Talks in Baghdad between officials of Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have been held periodically since April, have fueled speculation that these two regional powers may be ready to put their differences aside and come to some sort of accommodation. The American pullout from Afghanistan and the so-called “pivot to Asia” have added to this speculation, as they may have signaled to the Saudis that they can no longer rely on the US security umbrella as they once did, thus bolstering the idea that they should try to seek a rapprochement with their nemesis to the northeast.
Although Saudi Arabia and Iran have not always been enemies, and even collaborated in the past before the Iranian revolution in 1979, a return to normal ties between the two countries is still a long way away. There are fundamental differences between them regarding regional issues and conflicts as well as support for religious minorities within each other’s countries. And while Sunni-Shia differences may have been given too much weight by analysts who have tried to understand Saudi-Iranian antagonisms, it would be equally wrong to dismiss the sectarian issue as unimportant.
From Allies to Wary Adversaries
It has been largely forgotten today that Saudi Arabia and Iran were once on the same side. Both countries were strong opponents of communism and the Soviet Union, cooperating with the United States and with each other during much of the Cold War and even against so-called Arab radicals like Gamal Abdel-Nasser of Egypt, who received military assistance from Moscow. When the British withdrew militarily from the Arabian Gulf in the early 1970s, the United States implemented the “twin pillar” strategy which called for the two countries to be the protectors of western interests in the oil-rich area. Iran was clearly the bigger “twin” in this partnership, which led to Saudi resentment, but that did not stop the two countries from collaborating.
This tacit alliance fell apart with the Iranian revolution and the overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini not only was an inspiration to many Shia groups in the Arab world—a development that the Saudis saw as a threat because of their country’s large Shia minority in its oil-rich Eastern Province—but because he had a pan-Islamic message and charged that “monarchy is incompatible with Islam.” Unrest in the Eastern Province, the take-over of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Sunni radicals in 1979, and periodic demonstrations by Iranian pilgrims during the hajj (pilgrimage) that followed the Iranian revolution all worked to sour the bilateral relationship. Although tensions eased somewhat during the presidency of moderate Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), relations never became close. Saudi Arabia came to believe that Iranian intelligence was in part behind the Khobar Towers bombing of 1996 that killed a number of US military personnel as well as Saudi nationals.
Saudi Arabia came to believe that Iranian intelligence was in part behind the Khobar Towers bombing of 1996 that killed a number of US military personnel as well as Saudi nationals.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 further fueled the antagonisms between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While Riyadh was no fan of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime, which threatened the kingdom following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia became alarmed when Iran took advantage of the power vacuum in Iraq in the post-2003 period to extend its influence there by supporting several Iraqi Shia groups with weapons and financial assistance. Saudi Arabia came to view the new Shia-led Iraqi regime as an appendage of Iran and, for many years, refused to even send an ambassador to Baghdad.
The catalyst for the break in Saudi-Iranian relations was the execution, in early 2016, of radical Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who had received religious training in Iran. Although the Saudis executed him along with 46 other Sunni radicals on the same day, hoping not to make the act an anti-Shia event, Iran and Shia groups in the region saw it in sectarian terms. When a mob in Tehran torched the Saudi embassy in protest of Nimr’s execution and Iranian police did nothing to protect the diplomatic facility, Riyadh broke diplomatic relations with Iran.
Heightened sectarian acrimony soon followed. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman publicly denigrated and mocked the teachings of Shia Islam, while Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif charged that the Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam, the religion of the Saudi state, was the source behind most of the extremism in the region.
Regional Differences and So-called Proxy Wars
In addition to sharp differences over Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been at odds over Lebanon, where the pro-Iran Hezbollah organization has grown ascendant. The Saudis have tried to bolster Sunni elements and their allies in Lebanon as a counterweight to Iran’s influence but have been largely unsuccessful. Current Lebanese troubles (such as the dismal economy, poor public services, and corruption) have transcended sectarianism, but neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia has given up on supporting their particular sides—though the former has reportedly scaled back its financial support to Hezbollah because of its own financial difficulties, and the latter has at times bungled its relations with Sunni politicians, as witnessed by its bizarre detention of then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri in late 2017.
The Syrian civil war was another flashpoint. Iran quickly came to the aid of the Assad regime, providing Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces, Hezbollah fighters, and Shia recruits from as far away as Afghanistan to bolster the regime’s military capabilities. For its part, Saudi Arabia provided assistance to Sunni rebels fighting this same regime. That the Assad regime has essentially prevailed in the civil war is a setback to Saudi Arabia, which views Iran as being even more entrenched in Syria than it was before. From Saudi Arabia’s perspective, Iran has been able to create a dangerous arc of influence in the Levant, stretching from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon.
It is in Yemen, in Saudi Arabia’s backyard, where the Iran-Saudi conflict seems to have been played out most alarmingly.
But it is in Yemen, in Saudi Arabia’s backyard, where the Iran-Saudi conflict seems to have been played out most alarmingly. The Houthi take-over of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in 2014 prompted the Saudis to assemble a large coalition of Sunni-majority states in March 2015 to repel the Houthis in what Riyadh initially believed would be a quick and easy victory. Instead, the Yemen war has turned out to be a disaster, as the Houthis—who follow the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam (different from the one practiced in Iran)—have proven to be tough fighters. In addition, the war has turned out to be an expensive quagmire and embarrassment for Riyadh because of the large number of Yemeni civilian casualties.
The role of Iran in this conflict has been the subject of varying assessments. Tehran has probably provided the Houthis with missiles and other military hardware along with some Lebanese Hezbollah trainers, but it is incorrect to suggest that Houthis are simply taking orders from Iran. At this point, the Saudis want to find an exit from the conflict and are amenable to peace talks, but the Houthis seem to want to gain as much territory and resources as possible (as witnessed by their offensive in Yemen’s oil-rich Marib province) before engaging in serious negotiations with the Saudis and their Yemeni allies. The Houthis’ ongoing missile and drone attacks on Saudi territory do not augur well for a resolution of this conflict.
Seeing Interference in Their Internal Affairs
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia view each other as meddling with minorities in their respective countries. Tehran believes Riyadh has a hand in stirring up ethnic Arabs who live chiefly in Iran’s Khuzestan province, where 80 percent of the country’s oil production is situated. In addition, Iran has suspected a Saudi hand in occasional disturbances among Iran’s Baluchi minority (who are also Sunnis) in the southeast. For its part, Saudi Arabia believes disturbances in its Eastern Province are Iran-inspired or directed, as are eruptions and protests among the Shia next door in Bahrain.
A Confluence of Interests?
Under the mediation of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia started in April of this year in Baghdad and are expected to resume soon, now that a new Iranian government is settled in. The talks have been described as positive but without any breakthroughs. Still, given the antagonisms between the two countries, the question arises as to why such discussions are even taking place.
From Saudi Arabia’s perspective, Iran seems to have the upper hand in regional conflicts despite efforts to roll back its influence. The United States is no longer seen as a reliable and dependable ally particularly because of its failure to take action when Iran took out a number of Saudi oil facilities in 2019, its withdrawal from Afghanistan that led to the Taliban takeover, and the Biden Administration’s renewed focus on China. For these reasons, the Saudi leadership may believe that it is best to engage with Iran to seek some type of accommodation. Moreover, with the Yemen conflict as a top priority, the Saudis aim to see if Iran could use its influence to compel the Houthis to stop their military activities. Reportedly, the talks in Baghdad have focused heavily on the Yemen issue. In addition, even within the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia has learned from bitter experience that it cannot control smaller countries like Qatar from seeking good relations with Iran.
Many Iranians are not only angry with the regime over domestic issues but with its regional policies, viewing them as wasting resources that should be better spent at home.
From Iran’s perspective, its public declaration that it wants good relations with Saudi Arabia stems in part from domestic factors. Tehran has been alarmed by growing popular discontent with the regime that has manifested in periodic anti-government protests. The recent election of hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi was perceived by the population as a foregone conclusion, as most moderate candidates were excluded from the process. Voter turnout was less than 49 percent, the lowest in the history of the Islamic Republic. Many Iranians are not only angry with the regime over domestic issues but with its regional policies, viewing them as wasting resources that should be better spent at home. In addition, the Iranian government keenly wants to get out of the grip of the sanctions regime imposed by the United States and may believe that an outreach to Saudi Arabia might improve its image regionally and internationally. That, in turn, may put pressure on the United States to remove most of the sanctions, even in the absence of a return to the 2015 nuclear deal.
Formidable Roadblocks Remain
Despite these interests, it is not going to be easy for the two countries to reconcile. Distrust of each other’s intentions is still high, and if the Saudis regard the Yemen conflict as a litmus test of Iran’s intentions, they are likely to be disappointed. Tehran cannot simply flick a switch and compel the Houthis to stop fighting. Moreover, despite Saudi Arabia’s and other Arab states’ interest in pulling Iraq back to the Arab fold, Iran would not want to end its support for some of the militant Shia militias there—because they serve as an effective coercive lever—or to roll back regular diplomatic and commercial exchanges that tie Iran to Iraq. Furthermore, Iran is unlikely to end its support for Hezbollah and the Syrian regime because that gives Tehran an influential role in the Levant. And while it is true that the Sunni-Shia divide is inadequate for explaining the Saudi-Iran rift because geopolitics is arguably even more important, the sectarian and ethnic dimension can easily resurface, especially if there are new disturbances among minority groups in these countries, leading to harsh security crackdowns.
A US Role?
The Biden Administration has welcomed the Saudi-Iranian talks in Baghdad not only because they have boosted Khadimi’s standing, which Washington supports, but because the talks have the potential to ease regional tensions. If the United States is indeed going to pivot to Asia, then exiting the Middle East militarily, at least in part, will be easier if one of the major sources of tension, the Saudi-Iranian conflict, dissipates. It is ironic that when former President Barack Obama said in an interview in 2016 that Iran and Saudi Arabia need to learn to “share the neighborhood,” his comment was viewed with alarm by Riyadh; now it seems that the Saudis and Iranians have essentially accepted the logic of this proposition.
As for the talks themselves, they are best left without a US role. Interceding in these discussions would likely ruin their chances. At the same time, the United States should continue to reassure its Gulf partners about their legitimate security concerns mostly through diplomatic means while avoiding military entanglements in the region, something that the Biden Administration seems to favor now. It is noteworthy that this was the approach that the United States pursued after the tumultuous events of 1979, only to be replaced by a more conspicuous US military role that often backfired. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia and Iran would do well to be patient in their talks, which naturally have to cover several issues that are important to both countries and take into account sensitive domestic and regional dynamics.