Saudi-Iran relations: story behind a clash of regional leadership
In the late 1960s, wrote Elaine Sciolino in The New York Times in 2001 (“A nation challenged: Ally’s future; US pondering Saudis’ vulnerability”), Reza Shah Pahlavi sent a series of letters to King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, urging, “Please, my brother, modernize. Open up your country. Make the schools mixed women and men. Let women wear miniskirts. Have discos. Be modern. Otherwise I cannot guarantee you will stay on your throne.”
In response, King Faisal wrote: “Your Majesty, I appreciate your advice. May I remind you, you are not the Shah of France. You are not in the Élysée. You are in Iran. Your population is 90% Muslim. Please don’t forget that.”
In 2018, Mohammad bin Salman, the powerful Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, unlike his uncle, has paid heed to the late Shah’s advice to take the kingdom toward becoming a modern state. Unfortunately, Reza Shah’s secular pro-Western regime was overthrown by the 1979 Islamic Revolution, embracing Iranian philosopher Jalal Al-e-Ahmad’s ideas, as Sandra Mackey in her 1996 book The Iranians: Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation observed of Gharbzadegi, which means “Western-struck,” “Westoxification,” or “Occidentosis.” For Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, Western culture was a plague or an intoxication to be eliminated.
In area, Saudi Arabia is bigger than Iran, but in population Iran is ahead of its rival by more than two and a half times. Gross domestic product per capita is US$24,847 and $14,403 for Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively, but in military expenditure, Saudi Arabia, with $80.8 billion, again far exceeds Iran, which spends only $25 billion annually.
While 8% of Iran’s population is Sunni, Shiites make up 10% of Saudi Arabia’s total population of 32.28 million. Yet the two leading powers in the Middle East have been engaged in proxy wars for decades. Saudi diplomat Turki bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, addressing the 22nd Annual Arab-US policymakers conference in Washington on October 22, 2013, voiced two concerns: Iran’s nuclear program and that country’s “meddling and destabilizing efforts in the countries with Shia majorities.”
Reza Shah Pahlavi came to power after toppled the Qajar Dynasty in a successful coup d’état in 1921, and King Abdulaziz ibn Saud after conquering the Hejaz in 1925. The two monarchs were on good terms during that decade, which led to the signing of a Saudi-Iranian Friendship Treaty in 1929. But Saeed M Badeed in his 1993 book Saudi-Iranian Relations 1932-1982 observed that the relationship between the two big nations of the Middle East “waxed and waned over the next five decades over religious practices, especially during Hajj, and Iran’s territorial ambitions.”
In 1943, Saudi Arabia executed an Iranian pilgrim, Abu Taleb Yazidi, who allegedly threw his vomit on the Kaaba during the Hajj pilgrimage. Iran reacted sharply and broke diplomatic relations until 1946, when Ibn Saud took the initiative by writing a letter to Reza Shah urging the resumption of diplomatic ties. For the next nine years, the two countries walked on common grounds: Both were aligned toward the US and both had oil industries to develop.
Then the year 1953 saw both the death of Ibn Saud and the US-British coup to overthrow Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq, which forced the Shah to flee Iran. With the new king, Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, there emerged a new era of Saudi-Iran relations. As Banafsheh Keynoush argues in his 2007 book Saudi Arabia and Iran: Friends or Foes?, “the Saudi-Iranian political relations began to evolve around three major issues: regional politics, oil, and international security.”
Nixon doctrine and a new power balance
The British decision to withdraw its military forces from the Persian Gulf region by 1971 was replaced by a new Western presence when US president Richard Nixon entered the Middle East arena with his “twin pillars” policy for regional stability. But as Paul Iddoh argued in “Iran and Saudi Arabia: from twin pillars to cold peace?” in Rudaw on March 13, 2016, the US tilted in favor of Iran, making it a dominant military power.
Iran’s ambition was visible in its territorial gains, which alarmed Saudi Arabia, with its repossession of three islands, the Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa in November 1971, which was in direct conflict with the claims of the United Arab Emirates.
1979 Islamic Revolution
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 launched a radical Shiite Islamist agenda that was perceived as a challenge to Saudi Arabia. Tehran’s policy of supporting proxy war in Yemen and Syria alarmed the Gulf states led by the kingdom.
The 1979 revolution established a regime dominated by Shiite clerics hostile to the West and to the Saudi monarchy. The Iran-Iraq War, in which Saudi Arabia and its smaller Gulf neighbors supported Iraq, put further strains on the relationship.
In the late 1990s, visits by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to Tehran and by Iranian president Mohammad Khatami and his predecessor Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to Riyadh helped eased relations. But it was not enough.
Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran are poles apart in Islamic ideology, which is central to the foreign policies of both countries. As the guardian of the two holy mosques, Saudi Arabia represents Sunni Islam, which Tehran rejects. In the 1920s, the Ikhwan, Ibn Saud’s force, was hostile to Shia Islam, and Saudi cleric Abd al-Aziz bin Abdullah bin Baz issued a fatwa denouncing Shiites as apostates.
Under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s open intention to take over the two holy mosques from Saudi Arabia helped escalate enmity between the two. The 15-day Grand Mosque siege of 1979 by militants caused damage to the bilateral relationship, since Saudi Arabia perceived interference by Iran.
In Iran-Saudi proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, the Islamic State (ISIS) terror mechanism against Shiites in Syria and Iraq, the 2015 Hajj stampede and the Saudi decision to prevent Iranians from coming for pilgrimage, the execution of Shiite cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr in January 2016 and the attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran are the leading causes of strained Saudi-Iran relations at present.
While Iran blamed Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US for the June 2017 attack on the Iranian Parliament, the kingdom accused Iran of firing ballistic missiles over Riyadh International Airport last November.
Also in November, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman called the Supreme Leader of Iran “the new Hitler of the Middle East,” adding to the bitterness of the relations between the region’s two dominant powers.