The outbreak of the Arab Spring triggered a number of conflicts and regional tensions in the Middle East, which over the past 10 years, have acquired an increasingly sectarian tinge. At the forefront of what some analysts have identified as “Sunni-Shia conflict” have been Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Emboldened by the fragmentation of states across the region, Riyadh and Tehran have sensed an opportunity to increase their own standing in the Middle East and have entered a fierce competition for regional influence. The frequent use of religious rhetoric and loyalties in proxy conflicts has led some observers to conclude that this competition is mainly sectarian in nature and stems from a historical Sunni-Shia struggle.
But a closer examination of recent history demonstrates that this is by far not the case. In this article, we challenge the “ancient hatreds” thesis and contend that the present sectarian tensions are predominantly a political construct serving the domestic and regional agendas of the two countries.
Relations before revolution
Tensions between Sunni and Shia groups and countries have often been portrayed as deeply ingrained and a consequence of historical and theological antagonism.
The roots of today’s “Sunni-Shia conflict” are often sought in the disagreements over the succession of Prophet Muhammad as the leader of the Muslim community (whether it should have been kept within his family or not). The subsequent killing of his grandson, Hussein ibn Ali, at the hands of forces loyal to the Umayyad caliph Yazid in the Battle of Karbala of 680AD is seen as having solidified the split between the Shia and the Sunni.
The Shia are said to perceive the Sunni as supporters of power usurpation by the Umayyads and responsible for the death of a succession of Prophet Muhammad’s true heirs, while the Sunni perceive the Shia as “apostates”, deviating from “true Islam”.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Safavid dynasty gradually transformed Sunni Iran into a bastion of Shia Islam. Then, in the 18th century, the House of Saud embraced the ultraconservative Sunni Wahabiyya doctrine. These two developments are considered by some to mark the onset of sectarian Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
In recent years, both Tehran and Riyadh have actively used religious language in their hostile rhetoric towards each other. They have also sought to channel their influence through proxies, seemingly along sectarian lines, prompting some to talk about a “rebirth of the Shia-Sunni divide”.
But to look at the tensions between the two countries solely through the prism of sectarianism would yield flawed conclusions. The line between Sunni and Shia Islam has been historically and theologically blurred at times and has not always been such a divisive element. Furthermore, historical events and developments of the past 60 years demonstrate that religious sentiments are by far not the main factor in decision-making in Riyadh and Tehran.
The main considerations on both sides of the Gulf have been regional influence and internal stability. Both countries have had the resources and ambition to seek regional security and hegemony and both have had a weak spot – a religious/ethnic minority based in their oil-rich provinces.
And whenever their interests have not clashed directly, there have been quite a few moments of positive engagement and collaboration between the two countries.
Cold war politics and collaboration
With the onset of the Cold War, the United States looked to regional powers in the Middle East to establish a solid front against the expansion of Soviet influence and secure the export of oil from the Gulf region. As a result, Iran – under the Pahlavi dynasty – and Saudi Arabia became part of the United States’ “twin pillar” to provide regional security. In the 1960s and 70s, the two countries collaborated closely and enjoyed good relations.
The Egyptian army’s intervention in the Yemen War (1962-70) to back the coup led by Arab nationalist officers also brought Riyadh and Tehran together, as they backed the forces fighting to preserve the rule of the Zaidi King-Imam. Some fighters loyal to the imamate travelled from Saudi Arabia to Iran to receive training.
Sharing long borders and historical and tribal ties with Saudi Arabia, Yemen represented a “red line” for the Saudis. The Iranians, for their part, feared the influence of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism, which was stirring anti-Shah sentiment in Iran’s Arab-populated oil-rich province of Khuzestan.
The Iranian revolution of 1978-79 shook the region and soured Iran’s relations with the House of Saud. Supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini directly called for the overthrow of American-backed Arab rulers and sought to export revolutionary activity under the banner of an “uprising of all Muslims” guided by his leadership.
Of particular concern for Saudi Arabia was the outbreak of protests in its Eastern Province, home to the majority of its Shia population and its oil reserves. Riyadh launched a bloody crackdown to end the upheaval, which resulted in the death of dozens of civilians. Meanwhile, the clerical establishment issued a flurry of anti-Shia publications portraying the protests not as Muslim but as a Shia conspiracy in an attempt to blunt the revolutionary appeal of the Iranian Revolution.
Meanwhile, Iran itself faced ethnoreligious upheaval, as Arab communities in Khuzestan province – where 80 percent of the country’s onshore oil reserves are located – rose up to demand autonomy and an end to their marginalisation. The Arab uprising was violently suppressed by the security forces, with more than 100 people killed.
After the death of Khomeini in 1989, relations between the two countries began to improve. In January 1990, when a devastating earthquake in the Iranian city of Manjil took the lives of tens of thousands, Riyadh rushed in to send aid to the ravaged areas. In 1991, the two countries resumed their diplomatic relations, just as the United States launched the First Gulf War against Iraq, whose Baathist regime was a nemesis to both the House of Saud and the Islamic Republic.
In May 1997, Iran’s newly elected reformist President Mohammed Khatami undertook a tour of Arab countries and paid a visit to the Saudi port city of Jeddah, where he met King Fahd. At the end of the meeting, they issued a joint communique in which they pledged “non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, respect for national sovereignty and independence and peaceful coexistence derived from the ties of religion and heritage which bind the states of the region”.
In December 1997, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah travelled to Iran to attend a summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference and was greeted by Khatami, who symbolically kissed him on both cheeks. The Saudis made it clear that “if the two governments have the political will, there are no limits to cooperation with Iran”.
The US invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring
The US invasion of Iraq and the fall of the Baathist regime in 2003 opened a new chapter in Iranian-Saudi relations.
Under the leadership of the more hawkish President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was elected in 2005, Iran was quick to use its extensive links to the anti-Baathist opposition – part of which it had long hosted – to establish a strong foothold in weakened and fragmented Iraq. Reeling under heavy US and UN sanctions, the Islamic Republic sought to curb US presence and influence on its western border and become the main player shaping Iraqi affairs. Over the next few years, Tehran managed to establish extensive influence over the security sector and various political forces (both Shia and non-Shia) in Iraq.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, it sought to gain the support of ordinary Arabs by emphasising its commitment to the Palestinian cause and opposition to Western imperialism. As one Shia scholar put it, at the time the Iranian foreign policy was “Sunni”.
In Saudi Arabia, however, Iran’s growing influence in Iraq was perceived as a major threat. Saudi officials repeatedly urged the US to stay engaged in the region and even asked Washington to launch military strikes on the Iranian nuclear programme to “cut off the head of the snake”.
A few years later, the outbreak of the Arab Spring pushed the hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran to a new level. Each of them sought to shape the outcomes of the Arab uprisings to favour their interests, and in doing so adopted seemingly contradictory policies.
They backed some uprisings while opposed others. Iran supported the protests in Bahrain in the name of respecting the “will of the people”, but was quick to send military support and personnel to Bashar al-Assad in Syria, as he tried to crush nationwide protests against his regime.
Saudi Arabia did the opposite. It dispatched its army to help the Bahraini monarchy regain control of the streets, but in Syria, it backed the armed opposition, providing it with generous military and financial assistance.
In pursuing these goals, Saudi Arabia and Iran embraced the use of sectarian rhetoric and allegiances, to complement the deployment of military force in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. While the conflicts in these three countries easily lend themselves to a Sunni-Shia rivalry interpretation, the reality in all three is much complicated.
The example of Yemen perfectly illustrates the fallacy of the sectarian argument. Just as in the 1960s, “Wahhabi Riyadh” and “secular Tehran” backed the pro-imamate Zaidi Shia forces out of political considerations rather than religious ones, after 2011, they supported various political players depending on their current interests.
After supporting Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh (himself a member of the Zaidi sect) for years, Saudi Arabia, along with other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries brokered a deal for him to step down in 2011. By 2014, Saleh had made a comeback to Yemen and allied with the Houthis, a Zaidi armed group, who he had previously tried to obliterate, only to betray them as an opportunity to reconcile with Riyadh emerged.
And even though Saudi Arabia launched a war against the Houthis in 2015, declaring them an Iranian proxy, it did engage with the group in the months after Saleh’s overthrow, as it tried to shape the outcome of Yemen’s political transition. Iran, for its part, approached leftist forces and separatists in the south, trying to expand its influence in Yemen.
Can Iran and Saudi Arabia make up?
The Arab Spring and the Iranian-Saudi escalation of tensions have also inevitably spilled over onto the domestic scene in both countries. In Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, protests broke out inspired by the Arab uprisings. The monarchy felt threatened and again launched a bloody crackdown, claiming the protesters were “terrorists”, “Iranian agents” and “fifth column”.
Iran has also witnessed similar disturbances by ethnic minorities in Khuzestan and Sistan-Baluchestan provinces and by disaffected youth and ordinary citizens in Tehran and other big cities. The Iranian government has repeatedly accused Saudi Arabia of agitating unrest among its Arab population and sponsoring violence, such as the 2018 attack on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ parade in Ahvaz.
Despite this hostility, however, there is a glimmer of hope that the situation can improve.
Since the dynamics of Iranian-Saudi relations have been highly influenced by the intervention of third parties, mostly the US, it is possible that the new administration in Washington could have a positive effect and alleviate tensions.
Indeed, Washington might realise that some form of collaboration between Iran and Saudi Arabia might be beneficial to its regional interests.
President Joe Biden has already signalled that he is looking into rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, which his predecessor pulled out of. This has provoked a mixed reaction in Tehran and alerted some US allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia.
However, a nuclear deal could be an opportunity to get both countries on the negotiating table. There are already proposals to include Riyadh in any future talks with Tehran.
Finding a way of balancing the competing interests – and fears – of Riyadh, Tehran and Washington is not an easy task but understanding the ways in which the rivalry plays out is essential. One thing is certain, while religion has a role to play, this rivalry is more about politics and regional security than “ancient hatreds”. That is why, peace – or at least some degree of normalised relations – is quite possible.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.