Roots of Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Fahimeh Ghorbani
Research Fellow at the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies (IMESS)

Over the past few months, Iran-Saudi Arabia political relations have been beset with tensions which are rooted in the Arab revolutions and Saudi Arabia's support of the West's sanctions against Iran.

There are three important points with regard to the reasons for rivalry over Arab revolutions. The first concerns the two country's different viewpoints on the current developments in the region. Following the outbreak of Arab revolutions, Egypt, Saudi Arabia's heavyweight ally, along with Tunisia, pulled out of the “moderate camp,” weakening the moderate camp which has always pushed for maintaining the status quo and creating equipoise against the “resistance camp” which is based upon the approach of opposing U.S. policies in the region.

This is why Saudi Arabia has confronted these popular uprisings in different ways. For instance, with the aim of extending influence in Egypt, Saudi Arabia has supported Egypt’s Salafists since the downfall of Hosni Mubarak's regime. By providing the groups opposing the Syrian regime with financial aids and weaponry, and through fully supporting the al-Khalifa regime in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia intends to avert a change in the regional balance and maintain its regional role.

On the other hand, by foregrounding Islamic Awakening Dialog, Iran has supported popular revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Bahrain. To Iran, the collapse of the pro-Western and Israeli regimes is a serious threat to the interests of the West and Israel in the region. It also weakens the position of moderate camp in favor of the resistant camp.

For this reason, the current developments in Syria are of strategic value to Saudis and accordingly they are trying to sustain or exacerbate the political crisis in Syria through financial and military interventions. The overthrowing of the Syrian regime as well as the changes in the political policy of this country could disrupt the regional balance of power in line with the interests of Saudi Arabia, reviving the moderate camp. 

The second reason for divergence between the two countries is related to the Saudi Arabia's conception of the continuation and expansion of Iran's sphere of influence into the “Arab sphere.” To Saudis, the expansion of Iran's sphere of influence and regional role started subsequent to the downfall of the Ba'ath regime and the elimination of a counterbalancing regime on the one hand and Iraq's new developments and Shia's assumption of power on the other. Furthermore, the Saudi regime believes that the developments in Palestine and Lebanon (the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War and the Gaza War in 2008), as well as Iran’s support for the resistance groups has extended Iran's sphere of influence into the Arab sphere, resulting in the strengthening of the resistance axis in the region. Saudi Arabia has made efforts in Lebanon and Palestine to achieve a balance against Iran.

Therefore, success of the Arab revolutions and a strengthened resistance axis could pave the way for Iran’s desired regional order. The Saudi regime evaluates Iran’s cordial relations with countries that are home to popular revolts, particularly that of Egypt, in line with this objective.

The link between the developments in Bahrain and Yemen with the internal affairs and the national security of Saudi Arabia may be regarded as the third parameter that has provoked the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. While Yemen’s developments have not affected the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia to a great extent, the different viewpoints of these two countries on Bahrain’s developments have been the source of concern.

Iran has always condemned the crackdown of Bahrainis by the military forces of Saudi Arabia and al-Khalifa regime and has voiced its moral support for Bahraini nation who call for equal political-social rights. Iran believes that the solution to Bahrain’s crisis is political and that the success of any political approach in this country depends on paying heed to the demands of the people, building trust, putting an end to the killing and crackdowns as well as effective political negotiations. The Bahraini government could carry out major reforms through the delegation of key positions to various tribes that comprise its cabinet. 

However, Saudi Arabia's viewpoint towards Bahrain’s developments and popular protests in this country, which stem from domestic issues, is in conflict with that of Iran. Saudi Arabia is against the presence of Shiite Muslims, as the majority of Bahrain’s population, in the power structure of the country and interprets the overthrowing of the al-Khalifa regime as its red line for two reasons.

The first reason is regional; the Saudi government believes that any changes in Bahrain could constitute a blow to the regional balance of power to its disadvantage and considers the developments in Bahrain within the framework of Shiite-Sunni conflicts. The second reason has an internal aspect to it too; Saudi Arabia is worried that Bahrain’s developments and popular protests could have a major impact on the political future of the Shiite Muslims in Saudi Arabia. The eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia, home to its Shiite citizens, are oil-rich areas. Thus the Saudi regime’s deep concern over Bahrain’s developments stems from ideological, geopolitical and national security issues.

In an attempt to justify the crackdown on the popular movements in Bahrain regionally and internationally, Saudi Arabia has raised the issue of Iran’s intervention in this country, describing people’s protests as sectarian violence. However, report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) formed to evaluate the situation in Bahrain shows that Iran has played no role in the recent events in Bahrain. The report also reveals that the government’s resort to violent has been against the Bahraini people who have called for legitimate demands.

Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with the West (the U.S. and the EU), in imposing sanctions on Iran has caused the other source of contention between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran’s oil sanction could be mentioned as one of the relevant issues. To win the support of the global community over imposing sanctions on Iran’s oil, the West has encouraged some oil producing countries in the region, like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to increase their oil output. Saudi Arabia has officially announced its readiness to increase its oil output of the country and compensate for Iran’s oil in the market.

It is necessary to mention that the policy of Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with the West in imposing sanctions on Iran is evaluated within the framework of regional conditions and contradictory perspectives and the interests of the two countries regarding the new status of the region. Regionally, Saudi Arabia believes that since the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, Iran has played a major role in the region and has changed the regional power balance to the detriment of Saudi Arabia’s interests. Therefore, Saudi authorities have mistakenly considered Iran’s oil sanction as an opportunity for themselves.

In general, the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have always been affected by regional and international conditions. The two countries have managed to enhance their mutual relations and regional cooperation whenever the Middle East has enjoyed peace. This is while the formation of blocks or unrest in the region has strained their mutual relations.

Taking into account that currently Saudi Arabia and Iran have different perspectives over the new regional developments and order, it seems unlikely that the two countries could achieve practical solutions to ease the tensions or establish stable relations. It also seems that these countries could develop regional cooperation in the light of ensuring peace in the region and stabilizing the new order in formation. Currently, developments in Syria have severely affected Iran-Saudi Arabia relations. It appears that if the developments in Syria slow down and the current crisis in Syria comes to an end, the tensions might be defused as well, and conversely, if Syria's political crisis is further exacerbated, the tension between the parties will worsen accordingly. Internationally, Iran and the West consensus on the disputable issues may reduce the tensions between the two nations. Yet, if tensions in Iran-West relations heighten, the relations between the two countries will continue to be fraught with tension as well.

Keywords: Iran-Saudi Arabia Relations, Tension, Arab Revolutions, West, Ghorbani

*This article was originally published in Persian and in the website of the IMESS.

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