Saudi Arabia and Iran

Iran-Saudi Arabia Locator, public domain

raqran-Saudi Arabia Locator, public domain

Saudi Arabia and Iran

In this article, we will discuss the historical relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran. We will examine the international relations between these two states, with attention to historical events, regional interests, the role of religion, as well as more current events. As we will see, Iran and Saudi Arabia’s relationship is becoming more and more tense, particularly given recent events in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and domestically in Saudi Arabia. We will also discuss the conflict in the context of events in early 2016, and in particular, Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shia cleric Nimr Al-Nimr, and Iran’s reaction to this killing.

This conflict between these two countries is important, given the various parts and implications of the hostilities between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As Milani (2011) wrote in 2011: “The two countries, at odds since the 1979 revolution in Iran and ever more so in the wake of the Arab Spring, are competing for dominance in global energy markets and nuclear technology and for political influence in the Persian Gulf and the Levant. Their conflict, with its sectarian overtones, has the potential to weaken pro-democracy forces in the Middle East and North Africa, empower Islamists, and drag the United States into military interventions.”

It is necessary to understand the different aspects of this regional rivalry.

History of Saudi Arabia-Iran Relations

Understanding the Saudi Arabia-Iran relations is important if one wants to understand the regional and international politics related to the Middle East. While there are many Middle Eastern topics that are beyond the scope of Iran and Saudi Arabia, these two states not only have competed with one another for what they might view as regional supremacy (there are other regional military and economic powers as well (such as Israel, Egypt, etc…), but these two states have also been in disagreement on a number of specific issues in the region; whether it is Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Bahrain, Yemen, or the production of oil, the regimes of Saudi Arabia and Iran tend to have different political interests on these matters.

The Saudi Arabia-Iran relationship can be better understood by looking at the geopolitical history of the region, and how those two states intreated with one another, as well as their relations with foreign powers.

Following World War I, Iran and much of what is today Saudi Arabia were both independent (The Hijaz in Saudi Arabia was influenced by Britain). Both states had good relations with Britain and the United States throughout the post World War I period, and then into World War II. The situation changed however,  in 1953 in Iran, with the United States and Britain helping stage a coup to overthrow Mohammad Mosaddegh. Following this, the United States gave great support for the Shah (in part through military weapons). This infuriated many who saw an authoritarian leader backed by Western powers. In 1978, Iranians went to the streets to protest the Shah, and it was in early 1979 that the Shah was overthrown, then leading to the installation of the Islamic theocracy, led by Ayatollah Khomeini.

Khomeini then began calling for similar overthrows in other parts of the Middle East. This rise in Iranian power, in the name of an Islamic theocracy (and a Shia government), troubled other countries such as Iraq, as well as Saudi Arabia. In fact, “after the Shah was overthrown, Saudi Arabia’s leadership became frightened by the Ayatollah Khomenei’s denunciation of the Saudi monarchy as antithetical to Islam and his ambition to export to the revolution to the Arab world. Saudi Arabia remained an ally of the United States; Iran became an implacable foe. Thereafter, the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia became defined by the new U.S. strategy – ally with Saudi Arabia to offset Iran” (Milani, 2011).

Max Fisher (Vox, 2016) writes that:

It’s important to understand that the Saudi monarchy is deeply insecure: It knows that its hold on power is tenuous, and its claim to legitimacy comes largely from religion. The Islamic Republic of Iran, merely by existing, challenges this legitimacy — not because it is Shia, but because its theocratic revolution was popular, it was presenting a claim to represent Muslims better than the Saudi monarchy.

So, there are political, economic, as well as religious aspects to the Iran-Saudi Arabia relations.

Politics and the Iran-Saudi-Arabia Relationship

While the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia extend back decades, matters between the two countries have been amplified in recent years, with some pointing to the events of the Arab Spring onwards. In 2011, with major political protests in the region leading to the fall of governments in Tunisia (Ben Ali), and Mubarak (Egypt), such movements also took place in countries like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. In Bahrain, the Saudi regime stepped in and quelled Shia protesters, which sparked Iranian anger. In a Foreign Policy piece, Goldenberg (2017) argues that  “Iran also saw opportunities to undermine the current regional order to its advantage in places such as Bahrain, where the majority Shiite population protested against the ruling Sunni royal family, and in Yemen, where Iran had relatively weak ties to the Shiite Zaidi sect, but viewed instability and conflict as weakening and distracting Saudi Arabia.”

Then, also for Saudi Arabia, “The Saudis were also unnerved by regional events. The fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in particular rocked the Gulf monarchies, which saw the United States as abandoning a reliable but authoritarian partner and feared they could be next. They saw Iran’s hand in much of the unrest and were particularly concerned about their own Shiite minority in eastern Saudi Arabia” (Goldenberg, 2017).

Politically, these governments are looking to be regional powers. This can be seen with Iran’s interest in Lebanon (by supporting Hezbollah with money and military weapons), in Iraq (with their ability to gain influence in the country), as well as more recently with Syria. Syria has been seen as a very important focal point for both countries; while Iran has worked to ensure its ally–Bashar Al Assad stays in power, Saudi Arabia has hoped that the ouster of Al-Assad would result in a weakened Iran in the region.

Regarding Iraq, it has been argued that “On the political front, however, Tehran has outmaneuvered Riyadh. This success has been most apparent in Iraq, whose transformation from a Sunni- to a Shia-controlled country has shifted it from Riyadh’s orbit into Tehran’s. This represented a monumental setback for Saudi Arabia and an unintended strategic gift for Iran, which saw Iraq transform from an enemy into an ally. Iran has capitalized on the new Iraq to greatly expand its influence…” (Milani, 2011). This Iranian influence has upset Saudi Arabia, who is looking for ways to increase their presence in the country. 

In fact, in late May of 2016, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir spoke out against what he called Iran’s “meddling” in Iraq. While Iran has claimed that they are in the country to offer support for allies who are fighting the Islamic State, Saudi Arabia says that Iran is backing extremist groups. They have also accused Iran of creating “”sedition and division in Iraq””. To Saudi Arabia, they believe that Iran’s actions in Iraq have led to further sectarian conflict between Muslim groups (Al-Shihri & Batrawy, 2016b). 

In Syria, Iran has been willing to enter into Syria to shore up support for Bashar Al-Assad, while Saudi Arabia sees it necessary for him to leave Syria if there will be any political compromise to the civil war.

In Yemen, there is a civil war between the Houthi Rebels (a Shia group) and the Sunni dominated government. The Saudi government has used their military to intervene in Yemen against the Houthis, which as angered Iran, who is also trying to leverage their influence in the Gulf.

One other very important point with regards to the politics of these two states has to do with Iran’s nuclear program. Saudi Arabia is very concerned that if Iran becomes a nuclear power, they might pass Saudi Arabia on military strength. Therefore, Saudi Arabia has been very concerned about Iran’s nuclear plans for quite some time. Interestingly, “Saudi Arabia, along with Israel’s government and conservatives in the U.S., have been the leading opponents of the deal. They may not be in a position to derail it. But even if the agreement stays on track, it may not build confidence if other disputes in the region keep tensions running high” (Myre, 2016). 

Although the nuclear deal has been able to limit Saudi discussions about getting their own nuclear weapons (potentially leading to a massive arms race between these two sides), some have wondered whether stronger actions in Syria could have limited Iran’s influence, at least enough to reduce concerns in Saudi Arabia. Ian Goldenberg writes:

the Obama administration could have focused on the nuclear challenge while still doing more to counter Iran’s actions in the region, especially in Syria where limited U.S. intervention years earlier might have led to a different outcome. Detractors argue that Obama actively ceded the Middle East to Iran because he did not want to jeopardize the nuclear agreement and saw Iran as a more reliable actor. This was not my experience when I worked on the Iran issue in government. First, Obama was very clear about his concerns of getting sucked into a new conflict in the Middle East without a clear endgame. Much of his hesitance had little to do with worry about jeopardizing the nuclear deal but simply a function of his risk aversion and conviction that there were few good options. Moreover, parts of the bureaucracy spent a lot of time thinking about Iran’s regional behavior, but for the most part these issues never made it onto the agendas of high level meetings because the president and his team were so focused on the nuclear issue it was hard to break through on these other important but secondary questions. In a normal government, policy-process issues that were not important enough to go to the top would instead be considered at lower levels, but since everyone knew how personally engaged the president was on the question of Iran no one dared to take action without high-level approval, and the ultimate consequence was that many of these plans and ideas simply sat on the shelf. For a president who often liked to say, “we can chew gum and walk at the same time,” this was an instance where the Obama administration failed to do that.

This only led the Saudi Arabian government to find their own solutions to problems with Iran (Goldenberg, 2017).

Saudi Arabia: The Politics of Fear

Following the increased tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia in early 2016, there were a couple of articles that came out in which the authors argued that we should not overlook the role that fear plays with regards to Saudi Arabian leadership decision-making as it pertains to domestic politics and international relations. For example, on January 7th, 2016, Jennifer Williams wrote an article entitled Why Saudi leaders keep making bad decisions: they’re scared. In the article, Williams argues that there has been a concern in Saudi Arabia, ever since the 2010-2011 Arab Uprisings. Since then, the Saudi regime, in power not due to elections, but rather a multiple decades reign which has been supported by heavy military action, patronage systems, and extensive social programs, is concerned about challenges to their rule. Williams writes: 

Broadly speaking, the two things the Saudis fear the most are losing power at home and losing their dominant position in the Islamic world to Iran. Nearly every threat the regime sees relates to one (or both) of these. Here’s a list of some of the big threats the Saudi regime sees today:

  • A popular, pro-democracy uprising, like the ones that overthrew the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia
  • A resurgent Sunni extremist threat, whether from al-Qaeda, ISIS, or an ideologically similar group that sees the Sauds as corrupt and un-Islamic
  • A Shia uprising in the Eastern Province, where the bulk of Saudi Arabia’s oil fields and infrastructure are located and where most of the country’s Shia minority also happen to live
  • Increased Iranian influence on its borders (in Bahrain and Yemen, especially)
  • Abandonment by the United States in favor of Iran, or even just US disengagement from the region in general, thus depriving Saudi Arabia of its great power protector
  • The loss of credibility as a responsible custodian of the two Muslim holy places (and perhaps even the loss of custodianship entirely, for example to an international body tasked with administering the areas)

Thus, Williams suggests that Al-Nimr’s killing was a way for Saudi Arabia to show its citizens that those who challenge the state will face death.

Related to this idea of fear as a motivating factor, Kenneth M. Pollack (2016), in his article entitled Fear and Loathing in Saudi Arabia writes “At the broadest level, when the Saudis in Riyadh look at the Middle East around them, they see a region spiraling out of control. Since 2011, they have witnessed a massive increase in general instability across the region, with “the people” increasingly willing to protest or even overthrow their rulers. The complacency and popular “inertness” that categorized the Arab populations for decades is gone. That clearly worries the Sauds, the kingdom’s ruling royal family, who have always preferred a docile populace.”

Economic Factors to the Saudi Arabia-Iran Rivalry

There are also economic factors related to the Saudi Arabia and Iran rivalry. This is evident when looking at the economics of these countries. As Milani (2011) argues,

“This struggle has played out most prominently in the energy sector, in which both Iran and Saudi Arabia are major forces. At first glance, Iran would seem to be on par with Saudi Arabia; the two countries’ combined oil and natural gas reserves are roughly the same, and Iran has the strategic advantage of sitting between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, as well as controlling the 34-mile wide Strait of Hormuz, through which roughly 40 percent of the oil traded worldwide is transported.” He goes on to point out that sanctions have hurt Iranian oil in recent years.

In fact, looking at more recent events regarding OPEC, Saudi Arabia has continued to produce high levels of oil per day (roughly 10.3 million barrels) for many reasons, one of which being an attempt to minimize Iran’s economy (who is much more reliant on higher oil sale prices given the sanctions on them).

However, Pollock also argues that this high production of oil has the government worried, since they know that these lower prices for them are not sustainable for their yearly economic expenditures. He argues that this may be driving their behavior, given that such an economic state might make them vulnerable to domestic uprisings.

Religion: Saudi Arabia and Iran

In terms of religion, Iran is a majority Shia dominated government and theocratic system, whereas Saudi Arabia is a Sunni majority government, operating under Wahhabi Islam. Saudi Arabia is also the controller of the Muslim sites in Mecca and Medina, important locations in early Islamic history. So, each states not only attempts to pronounce their religion through politics and economics, but this extends further than their own borders; Iran and Saudi Arabia try to spread their influence to other actors in the region (such as Hezbollah, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and Bashar Al-Assad for Iran (none of which are Sunni Muslim), and Bahrain, the UAE, and other Sunni actors (for Saudi Arabia). Again, it is very important to note that religion is not the main factor for conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, leaders have used religion in order to advance their own geo-political interests and objectives in the Middle East (for those interested, here is a story on the history of the Sunni-Shia split).

2016 Events Between Iran and Saudi Arabia

On January 2nd, 2016, Saudi Arabia executed 47 individuals. One of the people killed was Nimr Al-Nimr, a Shia clerical leader who was critical of the Saudi Arabian government.Al-Nimr was a harsh critic of the Saudi regime, and was an active supporter of the 2011 protests against the government. Moreover, he viewed Iran as a key ally (Vox, 2016).  Because of this, in 2012 Al-Nimr was arrested, and then issued a death sentence in 2014, until they executed him in early 2016 (Vox, 2016).

As a response, Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran vowed “divine revenge” for the killing. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was quoted as saying that “”Of course, the Saudi government, in order to cover up its crime of beheading a religious leader has resorted to a strange measure and has severed its ties with the Islamic Republic” (Botelho & Payne, 2016). He also called the killing a “great crime” (Botelho & Payne, 2016).

Furthermore, it was reported in Vox (2016) that “Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi condemned the execution, warning of “repercussions” for regional security. Iran threatened vague consequences, with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards telling Saudi Arabia to expect “harsh revenge.”

Moreover, Iranians upset with the Saudi government action stormed the Saudi Arabian embassy in Iran. In addition, there were also additional protests in other Shia communities, as they also condemned Saudi Arabia’s execution of Al-Nimr.

Shortly after the storming of the Saudi embassy, Saudi Arabia cut off all ties with Iran. Part of this cutting off of the relationship included stopping all flights from Saudi Arabia to Iran, cutting off communication, etc…

Iranian leaders argued that Saudi Arabia’s actions were motivated by Saudi interests in the region. In fact, according to a CNN report on Iran and Saudi Arabia, Jaberi Ansari, a spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, accused Saudi Arabia of “looking for some excuses to pursue its own unwise policies to further tension in the region.”

It was at this time that the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran deteriorated quickly.

Interestingly, scholars believe that Saudi Arabia took his life in order to play up religious differences in the country, specifically between the Sunni majority and the Shia majority (which make up about 15 percent of the population in Saudi Arabia) (Vox, 2016). Professor Toby Jones argues that “”It’s no secret that the war there is going terribly,”” and  went on to say that “One way to deflect attention away … is to find a way to sustain ideological commitment to the campaign. The Saudis have never really developed a coherent kind of nationalism, but they sure have gotten traction out of anti-Shiism” (Vox, 2016). He views this move as helping them continue their intervention against the Houthi rebels in Yemen (Vox, 2016).

Saudi Arabia also cited Iran’s foreign policy as a reason for their “response” to what Iran has been doing. Namely, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir was quoted as saying: “There is no escalation on the part of Saudi Arabia. Our moves are all reactive. It is the Iranians who went into Lebanon. It is the Iranians who sent their Qods Force and their Revolutionary Guards into Syria” (McDowall, 2016).

Saudi Arabia is obviously concerned with not only local political developments that threaten their regime stability, but also international actors and events. For them, Iran continues to be on the opposite side of the different issues, whether it is in Syria, oil, Bahrain, Yemen, or Iran’s own nuclear program.

The Saudi Arabia-Iran Fallout With Other Countries

As a result of the increased tension between these two countries in early 2016, other countries have quickly made their own decisions related to international relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran. And much of the actions were motivated by the strength of alliances with the states. For example, following the events in early January, “Bahrain announced Monday that it was severing diplomatic ties with Iran, citing Tehran’s “blatant and dangerous interference” in Bahrain and other Arab countries” (Shoichet & Castillo, 2016). Moreover, the United Arab Emirates, another strong Saudi Arabian ally, downgraded their diplomatic relationship with the country. Specifically, “The UAE recalled its ambassador in Tehran and said it would also reduce the number of diplomats stationed in Iran, according to state news agency WAM. A government statement said the UAE “has taken this exceptional step in light of Iran’s ongoing interference in internal (Gulf Cooperation Council) and Arab affairs that has recently reached unprecedented levels”” (Shoichet & Castillo, 2016).

Other countries took similar steps. For example, “Sudan — a majority Sunni Muslim country — expelled the Iranian ambassador and the entire Iranian diplomatic mission in the country. Sudan also recalled its ambassador from Iran” (Shoichet & Castillo, 2016). Moreover, Saudi Arabia attempted to politicize this announcement by Sudan, saying that Sudan’s actions were due to “the Iranian interference in the region through a sectarian approach” (Shoichet & Castillo, 2016). It was also reported (on January 17th, 2016) that following Somalia’s announcement of ending their ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia pledged 50 million dollars to the country (the pledge came on the day of Somalia’s comments) (Reuters, 2016c).

The United States, while clearly a Saudi Arabian ally, is attempting to keep the tension from increasing. While the US does not have a strong relationship with Iran, the government officials are attempting to set up a peace agreement in Syria, and they realize that it will take buy-in from both Saudi Arabia and Iran for a substantial deal to even be possible. And thus, because of this, “Obama aides scrambled to respond to the sudden turn of events, which follow years of growing sectarian and nationalist tension between Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shiite-majority Iran. Secretary of State John Kerry called Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Sunday, and according to the Saudi Press Agency, Kerry called Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud on Monday. White House spokesman Josh Earnest, in unusually even-handed terms, chided both Iran and Saudi Arabia and urged the two parties to calm tensions for their own sake, although State Department spokesman John Kirby stressed that the U.S. did not plan to insert itself as a mediator” (Toosi, 2016).

There were some U.S. Republican figures however who decided to take more of a position that seemed to favor Saudi Arabia. For example, 2016 Presidential candidate Chris Christie was quoted as saying that he “has no sympathy for the Iranians,” whereas Rubio spoke about the issues that he had with the Iranian nuclear deal (Collins, 2016). Rubio was also quoted as saying: ““Now there are things they do I’m not in favor of and I have strong problems with, but, that being said, they have been a military ally of the United States in that region,” the Florida senator said. “Iran has been our enemy. … And they’re having this dispute, and this president’s like, ‘Hey guys, can you all get along? We’re not really taking sides here'” (Collins, 2016).

Others, such as Pakistan, also spoke out about their backing of Saudi Arabia. In a story published on January 10th, 2016, it was reported that Pakistan’s army chief General Raheel Sharif met with Saudi leader Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman in Rawalpindi, Pakistan (Adel al-Jubeir met went to meet with Pakistani leaders in late 2015). At this meeting, Sharif committed Pakistan to supporting Saudi Arabia, and spoke about additional anti-terrorism cooperation efforts between the two countries. He also iterated the importance Saudi Arabia (and other Gulf Cooperation Council) states’ security (Shahzad, 2016).

It was also reported on January 16th, 2016 that Saudi Arabian ally Comoros has stopped their diplomatic relationship with Iran over how they perceived Iran acting towards Saudi Arabia. Viewing Iran’s “aggression,” it was reported that “A foreign ministry statement said the Comoros viewed Tehran as “interfering” in “the internal affairs of certain countries” and “not respecting diplomatic conventions” (Yahoo, 2016). Even before this more recent move in mid-January, Comoros first recalled their ambassador from the Saudi Arabian rival, Iran. 

On January 21st, 2016, many Muslim majority countries–through the Organization of Islamic Cooperation also spoke out against Iran. It was at this emergency meeting that most countries supported a statement which “denounces Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of its member-states,” among other statements. The Saudi Arabia and Iran relationship has made many Muslim country leaders pick sides, and while Iran and Lebanon did not support this statement, again, many others did (Al-Shihri & Batrawy, 2016). 

Here is the text to the statement made by OIC foreign ministers as it pertained to the Saudi Arabia and Iran situation:

The Council:

1. Condemns the aggressions against the missions of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Tehran and Mashhad, which constitute a flagrant violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963, and international law which guarantees the inviolability of diplomatic missions and imposes the immunity of and respect for diplomatic missions accredited to any State in a clear and binding manner.

2. Affirms that these aggressions contravene the Charter of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Charter of the United Nations, which call for promoting trust and fostering friendly relations, mutual respect and cooperation among Member States, resolving conflicts through peaceful means, preserving peace and security, and abstaining from interfering in the internal affairs of States;

3. Rejects and condemns Iran’s inflammatory statements on the execution of judicial decisions against the perpetrators of terrorist crimes in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, considering those statements a blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and a contravention of the United Nations Charter, the OIC Charter and of all international covenants which call for non-interference in the internal affairs of Member States, particularly those affairs that are within internal legislations;

4. Denounces Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of the States of the region and other Member States (including Bahrain, Yemen and Syria and Somalia) and its continued support for terrorism.

5. Expresses full support for and backing of the efforts of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and all Member States to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, regardless of its source and objectives;

6. Supports the legislative and legal measures taken by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to counter aggressions against its diplomatic and consular missions in Iran;

7. Affirms the statements made by Member and non-member States, the UN Security Council, the League of Arab States, the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf and other regional and international organizations, which firmly condemned and deplored the aggressions on the Embassy and Consulate of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Tehran and Mashhad;

8. Calls for denouncing the sectarian and denominational agenda as it carries destructive impacts and serious repercussions for Member States’ security and stability and for international peace and security.

9. Underscores the importance of reinforcing relations of good neighborliness among the Member States for the good interest of peoples, consistent with the OIC Charter.

10. Calls on all Member States and the international community to take serious and effective steps to prevent the occurrence and recurrence of such aggressions on diplomatic and consular missions in Iran in the future.

11. Supports all political efforts to achieve permanent settlement to conflicts among Member States based on the charters of the OIC Charter, UN Charter and international law.

12. Requests the OIC Secretary General to inform the UN Secretary General and regional and international organizations of this communiqué and to submit a report thereon to the next session of the Council of Foreign Ministers.

• The delegation of the Islamic Republic of Iran declared its rejection of the Communiqué, stating that it dissociates itself from it.
• The delegation of the Lebanese Republic stated that Lebanon distances itself from the Communiqué.
• The Delegation of the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria submitted an explanatory remark on paragraph 5 to the effect that (in compliance with the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of States, the legitimate and legal measures taken by the brotherly Kingdom of Saudi Arabia referred to in paragraph 5 of the Communiqué fall under the realm of sovereign decisions. Therefore, such a multi-lateral meeting is not required to take a position thereon).

It seems that Saudi Arabia is able to influence their allies to reduce or halt their relationships with Iran.

Saudi Arabia, Iran, and US President Trump

It has been argued that US President Trump has only made the situation between Saudi Arabia and Iran worse. By speaking so negatively about the nuclear weapons deal that former President Obama made with Iran, this language has not only upset Iranian leaders, but it has also lead them to distrust what the United States says in deals (Goldenberg, 2017). So, by criticizing Trump’s willingness to turn back from the Iranian deal, this could lead to a feeling that they need to do even more to protect themselves from the US and also Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, “But instead of positively influencing Saudi actions, what we have seen thus far is a perceived blank check from the Trump administration to Salman to pursue whatever policy he would like. Only two weeks after the president’s visit in May, Saudi Arabia launched a blockade of Qatar that has distracted and divided the GCC and caused it to take its eyes off of more important U.S. priorities such as Iran and the Islamic State. And the recent Saudi move in Lebanon came only days after a visit by Kushner to the kingdom. In both cases Trump tweeted his support for Saudi actions before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis managed to walk him back, but the damage was done” Goldenberg, 2017).

Accusations of Saudi Arabia Bombing Iranian Embassy in Yemen

Along with the killing of Al-Nimr, Iran also claimed that on January 7th, 2016, Saudi Arabia bombed the Iranian embassy in Sanaa, Yemen. However, some have questioned whether this happened, since no actual damage to the building was seen (Karimi & Al-Haj, 2016).

Mohammad Javad Zarif Op-Ed

On January 10th, 2016, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Foreign Minister of Iran, published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled Saudi Arabia’s Reckless Extremism. Here, Zarif began by praising the recent nuclear deal. Then he began to speak against Saudi Arabia, saying that “Following the signing of the interim nuclear deal in November 2013, Saudi Arabia began devoting its resources to defeating the deal, driven by fear that its contrived Iranophobia was crumbling. Today, some in Riyadh not only continue to impede normalization but are determined to drag the entire region into confrontation.” In his article, Zarif also criticized the execution of Nimr al-Nimr, and also argued that a many instances of terrorism have been carried out by Saudi Arabian nationals, or, as he stated, “or brainwashed by petrodollar-financed demagogues who have promoted anti-Islamic messages of hatred and sectarianism for decades.” He then ended the piece by saying that Saudi Arabia could play a constructive role, or that they could continue their role of backing extremists, while also further instilling sectarian divisions (Zarif, 2016).

Saudi Arabia’s Use of Soccer Against Iran

James Dorsey, in the Huffington Post wrote that Saudi Arabia was also trying to use sport to punish Iran. For example, Dorsey said thatA refusal by some of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent soccer clubs, several of which are headed by members of the kingdom’s ruling family, to play 2016 Asian Championship League matches serves to reinforce Saudi Arabia’s effort to portray Iran as a revolutionary, dangerous and unstable state. The clubs argued in the wake of the storming earlier this month of the Saudi embassy in Tehran that Iran would not be able to guarantee the safety of Saudi teams. They said they were urging the SAFF to persuade the AFC to move their matches to neutral values.” Furthermore, “Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) vice president Muhammad Al-Nuwaiser” sent out a tweet in which he said, “”If Iran is unable to protect embassies, how will it protect stadiums? We demand that the Saudi and Iranian teams play in a neutral country” (Dorsey, 2016).

Saudi Arabia’s Intervention in Syria

In February of 2016, Saudi Arabia announced plans to send troops into Syria to fight the Islamic State. Furthermore, they also noted that they have been building a coalition of dozens of countries, all of which would help with troops and other support for the military actions. On the surface, it might seem that Saudi Arabia is becoming involved in Syria in order to end the presence of the Islamic State. However, after an understanding of the rivalry with Iran, it becomes much more apparent that they are also interested in countering Iranian action in the country.

Saudi Arabia understands that as the days go by, Iran and Russia’s presence is having a large role in the direction of the civil war in Syria. Namely, their presence has not only helped Al-Assad hold onto power in large parts of the west, but it has also been instrumental in the pro-government forces’ ability to recently take over the city of Aleppo. With the United States not taking an increased role in Syria, there has been little outside effort to challenge Al-Assad or the support from Russia and Iran (as well as Hezbollah). Some of that direct opposition has come from countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia (as well as Turkey, although their greater concern is the Kurdish region in the north of Syria).

Some of the leaders in Iran, understanding Saudi Arabia’s plans for becoming involved in Syria, spoke out, criticizing the actions. They suggested that Saudi Arabia would sustain huge casualties, and that their military is not equipped to deal with fighting in the country. For example, “The most widely quoted response to the Saudi announcement was arguably that of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, who threatened that Saudi forces would “return home in wooden coffins”” (McInnis, 2016). McInnis (2016) summarized many other comments by the Iranian leaders, all of which were as critical as the other. Notably, “The Deputy Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), Hossein Salami, called the Saudi announcement a “practical joke,” while IRGC Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi termed it “a stupid propaganda maneuver.” Safavi and the Deputy Chief of Iran’s Armed Forces, Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, noted that the absence of Saudi success in Yemen made a successful deployment to Syria doubtful. Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan and Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Ali Shamkhani commented that any escalation on the part of Saudi Arabia would have grave consequences for Turkey, Israel, and even the United States and Europe.”

But Iran knows that if this happens, Saudi actions will most likely not be limited to fighting the Islamic State (McInnis, 2016). Right now, Iran and Russia have have rather great leeway to operate in Syria. If Saudi Arabia, their coalition, and additional allies (such as the United States) (McInnis, 2016) increase their involvement, this will only complicate Iranian and Russian plans for Al-Assad to re-establish control of the country. 

Not only that, But Saudi Arabia is also attempting to minimize Iran’s allies, which includes but is not limited to Hezbollah. For example, it was reported on March 11th, 2016 that “The Arab League has declared Lebanese movement Hezbollah a “terrorist” group, only days after the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) adopted the same stance” (Al Jazeera, 2016). According to the Arab League Resolution, “The resolution of the League’s council [of foreign ministers] includes the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist group” (Al Jazeera, 2016). The only two countries that refused to support the resolution were Iraq and Lebanon. For Saudi Arabia, minimizing the influence of Hezbollah will also hurt the geopolitical position of al-Assad and also Iran.

Thus, given the politics and overall actions of Saudi Arabia and Iran, the threat of conflict between these two sides continues to be high, whether with regards to proxy wars, or possible more direct conflicts in Syria.

Saudi Arabia and Nuclear Weapons?

As mentioned, the situation between Saudi Arabia and Iran continues to be serious. The two country leaderships are involved in a series of proxy wars, whether in Yemen, or in Syria. Because of this, as well as the recent nuclear deal, the distrust between the two state leaderships continue to quite high. 

In an interesting development, Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal, while speaking at an event held at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy in May of 2016, suggested that if the recent international nuclear deal with Iran does not stop the country from what some in Saudi Arabia believe is a continued move towards a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia could consider its own nuclear weapons (Gaouette, 2016). Sitting on the same panel with retired Israel Army Major General Yaakov Amidor,  “”Turki said “all options” would be on the table if Iran moves toward a bomb, “including the acquisitions of nuclear weapons, to face whatever eventuality might come from Iran”” (Gaouette, 2016).

Thus, for Saudi Arabia (as well as other countries), they will continue to keep an eye on Iran’s nuclear program. A shift towards making nuclear weapons could escalate this conflict between the two states much more quickly.

2016 Hajj Controversy 

The issues between Iran and Saudi Arabia have not been limited to proxy wars. They have also argued over other issues. For example, during the Hajj of 2015, over 2,000 individuals who were on pilgrimage were killed following a stampede that took place. Of those killed, 464 of the pilgrims were Iranians. On top of that, the strained relationship has further hurt the Hajj trip for Iranians. Because the two countries not longer have ties, this has affected the ability of Iranians to be granted permission to enter the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage.

As a result, in May of 2016, an Iranian delegation met with Saudi leaders with the hopes of allowing Iranians to get the proper documentation to enter Saudi Arabia. However, they were unable to come to an agreement. The cultural minister of Iran, Ali Jaanati was quoted as saying “The arrangements have not been put together and it’s now too late” (Ghazi, 2016).

He went on to say that  “The sabotage is coming from the Saudis. “Their attitude was cold and inappropriate. They did not accept our proposals concerning the issuing of visas or the transport and security of the pilgrims. “Saudi officials say our pilgrims must travel to another country to make their visa applications”” (Ghazi, 2016). This point was because Saudi Arabia continued to ban flights directly from Iran.

The Saudi Arabian government did attempt to clarify their positions with regards to Iranian pilgrims looking to make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. The Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey was quoted as saying that “Saudi Arabia does not consider these issues – such as the easing of procedures for those wanting to make the pilgrimage and worship in the Holy Land and providing for their comfort and security – as political.” In the statement that they published, they went on to add that they “”Saudi Arabia does not consider these issues – such as the easing of procedures for those wanting to make the pilgrimage and worship in the Holy Land and providing for their comfort and security – as political”” (Roy, 2016).

The Iranian government later announced that they would not be allowing pilgrims from Iran to go to the hajj in Saudi Arabia in 2016. Speaking on this issues, Iran’s Haj and Pilgrimage Organization was quoted as saying, “Due to ongoing sabotage by the Saudi government, it is hereby announced that … Iran’s pilgrims have been denied the privilege to attend the haj this year, and responsibility for this rests with the government of Saudi Arabia” (Reuters, 2016a). Saudi Arabia again denied these allegations (Reuters, 2016a).

Mohammad Javad Zarif’s Plea Against Wahhabism

On September 13, 2016, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif published an opinion piece in the New York Times entitled “Let Us Rid the World of Wahhabism.” In this piece, Zarif argues that public relations firms paid by Saudi Arabian oil dollars are attempting to convince us that groups such as Al-Nusra have moved away from Islamic extremism. He criticized Wahhabism, saying that “Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, militant Wahhabism has undergone a series of face-lifts, but underneath, the ideology remains the same — whether it’s the Taliban, the various incarnations of Al Qaeda or the so-called Islamic State, which is neither Islamic nor a state. But the millions of people faced with the Nusra Front’s tyranny are not buying the fiction of this disaffiliation. Past experience of such attempts at whitewashing points to the real aim: to enable the covert flow of petrodollars to extremist groups in Syria to become overt, and even to lure Western governments into supporting these “moderates.” The fact that Nusra still dominates the rebel alliance in Aleppo flouts the public relations message.””

He went on to say that Saudi Arabia is attempting to sell Al-Nusra as moderate in order to weaken Iran. He believes the hatred espoused by Saudi Arabia is fueling a rift between this way of thinking, and Islam as a whole, which is contrary to the principles of Wahhabism pushed by the state. He goes on to say that “Over the past three decades, Riyadh has spenttens of billions of dollars exporting Wahhabism through thousands of mosques and madrasas across the world. From Asia to Africa, from Europe to the Americas, this theological perversion has wrought havoc. As one former extremist in Kosovo told The Times, “The Saudis completely changed Islam here with their money.” Though it has attracted only a minute proportion of Muslims, Wahhabism has been devastating in its impact. Virtually every terrorist group abusing the name of Islam — from Al Qaeda and its offshoots in Syria to Boko Haram in Nigeria — has been inspired by this death cult.””

Tension in the Gulf

In October 2016, it was reported that Saudi Arabia was conducting military exercises in the Gulf. Namely, “Saudi Arabia began naval war games including live fire exercises on Tuesday in the Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important oil route” (Reuters, 2016b).

However, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) gave a warning to Saudi Arabia to be careful to not approach closely to Iranian water. This has only increased hostilities between the two countries. According to reports, they offered a statement saying that “The Revolutionary Guards naval forces believe this war game is mainly to create tension and destabilize the Persian Gulf” (Reuters, 2016b)

Then, in November 2011, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran increased following an announcement by eleven Arab states within the United Nations General Assembly that Iran was supporting terror groups in Yemen (the Houthi fighting forces) and Hezbollah (in Lebanon). The letter written by these states also called for Iran to alter its foreign policies (Lederer, 2016). However, Iran criticized the letter, and also the actions of some of these Arab states. Regarding the letter, it 

“… was a response to a statement by Iranian diplomat Abbas Yazdani at the end of the General Assembly’s annual ministerial meeting on Sept. 26. He dismissed as “absurd and hypocritical” accusations by the UAE’s foreign minister that Tehran was supporting the Houthis when UAE jet fighters were “bombing innocent civilians in Yemen” as part of the Saudi-led coalition. Yazdani also accused the UAE and other “accomplices” of “funding and arming terrorists in Iraq and Syria and in many other places,” of repeating “baseless claims” to three islands near the Strait of Hormuz that are controlled by Iran but claimed by the Emirates, and of trying to impede the nuclear deal” (Lederer, 2016).

Saudi Arabia and Iran References

Al Jazeera (2016). Arab League labels Hezbollah a ‘terrorist’ group. Al Jazeera. March 11th, 2016. Available Online: 

Al-Shihri, A. & Batrawy, A. (2016). Islamic nations disagree at meeting on Saudi-Iran crisis. January 21s, 2016. Yahoo News. Available Online: 

Al-Shihri, A. & Batrawy, A. (2016b). Saudi Arabia Slam’s Iran’s Role in Iraq as ‘Unacceptable.’ ABC News. May 29, 2016. Available Online: 

Botelho, G. & Payne, E. (2016). Iran’s Rouhani: Saudi Arabia can’t cover up its ‘great crime’ of executing cleric. CNN, January 5, 2016. Available Online: 

Collins, E. (2016). GOP candidates side with Saudi Arabia over Iran in dispute. Politico, 01/04/2016. Available Online: 

Dorsey, J. (2016). Saudi Arabia Uses Soccer to Isolate Iran. January 11th, 2016. Available Online: 

Gaouette, N. (2016). Saudi prince: Getting nukes an option if Iran breaks deal. CNN, May 7th, 2016. Available Online: 

Ghazi, S. (2016). Iran says pilgrims to miss hajj after Saudi ‘sabotage.’ Yahoo News. May 12, 2016. Available Online: 

Karimi, N. & Al-Haj, A. (2016). Tensions Boil Over as Iran Accuses Saudi Arabia of Bombing Embassy. Huffington Post, January 7, 2016. Available Online: 

Lederer, E.M. (2016). 11 Arab Nations Accuse Iran of Sponsoring ‘Terrorism.’ ABC News. November 14, 2016. Available Online:

McDowall, A. (2016). Exclusive: Saudi Arabia to halt flights, trade with Iran. Yahoo News (from Reuters). January 4th, 2016. Available Online:

McInnis, J.M. (2016). Iran Isn’t Sweating Saudi Intervention in Syria. The National Interest Blog. February 19, 2016. Available Online: 

Milani, M. M. (2011). Explaining the Iran-Saudi Rivalry. CNN, October 12th, 2011. Available Online: 

Myre, G. (2016). Saudi Arabia and Iran: Here’s How Their Feud Could Escalate. NPR. January 4th, 2016. Available Online:

Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) (2016). Final Communique of the Extraordinary Meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on Aggressions on the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Tehran and its Consulate General in Mashhad. January 22, 2016. Available Online: 

Pollock, K.M. (206). Fear and Loathing in Saudi Arabia. Yahoo, January 7th, 2016. Available Online: 

Reuters (2016a). Iran says its pilgrims will not attend ham in Saudi. Reuters. In Yahoo News. May 29, 2016. Available Online: 

Reuters (2016b). Iran tells Saudi navy vessels to avoid its waters. Reuters. October 5, 2016. Available Online:

Reuters (2016c). Somalia received Saudi aid the day it cut ties with Iran: document. January 17, 2016. Available Online:

Roy, A. (2016). Saudi Arabia clarifies stand on allowing Iranians to visit Mecca and Medina for Hajj pilgrimage. International Business Times. May 24, 2016. Available Online: 

Shahzad, A. (2016). Pakistan says it will respond to any threat to Saudi Arabia. Yahoo News (and Associated Press). January 10th, 2016. Available Online:

Shoichet, C.E. & Castillo, M. (2016). Saudi Arabia-Iran row spreads to other countries. CNN. January 4th, 2016. Available Online:

Toosi, N. (2016). White House goes into damage control on Syria peace talks. Politico, January 4th, 2016. Available Online:

Vox (2016). The cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran that’s tearing apart the Middle East, explained. Vox. January 4, 2016. Available Online:

Williams, J. (2016). Why Saudi leaders keep making bad decisions: they’re scared. Vox, January 7th, 2016. Available Online:

Yahoo (2016). Ally Comoros breaks off relations with Iran. Yahoo News. January 16, 2016. Available Online: 

Zarif, M.J. (2016).  Saudi Arabia’s Reckless Extremism. New York Times. January 10th, 2016. Available Online: 

Zarif, M.J. (2016). Let Us Rid the World of Wahhabism. The New York Times. September 13, 2016. Available Online: 

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