Iran and Saudi Arabia stand out among many Middle Eastern states in terms of their status, historical content, natural resources, and scale. The regional security of the Middle East is also affected by the state of relations between Tehran and Riyadh, because each of them represents one of the Islamic world’s currents (Shiism and Sunnism), and their unique geographical location and resource base of oil and gas are of global importance.
As you may be aware, following the Saudi execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in January 2016, there was an attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, resulting in yet another schism between Riyadh and Tehran. The package of Iranian-Saudi contradictions included issues such as religious differences between Sunnis and Shiites, competition for leadership in the Islamic world, oil export policy, and relations with the US and Britain. Indeed, the last issue is the most important in the list of contradictions between Riyadh and Tehran; everything else can keep the constructive rivalry strategy alive. America is attempting to establish a controlled regime and, through it, subjugate the major countries and regions.
Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian announced Tehran’s readiness for comprehensive normalization of relations with Riyadh on January 16, 2023, and five “important and positive” rounds of negotiations were held between the two countries in Baghdad. According to the statement, normalization of interstate relations could begin with the opening of consulates general of the two countries in Jeddah and Mashhad. According to Iran’s chief diplomat, the “ball is in Riyadh’s court.”
Russian expert Maria Mohammad identifies three blocs among the main factors of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran – religious, political and economic. However, without questioning this approach, it can be said that the religious factor is often used for political purposes to control and manipulate the consciousness of the masses. The struggle for power at the national level and the competition for leadership in the Muslim world is often accompanied by the ideological coloring of the confrontation between Shiism and Sunnism. Iran, as the leader of the Shiite world, and Saudi Arabia, as the leader of the Sunni world, have been fighting unsuccessfully for leadership in the Islamic world for more than four decades after the 1979 February Revolution in Iran. This conflict, fueled by internal and largely external forces, has no future and is becoming a “zero-sum conflict.”
Of course, Riyadh is seriously concerned about Tehran’s influence on the Shiite part of the KSA’s subjects, especially those living in the coastal area of the oil and gas fields. The issue of Shia rights and freedoms has often been the subject of controversy and disagreement between the Iranian mullahocracy and the Saudi monarchy. The religious contradictions between Shiites and Sunnis supported by Iran and Saudi Arabia have traditionally manifested in countries of the Arab East such as Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and Syria. At the same time, each of the parties seeks to place its supporters with local authorities or use external threats to further its own interests. Today, Tehran has achieved greater success in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt, and Hezbollah organizations in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine have become Shiite Iran’s militant wings and political partners in the region.
Despite the traditional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the relatively recent history of the second half of the twentieth century demonstrates that the similarities of the monarchical regimes, a common external friend, and a collective enemy allowed the two countries to develop cooperation. Prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in particular, Tehran and Riyadh maintained a close, high-level partnership under the auspices of their main external ally, the United States, and the perceived common external threat of the communist ideology of the Soviet Union.
The overthrow of Shah Reza Pahlavi and the assumption of power by a theocratic regime in Iran revealed significant ideological differences and disrupted relatively good relations between the two countries. But again, as you can see, politics took precedence over ideology (regardless of its religious connotations). When Iran abandoned its alliance with the United States and nationalized its entire oil and gas industry, the subsequent deterioration of Iranian-American relations directly affected Tehran’s relations with Washington’s allies (particularly in the Middle East and especially Saudi Arabia).
This is because the Americans and the official ideology of Riyadh’s Wahhabism are far from the standards of democracy, but the KSA’s oil resources outweigh the ideological costs and the monarchical regime established here. In the IRI situation, the US could also “turn a blind eye” to the characteristics of the theocratic mullah regime if Iranian oil and gas came under the control of American energy companies. Therefore, Washington has an interest in keeping tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran relatively high, with religious contradictions between Sunnis and Shiites becoming an additional tool to satisfy US hegemonic interests.
During the administrations of Presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami (1989 to 2005), there was a relative thaw in interstate relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The situation changed dramatically after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, as well as the beginning of the Arab Spring, which was provoked by the United States to bring chaos to the region, change regimes, and strengthen its own control over the Middle East. This policy of Washington has destabilized the situation in the region and preordained new local conflicts.
In particular, the Saudis’ intervention in the Kingdom of Bahrain, where 70% of the population is Shiite Muslim, capitalized on the ideas of the “Arab Spring” and revolted against the local Sunni monarchy. Their brutal repression severely damaged relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Tehran has strengthened its position in the same Iraq (also with the government of Nouri al-Maliki), the new regime in Egypt under Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muḥammad Mursī, and in Syria, where the Persians have supported the current regime of Bashar al-Assad against the Sunni monopoly.
The US has made a strategic mistake with regime change in the Arab East, because the result of this policy has been an objective increase in Shiite Iran’s influence in the region. With the emergence of Russia in a new role in the Middle Eastern theater of military operations in Syria and the formation of a new platform for cooperation between Moscow, Tehran and Ankara, a new dynamic has emerged in the geopolitics of the Middle East.
In the midst of the Ukraine crisis, Iran has consistently strengthened its military and political ties with Russia, becoming an important regional partner and opening up new opportunities in bilateral economic and military relations. Unquestionably, during the years of sanctions and isolation, Iran has adapted to new realities and developed a relatively capable national defense industry, which Saudi Arabia, for example, has not.
Since 2016, Iran has begun to develop similarly groundbreaking relationships with Asian behemoths such as China and India. Beijing has given Tehran a lucrative loan of more than $450 billion to develop the oil and gas industries, infrastructure projects, and communications, and it expects to import Iranian oil at a reduced price for the next 25 years. Iran is working on important communication projects with India, which will help Tehran’s position.
Meanwhile, Russia’s successes in Syria, as well as the expansion of Russian-Turkish and Russian-Iranian, Iranian-Chinese, and Iranian-Indian regional partnerships, have established a precedent for Saudi Arabia to pursue a policy that is relatively independent of the US and UK. Furthermore, there have been signs in recent years of a relative complication of Riyadh-Washington relations.
For example, despite US President Joe Biden’s administration’s expectation that Saudi Arabia would increase oil production against Russia, for which CIA Director and Arabist William Burns was dispatched on a special mission to Riyadh in April 2022, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud rejected the proposal of the key ally in a meeting with President Biden himself. King Salman’s selection of Mohammed, whose youth and radicalism make him unwilling to accept US criticism of Saudi authorities over the October 2, 2018, killing of dissident journalist Jamal Hoshoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, could be the start of yet another failure of US regional policy.
Despite their historical and current differences, Iran and Saudi Arabia share many similarities: a conflicted and united Islamic world; oil and gas power; a unique geographic location in the Middle East; relative similarity of political regimes (mullahocracy and theocratic monarchy); leadership in two streams of Islam; rejection of a neo-Ottoman revival in neighboring Turkey; and the prospect of success through pragmatic cooperation in political, religious, and economic fields. Riyadh could follow Tehran’s lead and develop long-term economic, defense, and security (including nuclear) ties with Russia, India, and China. OPEC Cooperation between the two countries would boost the global oil market, and their financial capabilities could pave the way for an alternative to Switzerland as a global financial center in the Middle East.
The great historical past of Persia and Arabia, together with the current situation of the two countries and peoples, gives one hope that future relations between Tehran and Riyadh, the two wings of the Islamic world, will develop independently of the US and other external factors.