If one wanted to describe the whole history of political relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia from the World War II up to the present time using just one word, “rivalry” would have been undoubtedly the best word for this purpose. Rivalry has been, and continues to be, the fate of bilateral relations between the two countries. Even in periods of apparent cooperation and understanding, the relations between the two countries have been marked with covert rivalries on the regional level. Despite the above fact, a cursory review of the history of bilateral relations will show that it is quite possible to regulate the rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh in order for both countries to stay away from tensions resulting from excessive competition. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have been willing to put strict control on bilateral rivalries. However, the major discourses and approaches governing regional policies of the two sides have been generally at odds with each other, thus, preventing them from working to improve bilateral relations. Now, after the election of Mr. Hassan Rouhani as the new president of Iran, the main question is what future direction is imaginable for bilateral relations in the light of such a major development.
Security, in its various aspects, is one of the most important issues pertaining to relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. A security-based approach has increased sensitivity of each country’s regional standing in the eyes of their political elite. As a result, it is not possible for any one of them to establish political relations without paying due attention to security matters. Throughout different phases of political relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, their security attitudes toward regional issues have been frequently at loggerheads. The sole instance of true understanding and expanded cooperation between the two countries was seen in the 1970s. However, it should not be ignored that pressures from the United States, which was then a powerful ally of both countries, played a great part in facilitating cooperation between Tehran and Riyadh. Following the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Islamic Republic’s viewpoint that the security of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East should be maintained by regional countries, was at odds with the idea of the cooperation and alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States. For this reason, confrontation between Iran and the West gradually paved the way for parallel conflict of interests between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Apart from the security-based attitudes and viewpoints, another reality which may shed more light on the reason behind continued tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia is the passivity of Riyadh with regard to the expansion of bilateral relations. Due to the conservative nature of the Saudi regime and its continued support for the maintenance of the status quo in the region, Riyadh has been mostly showing reaction to regional developments and has habitually avoided appearing as an active player in the region. It was only in recent years when the entire region witnessed the wave of popular uprisings that Saudi Arabia decided to appear more active, especially with regard to the ongoing crisis in Syria. The passive nature of Saudi Arabia’s actions toward Iran will have a clear outcome: the ball is always in Iran’s court and Saudi Arabia never seems to be willing or capable of coming up with a practical initiative in order to reduce or totally do away with the existing challenges in bilateral relations. In addition to Saudi Arabia’s passivity in relation to Iran, another important point is that Riyadh has always tried to catch its own desired fish in the muddy waters of tense and fluctuating relations between Iran and the West.
This means that firstly, Iran’s regional priorities have always served as the main driving force shaping the approach of Riyadh to Tehran and, secondly, tension in Iran’s relations with the West has invariably led to increased tension between the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia. A review of different periods of relations between the two countries will confirm the existence of this general pattern. During the first decade after the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Riyadh had taken a belligerent approach to Tehran as a result of Iran’s new discourse and approach to regional freedom-seeking movements, including that of the Shia citizens of Saudi Arabia. During the post-war construction period in Iran under the former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, as Iran’s foreign policy priorities changed in favor of attracting foreign investment and economic development of the country, the approach taken by Riyadh to Tehran gradually changed as well. As a result, Riyadh tried to modify its primarily hostile stances on Iran and agreed to the holding of a summit meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (which was called Organization of the Islamic Conference at that time) in Tehran. In the meantime, the new reformist Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami, was elected and Saudi Arabia took part in the OIC summit at the highest level. The pursuit of foreign policy priorities, which had been adopted by Hashemi, more or less continued under his predecessor, Khatami. The new president also added new concepts such as the dialogue among civilizations and reduction of tension in Iran’s foreign relations to the list of his foreign policy priorities. The final outcome of those developments was unprecedented strengthening of relations between Tehran and Riyadh which culminated in the conclusion of a security pact between Iran and Saudi Arabia in 2001. Good relations between the two countries continued up to the end of Khatami’s term in office as president. Although many articles of the two countries’ security pact were not practically carried out under the influence of the aftermath of 9/11 terror attacks in the United States, the two countries continued their positive approaches to each other. The reason was that in parallel to pressures exerted on Iran by the West, Riyadh was also under tremendous pressures from its Western allies in relation to the aforesaid terrorist attacks.
Despite the above developments in bilateral relations, the reactive nature of Saudi Arabia’s policy has continued to exist. This was also true about Riyadh’s approach to Tehran under the President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The government of Ahmadinejad changed the list of Iran’s foreign policy priorities and discarded former President Khatami’s policy of interaction between Iran and the West. As a result, he showed no willingness to reach reconciliation with the West over Iran’s nuclear case. Even on a regional level, Ahmadinejad showed no interest in Khatami’s approach to the West and its regional allies. As a consequence of the new approach, when it came to such issues as, for example, the security of the Persian Gulf region, the new Iranian administration insisted that the security of the international waterway should be guaranteed and protected by regional countries. Due to its less powerful military compared to Iran, Saudi Arabia believed that such an approach would benefit the Islamic Republic. As a result, it opposed Iran’s new approach to security in the Persian Gulf. Therefore, the change in Tehran’s foreign policy priorities once more led to a parallel change to Riyadh’s approach to Iran and despite various efforts made by Ahmadinejad’s administration (which was evident in his four trips to Saudi Arabia), the Saudi government took a totally confrontational stance toward Iran. Consequently, Saudi Arabia’s approach to Iran’s nuclear energy program also took a U-turn changing from endorsement of Iran’s right to take advantage of the peaceful nuclear energy at the end of Khatami’s term in office and during early months of Ahmadinejad’s term, to considering Iran’s nuclear energy program a threat to international peace and security.
The reactive stances of Saudi Arabia vis-�-vis Iran still continue although Riyadh has appeared more proactive with regard to certain regional issues. Following the election of Rouhani as the new president of Iran, although Saudi officials were well aware of the personal characteristics of Rouhani, their felicitation message reached Tehran after a delay of about 24 hours. Riyadh is apparently waiting to see a practical change in the list of Tehran’s regional priorities, but also knows that such a change would not be possible with regard to certain issues, at least, over the short run. This may prove to be an obstacle to rapid improvement of mutual relations. However, if a real opening takes place in relations between Iran and the West over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, then the positive approach of the West to Iran would certainly make Riyadh revise its position toward Tehran as well. The important point is that during Rouhani’s term in office, unlike previous presidential terms in Iran, Riyadh should change the longstanding passivity of its foreign policy, especially with regard to Tehran, in favor of active interaction. This is true because resolution of certain regional issues would be difficult if Iran continues to appear active with Saudi Arabia maintaining its passive approach.
On the whole, there are two new problems with regard to bilateral relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia which were added during Ahmadinejad’s term. The first problem is the spread and intensification of sectarian tensions across the region. In the era of widespread popular uprisings which have been sweeping the entire Middle East and North Africa, sectarianism has been used by Saudi Arabia as one of its main policies in the face of the sweeping wave of change in the region. By doing so, Riyadh has been trying to increase its power of suppression against its own people as well as its immediate neighborhood on the one hand, while creating mental deterrence against domestic forces which seek change in Saudi Arabia, and other political forces which pursue the same goal in the regional neighborhood of the country, on the other hand. As a result, revival and reinvigoration of Al-Qaeda across the region, especially in Syria, has been one of the side effects of Saudi-backed sectarianism. Although sectarian strife has a long history in the region, it was never as high as it is at the present time. Saudi Arabia has been playing an active role in this development. As a result, in the new period following the election of Rouhani, Riyadh should take the initiative in order to give up its active role in stoking sectarian tensions in favor of reaching an understanding with Iran and the Shia population in the region. Maintaining the passive role of the past in a case in which Riyadh has been playing an active role, cannot help to pave the way for the further strengthening of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia as a prelude to improvement of relations between Shias and Sunnis in general.
The second problem is the close cooperation of Riyadh with the West for the escalation of international pressures against the Islamic Republic. Although Saudi Arabia has come up with no major initiative in this regard, it has used its influence to good effect against Iran. This issue can be analyzed in terms of sanctions as well as propaganda efforts against Tehran. As for the sanctions, Saudi Arabia has been a focus of attention for the West as the best alternative source to make up for any shortage of the Iranian crude in international markets. Riyadh, on the other hand, has happily volunteered to play that role in order to mount pressure on Iran. In terms of propaganda efforts, the nuclear issue of Iran has been a focus of attention for Saudi Arabia whose policy in this regard has gradually changed from collaboration with Iran and announcement of support for Iran’s right to have peaceful nuclear technology, to outright opposition to Iran’s nuclear activities. Although Saudi Arabia has had some influence in this area, it has been mostly a secondary player. Therefore, as the Iranian president changes, especially in case of any progress in negotiations between Iran and the West over Iran’s nuclear energy program, this problem would be gradually solved. Saudi Arabia, however, should prove its goodwill to the forthcoming administration of Rouhani.
In case the aforesaid problems are resolved, relations between the two countries might be restored to a previous state in which traditional issues set the direction of mutual ties. The experiences gained during the tenures of former Iranian presidents, Khatami and Hashemi, have proven that it is possible for both sides to steer traditional problems in bilateral relations in such a way as to rein in uncontrolled tensions, and subsequently, pave the way for the further improvement of relations. One of the main mottos of Rouhani is improvement of relations with all neighboring countries. Also, in his first press conference following the election, he made a clear reference to the special position of Saudi Arabia in the region. The election of Rouhani and his later remarks have actually thrown the ball in Saudi Arabia’s court. It is now Saudi Arabia’s turn to take a commensurate measure to reciprocate Mr. Rouhani’s positive signals. The important point is that Saudi Arabia should not expect all the initiatives and first steps to be taken by the Islamic Republic. The game of rivalry between the two countries has its own rules and Saudi Arabia should show its compliance with the implicit or explicit rules of international relations. On the whole, Iran and Saudi Arabia have shown that they enjoy high potentials to reach an understanding on regional issues. Therefore, any form of understanding and cooperation between the two sides cannot be expected to be initiated just by one of the two sides. Let’s hope that Riyadh has already received the message sent to it by the new Iranian president; a message which has been sent by a seasoned diplomat.
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