By Fahimeh Ghorbani
Image Attribute: What if Saudi Arabia and Iran Went to War? / Youtube Screengrab
Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been tumultuous following the victory of the Islamic Revolution. Serious conflict between the ideology of Wahhabism and the political Shia Islam; establishment of the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council ([P]GCC] in 1981; the support offered by members of this council, especially Saudi Arabia, to Iraq during Iraq’s imposed war against Iran; the massacre of Iranian Hajj pilgrims in August 1987; Saudi Arabia’s support for US policies in the Persian Gulf; the conflict between the two countries’ viewpoints on internal affairs of such countries as Iraq and Bahrain; the crisis in Syria; and finally, Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen; the tragedy of Mina; and storming of Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran and consulate in the city of Mashhad can be counted among those factors, which have caused relations between the two countries to be totally choppy at the present juncture.
After the end of the imposed war with Iraq and during the reconstruction period, relative calm governed Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia, the main reason for which was relatively tranquil conditions that prevailed in the region. However, Saudi Arabia’s policies, which became increasingly inclined toward the United States, Iran’s nuclear issue, and most importantly, regional developments once again caused tensions to rise in the two countries’ relations. In fact, since 2003 and following the occupation of Iraq by the American forces, the two countries’ viewpoints on Iraq started to drift away from each other. Saudi Arabia believed that the rise of a Shia government in Iraq would greatly boost Iran’s regional power and change the balance of power in favor of the Islamic Republic. On the other hand, Iran’s nuclear issue was another case that caused differences between Tehran and Riyadh, because Saudis believed that Iran’s peaceful nuclear program would increase Iran’s regional clout and further tilt the balance of regional power towards Tehran.
After the breakout of Arab revolutions, differences and conflict of viewpoints between Saudi Arabia and Iran grew deeper. Iran interpreted those developments as the Islamic Awakening and the beginning of popular uprisings, but Saudi Arabia maintained that those developments had their roots outside the region and, as a result, opposed them. The acme of the conflict between the two countries’ views on those developments was reflected in their reaction to popular protests by Bahraini Shias after Saudi Arabia accused Iran of interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain and sent its forces to suppress protesters in the tiny Persian Gulf monarchy. Another area in which viewpoints of Iran and Saudi Arabia have differed is the ongoing crisis in Syria. By providing financial support to Syrian opposition and smuggling arms into the Arab country, Saudi Arabia has been consistently trying to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Riyadh has been trying to do this because firstly, Saudi’s ideology is different from that of Assad. Secondly, Saudi Arabia has found out that the fall of Assad could provide it with a golden opportunity to undermine Iran’s regional influence. Finally, supporting the opposition in Syria can be used as a means to thwart criticism from Saudi regime’s opposition inside the country about how Riyadh chose to deal with the issue of the Arab Spring and also help that regime ignore their demands.
The crisis in Yemen has also increased tensions in Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia. A coalition of regional countries led by Saudi Arabia attacked Yemen on March 25, 2015. Airstrikes by Saudi warplanes have already claimed thousands of innocent Yemeni lives while causing blatant violation of international humanitarian law, and at the same time, Riyadh keeps accusing Iran of intervention in Yemen’s internal affairs. In fact, Iran believes the crisis in Yemen has no military solution and the sole way out of the ongoing crisis in the impoverished Arab country is to start talks and try to find political solutions. A mention should be also made of the attack on Saudi Arabia’s embassy and consulate in the Iranian cities of Tehran and Mashhad, respectively, after Riyadh executed senior Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Following the attacks, Saudi Arabia cut its diplomatic relations with Iran.
As for the future outlook of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the era following the conclusion of Iran’s nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the important point that must be mentioned is that JCPOA has led to removal of international sanctions imposed by the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States against Iran. At present, Iran’s economy ranks the 18th in the world and the country boasts the world’s fourth biggest proven oil reserves and the second biggest natural gas reserves. Iran is also the biggest producer of automobiles in the Middle East with a population of about 80 million, which is mostly educated. These factors make Tehran an interesting place for the attraction of foreign direct investment (FDI). As a result of the nuclear deal, Iran is planning to boost its crude oil exports two times and increase them to 2.3 million barrels per day. This strategy would be at odds with Saudi Arabia’s strategy as a regional oil exporter. Iran is also mulling plans to renovate its transportation fleet, bolster its tourism sector, and increase its gross domestic product. All these issues indicate that JCPOA will certainly lead to higher economic growth in Iran. At present, Iran has signed new contracts in oil and gas sectors with the French Total as well as Italian oil companies. Such a powerful economic outlook has even made some diplomats and financial experts predict that within a decade, Iran’s gross domestic product may overtake those of Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Therefore, signing of more trade agreements in addition to improvement of Iran’s foreign relations at international level can pave the way for the Islamic Republic to meet its economic and geopolitical interests in a better way. This is why following the conclusion of JCPOA Saudi Arabia has been feeling vulnerable for two reasons. The first reason is that JCPOA can prop up Iran’s economy, help boost its gross domestic product, and also increase its oil exports while, at the same time, elevating geopolitical significance of Tehran in the region during the post-JCPOA era. Secondly, Riyadh is concerned about Iran’s capacity to become more powerful in the region at a time that the United States has been losing its regional influence as a result of which Washington has been replacing its present doctrine with the new doctrine of looking to the East and paying more attention to East Asia; a policy which is known as the “Pivot to Asia.” In fact, big powers have had to recognize Iran’s regional role in establishing peace and security in the region, especially with regard to fighting the Daesh terrorism.
Finally, two prominent examples of Saudi Arabia’s vulnerability can be highlighted here. The visit to Washington by Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir just one week following the conclusion of JCPOA can be considered an evident example of this country’s vulnerability. During his trip, Jubeir met with U.S. President Barack Obama and discussed with him the details of JCPOA and ways of deepening the two countries’ relations while seeking more guarantees from the United States to Saudi Arabia due to Riyadh’s concerns about the current boost in Iran’s geopolitical situation. Another example of Saudi Arabia’s vulnerability is seen in futile efforts made by this country to create an Arab and Sunni coalition against Iran in the post-JCPOA era. Therefore, it seems that even after the signing of JCPOA, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue to be choppy.
About the Author:
Fahimeh Ghorbani is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies (IMESS) in Tehran
Keywords: Iran, Relations, Saudi Arabia, Post-JCPOA Era, Yemen, Syria, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, Barack Obama, Adel al-Jubeir, US, Ghorbani
This article was originally published at IranReview.org.
All rights reserved by the original publisher. Reprinted with permission.
More by Fahimeh Ghorbani:
*The Role of Economy in Iran-Turkey Relations: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/The-Role-of-Economy-in-Iran-Turkey-Relations.htm
*Roots of Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Roots-of-Tensions-between-Iran-and-Saudi-Arabia.htm