Iran and Saudi Arabia in Diplomatic Deadlock

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Reza Ekhtiari Amiri

President elect Hassan Rouhani in his preceding news conferences repeatedly announced Iran’s inclination for enhancing ties with Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf region. Iran’s signal was positively received by all the neighbors, including Saudi Arabia. The main question is, why, despite Iran’s moderate approach in the foreign policy arena and improvement of its relations with most of the Persian Gulf states, Tehran and Riyadh relations have not met a qualitative shift after more than one year? Considering the following variables can be helpful to understand the dominated frigidity upon relationship of the two states.   

Mutual threat perception: Iran and Saudi Arabia are natural rivals in the region, mainly due to their geopolitical stances and their contradictory ideologies. Thus, any regional development is capable of helping this rivalry turn into hostility. The Arab Spring is the one that has recently affected their mutual interactions.

Iran, under presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, welcomed overthrowing of Arab despots, and also strongly supported the Shiite population in the region, in order that they could materialize their demands. These issues along with Iran’s emphasis on ideology in its foreign policy arena, led Saudi leaders to view Tehran as a serious threat once again; since they enjoyed some resemblances with the overthrown regimes, in terms of political structure, and also the fact that they contained a Shiite minority who were at odd with the ruling government.

Aimed at countering Iranian menus in that period, Saudi Arabia also endeavored to damage Iran politically, economically and even militarily. An attempt to encourage the US for a military strike, based on WikiLeaks, and to put Iran under pressure by cutting off the oil incomes via replacing its oil in the world market, to support terrorist groups like Jondallah that implemented some operations in Iran, and to stir up anti Shiite sentiments in the region, are parts of the Riyadh measures. Saudi Arabia even made an informal alliance with Israel in order to help the latter for any possible military action.

The conducted measures by the two countries, in general, caused direct and indirect threats to the two sides’ security and stability which eventually led to the “mutual threat” perception. Having this perception, together with persisting of the regional conflict has brought the two countries to this point that they still regard each other as potential security threats. Saudi Arabia is worried about Iran’s goals and intentions in the region despite Rouhani’s announcement of the moderate foreign policy. On the contrary, owing to continuing Saudi’s anti Iranian actions and behaviors, Tehran also has some critical security concerns. 

Competition for Balance of Power: in order to preserve a hegemonic role in the region and preserve national interests, Iran and Saudi Arabia are competing to maintain a balance of power. This is not a new matter, but it has always existed thanks to the nature of these significant regional actors. However, it seems that Iran’s need for balancing of power is more essential at this time. While the Great Powers’ isolation and antagonistic policies against Iran exist, the latter intends, at least, to break the regional isolations and in a strategic competition, balance the power vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia, as the informal leader of the Sunni world. It is at the time when, Riyadh, on the one hand, is trying to utilize all its capabilities and resources to impede Iran’s influence in the region and on the other hand, develop its own influence and strategic depth. It also aims to shift the balance of power against Tehran by instituting anti Iranian alliance and enhancing its military power. The sequence of the competition has contributed to political and security friction between the two states up to this point and has caused them not to set the stage for improvement of mutual relations.

Overwhelming Mistrust: the anarchic atmosphere of the region and consequently the attempt for increasing power also in addition to the clash of interests has brought distrust between Tehran and Riyadh.  Since practical steps have not been taken to curb that, it has overwhelmed now and appears as a crucial obstacle in rapprochement of the two neighboring countries. At this time, Saudi Arabia’s stance is more critical due to its key role in the regional instability and its anti-Iranian measures. Although Iran has attempted to de-ideologize its regional policies and to pursue an accommodative foreign policy, there has been little appetite from Saudi leaders to dwindle the current tensions. They insist on continuing almost the same policies as before. That is why, Iran has no inclination towards rapprochement right now, and its leaders have informally rejected to meet Saudi officials. In fact, the current condition has directed the Rouhani administration not to regard Riyadh as a reliable state yet, and instead redefine its policies toward the latter.

Taking into consideration the abovementioned issues and the two countries’ efforts to maintain their national interests under the current crisis in the region, it seems their diplomatic relations will remain in vague for the near future. Despite these facts, it is evident that Iran and Saudi Arabia, as two key players in the sensitive region of the Middle East, have no choice but to cooperate with each other if they are searching for stability and peace.

Nevertheless, in case of any breakthrough or improvement in their mutual ties, it will most probably be slow and with caution, in particular from the Saudi side.

*Reza Ekhtiari Amiri is currently an Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Mazandaran in Iran. He is author of a book entitled Iran and Saudi Arabia: from Economic to Security Cooperation (1991-2001) and co-editor of the book entitled Political and Social Affairs of Iran in New Era. His recent articles have also appeared in the Journal of Asian and African Studies, International Journal of Social Economics, International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, and the Canadian Journal of Politics and Law.

Key Words: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Hassan Rouhani, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Middle East, Persian Gulf, Ekhtiari Amiri

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*Photo Credit: Jam News

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