undermine the Geneva talks. In a commentary titled “who benefits from terrorist blasts?” Tasnim news agency, believed to be close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), pointed the finger at Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis' worst nightmare would be the administration striking a grand bargain with Iran.

by - Robert Jordan, former US ambassador to Riyadh


A brief history

Iran and Saudi Arabia have gone through many phases in the history of their relations: from a strategic alliance in the years before the 1979 Islamic Revolution to a cold war in recent years.

During the 1960s and 1970s the two countries were in a strategic alliance with considerable political, military and security interactions. The West, and the US in particular, used these two states to deter the influence of Soviet communism in the Middle East.

The change following the Islamic Revolution in 1979 dealt a heavy blow to the interests and ambitions of the West and the US in the Middle East, and also took some allies, including Saudi Arabia, by surprise. Tehran-Riyadh relations then entered a new stage fraught with mistrust and hostility.

Having followed an anti-US line after the revolution, Tehran regarded Saudi Arabia as a proxy of the “Great Satan” in the region. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, accused Tehran of attempting to export its revolution to the Gulf Arab monarchies.

The Saudi support for Iraq in its war against Iran, encouragement of other Arab states of the Gulf to follow suit, creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981, in an attempt to deter Iran, and the 1987 massacre of Iranian pilgrims in Saudi Arabia further deteriorated the already strained relations between the two Muslim countries. The levels of hostility between the two countries were so high that, according to Foreign Policy, on June 5, 2010, King Abdullah had told then French Defence Minister Herve Morin, that: “There are two states in the world that do not deserve to exist: Iran and Israel.”

Also, in November 2010, whistle-blowing website, WikiLeaks, disclosed that King Abdullah has repeatedly urged the US to attack Iran and destroy its nuclear programme.

At present, the most important areas of rivalry and difference between Tehran and Riyadh range from the crises in Syria, Bahrain and Egypt to developments in Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen and Iraq; from issues of the Islamic world and religious differences to Iran’s nuclear programme.

Saudi frustration

The extent of Saudi frustration at being overlooked by Washington became apparent last month when Riyadh rejected a seat on the United Nations Security Council. It was the first country ever to do so, and the move surprised even its own diplomats who had lobbied for the seat for many years.

Saudi concerns about Iran are also associated with a whole range of actions Riyadh deems as a threat to its influence in the Arab world, and even its grip on power at home. “The Saudis’ worst nightmare would be the administration striking a grand bargain with Iran,” said former diplomat Robert Jordan, who was US ambassador to Riyadh from 2001 to 2003. Saudi Arabia views Iran’s involvement in regional issues, especially in Arab politics, in the context of an ideological and security threat, combined with hegemonic and nationalistic aspirations. Moreover, the undeclared cooperation and unwritten agreement between Tehran and Washington on the continuation of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Iraq typically strikes fear among Saudi leaders.

Saudi-Israeli plan?

On the other hand,Tehran’s concerns about a Saudi involvment in a possible attack against it have been confirmed by a Sunday Times report stating that Saudi Arabia has already given Israel the green light to use its airspace in the case of an attack on Iran.“Once the Geneva agreement is signed, the military option will be back on the table. The Saudis are furious and are willing to give Israel all the help it needs,” an unnamed diplomatic source told the paper.

On Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to the French daily Le Figaro about the situation, stating that Israel and the “leading state in the Arab world” agree when it comes to Tehran and its nuclear capabilities.

Future outlook

Some Iranian analysts believe that because of the Sunni-Shia divide and the geostrategic goals of Tehran and Riyadh in containing each other’s regional power, easing of relations between them will not be an easy task.

Others, however, maintain that Tehran-Riyadh bilateral relations are not marred by major sectarian or geostrategic differences, in essence, but rather by differences created in these areas by their reactions to regional events.

It would be in the best interest of Iran if President Rouhani’s administration took practical measures to dispel the concerns that Saudi officials currently have about a rapprochement between Tehran and Washington.

Despite some occasional criticisms voiced by conservatives against the regional policies of the Saudi kingdom, the administration of President Rouhani is in favour of closer ties with Riyadh.

Conservative MP and a member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of the Iranian parliament, Mohammad Saleh Jokar [Pr] said that hostilities of Saudi Arabia towards Iran need no verification. “It seems the recent developments are moving in a direction that ‘the Zionists and al-Saud’ would soon team up against Iran.”

However, Iran’s ambassador to Riyadh, Mohammad Javad Rasouli Mahalati [Pr] said, “The subject of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is one of the challenging issues in the foreign policy of our country which has experienced many ups and downs in the recent years due to certain developments.”

He added, “As two big and key powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia are influential players in the region. A review of their conducts and interactions has always been the focus of attention of analysts and other regional and international players.”

Rasouli said improvement of bilateral ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia will benefit all countries in the region and the world of Islam.

In a congratulatory message cabled to Rouhani on his victory in the June presidential elections, King Abdullah praised the president-elect for his statements on cooperation and improvement of mutual ties. Rouhani, in turn, expressed hope that peace and stability would be restored in the interest of the people of the region “through insight and farsightedness of leaders of the regional countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular”.

The new leaders in Iran seem to appreciate Saudi Arabia’s positive role in regional developments. They are also aware that a confrontational mode of interaction between Iran and Saudi Arabia would benefit neither country, but produce negative consequences for the entire region.

It would be in the best interest of Iran if President Rouhani’s administration took practical measures to dispel the concerns that Saudi officials currently have about a rapprochement between Tehran and Washington.

In the meantime, Saudi officials are expected to understand the new geopolitical developments in the region, put aside their unnecessary fear of Iran, and put better interaction and cooperation with Iran on the top of their political agenda.

In short, both countries should know that the way to progress and regional development passes through cooperation not confrontation.

Wishing Iran’s elimination does not seem to be the right response to the olive branch President Rouhani has extended to the outside world, including Saudi Arabia.

Diplomacy, negotiation and interaction seem to be working with Iran’s arch enemy, the United States, why not with Saudi Arabia?

Khosrow Soltani Kaseb is a senior journalist based in Tehran.