Saudi-Iranian regional competition after the 1979 Islamic revolution Reasons, clashes and detente in the modern era
Consultant: Made by:
N. Rózsa Erzsébet, Ph.D. Deésy Veronika
Research Director International Relations
Hungarian Institute of International Affairs
Table of Contents
II.Historical introduction 6
Saudi-Iranian relations in retrospect 6
The Iranian Islamic revolution and the concerns raised by the changes 7
The immediate aftermath of 1979 in Saudi Arabia 9
III.The main areas of disagreement (hostility) and competition 12
1. Religion, ideology 13
a)Shiite and Sunni Islam 13
b)Comparison of the two religious establishments 16
c)The question of the hajj 20
2. Ethnicity - Persian-Arab mutual sense of superiority 22
3. Politics: state structures and the question of domestic political stability 25
Economic concerns- with the focus on oil and natural gas 27
Foreign policy - distinct alliances and actual conflicts in the region 30
IV.Warming of relations from the 1990s and the impacts of 9/11 42
V.The case of Syria (current opposition) 45
As a student of International Studies, I chose a regional foreign policy issue to write my thesis about, namely the Saudi-Iranian competition. As these two Persian-Gulf powers are divided by long-standing structural tensions, rivalry is not only a recent manifestation of their policies towards each other. Each country sees itself as a regional superpower and a main force in Middle Eastern politics.1 Since today they are indeed the most influential states in the region, their competition can be felt in almost every country to a greater or lesser extent.
The aim of this paper is, therefore, to present the arenas of competition between the Saudi kingdom and the Islamic Republic through history ever since the Iranian revolution took place in 1979, until the election of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013. The Islamic revolution, as it completely re-drew the political and strategic map of the region, indicated the beginning of an immense change in the Saudi-Iranian relations, too: ideological differences became the main drives towards opposing goals.2 The beginning of Hassan Rouhani’s Presidency overlapped with the writing of this paper; therefore, the end of chronological line was drawn up at his election.
For the space frame of the thesis, the Middle Eastern and Central Asian region was set in a wider sphere. More locally, however, the paper concentrates on the following countries: Saudi Arabia and Iran themselves, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain and Afghanistan.
As the major hypothesis is the very fact that there has been a considerable competition between the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia ever since 1979, the purpose of the thesis is to support this statement through various examples and indicators. Consequently, the structure of the paper is constructed along the following lines:
Historical introduction, where after a brief presentation of the two states’ relations before 1979, the nature of the Islamic revolution will be shown, with its immediate aftermath and the Saudi reactions to it.
After briefly presenting the pre-1979 times, the post-revolutionary indicators of disagreement and rivalry will be elaborated on, namely the religious, ethnic, political, and economic competitions, with their roots as well as their actual manifestations.
In the second part of the thesis, the conflicting foreign policies get the most attention, in relation to the Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries - where the Iranian goals oppose the Saudi aspirations the most. Syria, as the most recent manifestation of the competition between the two countries, gets special attention.
As the two countries’ relations are dynamic and not in every case hostile, the reasons and examples of detente will also be paid attention to, to provide a comprehensive view through history.
Since the rivalry between Iran and the Saudi kingdom is highly complex and multidimensional,3 the paper does not aim to elaborate on every single arena of the two powers’ competition, but on those which were found the most significant. Still, within the natural limits, the aim of the thesis is to draw up the most nuanced picture possible.
Saudi-Iranian relations in retrospect
The relationship of the two regional powers dates back roughly to 1928, the establisment of the Al-Saud dynasty, however, the first official visits between the countries took place only in mid-1960s.4 During the rule of the Iranian Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Saudi Arabia and Iran were both under monarchical rule and, in their foreign policies both shared close ties with the Western world.5 At that time, religious leadership, which later became an important factor of concern, was not a contentious issue either.6 These factors coupled with some other policies established a quasi-friendship between the two nations over the years. The monarchies consulted frequently as result of their common interests, such as the preservation of their regime types, as well as the shared goals and concerns related to economy.7 With regards to foreign policy, both states feared that anti-monarchist movements would have a spill-over effect on their respective soil - they were especially concerned about President Nasser’s radical Arab nationalism in Egypt.8
Despite having common interests and concerns, the Saudi-Iranian relationship before the Islamic revolution could best be described as uneasy and suspicious, as some disagreements were still maintained between the two powers, especially related to oil policies, the attitude towards Israel, and the Gulf security agreements, where they were competing for leadership.9 These, however, in the light of the new political developments that 1979 brought, may seem much less significant, as Iran’s ideological map had been completely re-drawn. The overthrow of the shah’s regime resulted in a drastic change of foreign policy as well, which was especially apparent in relation to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, since the Islamic Republic suddenly became the Saudi regime’s harshest critic and challenger.10
The Iranian Islamic revolution and the concerns raised by the changes
Even before the revolution of 1979, Shiism constituted a significant power in Iran, as being the “other pole” of the authority structure, where the main power lay in the hands of the Pahlavi dynasty.11 During the monarchical rule of the 20th century, the trends of state building and secularization had disadvantageous effects on Shiite clerical leverage, which (with other factors as well) later resulted in the mobilization of militant religious elements against the monarchy.12 Even though the shah managed to weaken the power of the clergy to some extent, they still had a great influence in Iran, and their unique position later allowed them to play a significant oppositional role.13
Ayatollah Khomeini, as the shah’s and his program’s main outspoken critic, first became involved in political matters in the beginning of the 1960s, 14 and later became the leader of the Islamic revolution. He and his followers, coming mainly from the Shiite clergy, rallied themselves in opposition to the shah’s policies. They set the establishment of an “Islamic government” 15 as their ultimate objective. Initially though, they were not pushing for the ‘rule of the jurist’ (velayet-e faqih), which yet materialized eventually, with the leadership of Khomeini himself.16 He thus became the “supreme jurist” with an extraordinary power, who is only responsible to God, as it was enshrined in the new constitution. Following the 1980 referendum on the subject, the theory of velayet-efaqih has officially been implemented. 17
The change of regime resulted in a great shift of the Iranian foreign policy as well and raised numerous international and regional questions. Within the Muslim world in general, the revolution was widely seen as a victory of Islam against a US-supported autocrat and Western influences.18
Few countries were more shocked after the Islamic revolution than Saudi Arabia.19 However, initially the Saudis adopted a careful, quasi-supportive posture and praised the new government of Iran for its religious credentials, in order to avoid direct confrontation in the early phases of the revolution and let the situation off steam.20 Prince Abdallah even called for cooperation between the two countries that are representing the two main branches of Islam.21
In the reality, the fall of the shah’s rule raised enormous concerns for the country and it shook the Saudi leadership on various grounds. Most importantly, the threat to the Saudi monarchy materialized at two levels: external security and domestic stability.22
Externally, there was a significant concern about the Iranian revolution, as Saudis feared it might have a spill-over effect in the Gulf region, where opposition groups under dynastic rules would probably rise up against their ruling regime, inspired by the current changes. Particular attention was paid to the Shiites.23 Clearly, the most worrisome for the Saudi leadership was not the Iranian shah’s personal fate, but the possibility of further mass-revolutions in the region intending to overthrow the conservative monarchies, especially in Saudi Arabia itself.24 Throughout the Muslim world, the Islamic Republic of Iran was ready and eager to export the revolution, which Ayatollah Khomeini set and promoted as a main political goal.25 Such external threats were very much merged with the questions of internal stability in the eyes of the Saudi leaders.
Saudi Arabia, a traditional type of long-standing monarchical rule, was greatly threatened by the new Iranian regimes’ messages. According to Khomeini, Islam and monarchy were incompatible. This statement came as a serious shock for the Saudi monarchs, who feared that the propaganda of the new Islamic Republic would also have an effect on Saudi citizens. The Iranian pilgrims coming to the Kingdom was a worrisome concern as well in the following years, as they might have carried revolutionary messages.
In conclusion, after the changes of 1979, a new, powerful and militant Islamic rival to Saudi Arabia appeared on the scene, which raised significant concerns externally and internally alike.26
The immediate aftermath of 1979 in Saudi Arabia
As mentioned earlier, it was the ideological attack from Tehran directed at the kingdom’s regime that shook Saudi Arabia the most after the Iranian revolution. The monarchy was not prepared for such a challenge calling its legitimacy to lead the Islamic ummah in question. As Khomeini declared Islam and hereditary kingship incompatible, he called Arabs and all Muslims to rise up against such “illegitimate” regimes.27 For the Kingdom, it was an important issue whether its own Shiite community would be loyal to the regime or to an external source of imitation, who was then Khomeini in the revolutionary Iran.28
Perhaps influenced by the Khomeini example, Juhayman al-Utaybi 29 began the public conviction of the Al-Saud by distributing pamphlets claiming the regime’s inability to rule, as well as the need to overthrow the current leadership and replacing it with a truly Islamic one.30 Prior to the Mecca incident in 1979 November, secret groups were already being formed in the Kingdom in opposition to the royal leadership, at the same time when Khomeini enjoyed the peak of his success in the Islamic Republic. These groups, under their religious slogans, called for the return to the true Islamic way.31
Arguably the Mecca siege was the first significant Muslim religious uprising after the Iranian revolution. One of its leaders,Mohammad Abdullah al-Qahtani (the other being al-Utaybi) declared himself as the Mahdi 3233 and condemned the Saudi regime for widespread corruption and demanded pervasive “moral cleansing” within the Kingdom and especially within the royal family itself.34 On the 20th of November, he and his band of extremists besieged the Grand Mosque of Mecca.35 At the same time, Iran called for the overthrow of the Saudi dynasty, however, they were not (at least not directly) connected to the mosque’s actual seizure, as many Saudis initially believed so.36
The participants in the incident were both Shiite and Sunni, who opposed the Al-Saud and rebelled against it. The occupation lasted several weeks, and was staged to overthrow the current rule. In order to crush it, the Al-Saud deployed a significant number of troops from the regular army and the Saudi Special Forces.3738 The rebels were eventually sentenced by fatwas 39 and the whole uprising was repressed.40
The most important implication of the Mecca incident was not the siege itself, but the ideological challenge directed to the Al-Saud: the accusation that they betrayed their religious base.41 Although this action had no connection outside the Kingdom; 42 the Islamic Revolution’s ideological impact must have been influential, especially in the neighbouring countries like Saudi Arabia.
The Iranian example of a successful popular uprising overthrowing a monarch may have been motivating for opposition groups in the Kingdom, especially for the Saudi Twelver Shiites, who were mostly settled in the Eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia. Shortly after the Mecca incident, anti-regime protests broke out in that part of the country too, receiving public support from Iran.43 The unrest was not purely religious, but rather widely politicized in nature.44 The new riots were fuelled with the public statements of the new leaders, in which they claimed that the takeover of the mosque in Mecca was a part of a greater wave of uprisings against the monarchy.45
Indeed, further riots and demonstrations took place and demanded the Saudi government to provide a fair distribution of wealth, more favorable position to the Shiites (with firstly putting an end to their negative discrimination) and the re-consideration of the Kingdom’s close relationship with the USA.46 Subsequently, a politico-religious group called the Organization of the Islamic Revolution was established, which soon opened an office in the capital of the Islamic Republic, Tehran. It aimed at broadcasting to the Saudi Shiite population and served as a global coordinating body.47 The support of the new Iranian government was very much apparent at this time, although the Organization denied its patronage and insisted that they were only a local opposition movement seeking to achieve better conditions from the Saudi government.48
In the beginning of February 1980, another violent clash occurred in Qatif. Shiite celebrations of the anniversary of the Ayatollah’s return to Iran49 were followed by a series of strikes and large demonstrations. These were eventually repressed by the authorities with force.50 In reaction, Iran, unsurprisingly, denounced harshly both the repression of the Shiites in the Kingdom and the “tyrannical” nature of the Saudi leadership.51
Whatever role the Islamic Republic of Iran played in the domestic conflict in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, it is clear that its propaganda helped to intensify tensions.52 The Islamic revolution was such a monumental event in the region that - by its very existence - brought other countries’ arrangements into question, especially those with significant Shiite minorities, like Saudi Arabia. Therefore, it can be stated that the main trigger for the rivalry between the two countries was the 1979 revolution itself.
The main areas of disagreement (hostility) and competition
1. Religion, ideology
Shiite and Sunni Islam
To be able to fully understand the nature of Saudi-Iranian competition, its ideological roots should be examined, since religion is an especially important factor in the emergence of tensions between the two states. The consequences of the Shi’a-Sunni divide have been felt throughout a long history and even infiltrate our modern times; therefore it is inevitable to start with an overview of the main branches of belief within the Muslim faith. 53
The Shi’a-Sunni argument dates back to the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632.54 The divide originates from the question of succession to the Prophet55- a political, as well as a religious question by that time. The majority, who later became known as the Sunnis, supported Abu Bakr, a close friend of the Prophet, who was elected by consensus. 56 The minority, who were backing Ali, emphasized the importance of lineage as a source of legitimacy and believed that the function of imam should be inherited within the Prophet’s family. Ali, as a cousin and a son-in-law of Muhammad seemed perfect for this role.57 According to the party of Ali, the Prophet chose Ali as his substitute; therefore Shiites believe that the Muslim majority became apostates when they lined themselves up behind Abu Bakr. The Sunni have never accepted this reasoning.58
The major split within Islam was therefore a consequence of this disagreement: those who backed Ali became known as the Shiiat Ali (the fraction of Ali),59 those on the other side were called later the Sunnis, meaning the followers of the Prophet’s sunna or traditions. Although Abu Bakr’s party turned out to be the winner, Ali did rule as the fourth caliph (title for the successors of Muhammad), but his caliphate was rather short and characterized by continuous competition for power.60
What eventually cemented the split among the followers of the Muslim faith was the battle of Karbala in 680, where the Sunni troops killed Ali’s son Hussein.61 This event has come to be remembered by the Shiites with Hussein as the hero martyr, who died to defend his faith in Allah. Karbala thus became the symbol of God’s divine justice and mercy, through which redemption may be achieved.62 Most importantly, the battle was a significant turning point for the former followers of Ali, who then began to organize themselves more as a religious movement.63 The Shiite community, as a distinctive group within the Muslim ummah, was not, however, formulated overnight, but rather through a period of about three centuries. As time passed, the Shi’a went through some changes: it absorbed some groups and eliminated others.64 Today they amount to 10-20% of the total Muslim population.65
Although –from an external perspective- the Shiite and Sunni branches may have relatively few theological or legal disagreements, the way they interpret some historical events can be very much different.66 Back in the old times of Islam, the question who constitutes the Prophet’s immediate family was a contentious issue, and is still a source of disagreement. According to the Sunnis, it includes only Ali, Fatimah and Muhammad’s grandsons, but Shiites believe that all of the twelve imams - being direct descendants of the Prophet and Ali -belong there.67
The development of the Shi’a doctrine of the imamate was a result of a long historical process. In the beginning, it was claimed that the function of the imam is inevitable and originates from God.68 The imams thus became seen to be unerring in all of their decisions and acts 69 and to rule with absolute authority.70 In Sunni Islam, the word imam has a different meaning: he is the leader of the prayers.
The majority of the Shiites became eventually known as Imamites (the followers of imams) or as the Twelver Shi’a. The number twelve derives from the belief in the occultation and the actual return of the twelfth and last imam, who is associated with a quasi-messianic mission. He is the awaited Mahdi, who will be appointed by God and will appear in the best time. According to the belief, when he comes in the future, he would spread the earth with equity and justice and his enemies would be destroyed.71 Shiites believe that he will re-appear in Mecca, and the timing will overlap with the commemoration of Hussein’s martyrdom.72 This is the reason why the leader of the uprising in Mecca claimed himself to be the Mahdi.
Until the Mahdi re-appears, a constant chain of human mediators and interpreters are needed according to the Shiite point of view. Therefore, the “office of the jurist” is highly important in their eyes. For the Shi’a, the aforementioned “jurist” stands in the centre of the theory about velayet-e faqih, as he is put on the top of the clerical pyramid.73 This theory has been a modern source of tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as the Sunnis in the kingdom do not see the necessity of this “clerical governance”.74
Among the major differences between the Shi’a and the Sunni, the organization of clerical institutions should also be mentioned. Within the Shi’a theocracy, there is a clear hierarchy, whereas the Sunni have a rather diffused clerical system.
Apart from the clerical differences between the two main branches of Islam, there are also some ceremonial and ritual ones. To name a few, for the Shiites, regular mourning and commemoration of the martyrs have a strong, still existing tradition. They pray at imamzadehs,75 perform passion plays and have a firm belief in the need of penitence. The battle of Karbala is still commemorated during the period which is generally called Ashura.7677 Sometimes, the rituals of the Shi’a coexist with self-flagellation, which Sunni Muslims see as a practice of polytheism.78
Comparison of the two religious establishments
In the two ‘leading’ Islamic countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the roles of the clergy are considerably different. These differences mostly derive from the evolution of the Sunni and Shi’a Islam and other historical processes.
In Iran - after the events of 1979- the constitution declared the Twelver Shi’a Islam as the official faith of the country,79 which act played a significant role in also determining the current leverage of the clergy. In the Islamic Republic, every piece of legislation needs to be based on the principles of Islam, thus religion infiltrates politics, too.80
The aforementioned doctrine of the imamate, which the new-born Islamic Republic was based on, firmly believes that there are infallible Imams, who are the repository of divine knowledge, but during the occultation of the twelfth and last one, spiritual representatives are needed.81 Ayatollah Khomeini took a radical step stating that the right for governance has also been devolved during the occultation.82 Therefore, he claimed absolute authority in the Iranian matters and, as his duty, the restoration of the rule of Islamic law in the country.83
The Supreme Leader may intervene and direct legislation when he finds himself an expert on the matter or relevant to judge. Also, he has the right to arbitrate in any conflict occurring.84 He rules in the name of Allah and has more extended power than any other constitutional ruler or elected president in the world.85 The three branches of power in Iran thus all work under the supervision of the Supreme Leader with an absolute mandate, through the institutions of the velayet-e faqih.86 After the Supreme Leader, among the bodies of the Iranian decision-making, the Guardian Council 87 is the most influential (see later).88
The institutions of the theocratic Iran founded by Khomeini established the constitutional policy that is valid even nowadays.89 Though Iran has some features of a democracy, because of the significant clerical dependence in the government structure, it can hardly be seen as an actual one.90
Saudi Arabia, in contrast to Iran, represents Sunni Islam, more precisely, its Wahhabi tradition. 91 This major difference results in several others related to the state structure and leadership. Whereas in the Islamic Republic, the ulama are often in position to rule; in Saudi Arabia they are rather seen as the employers of the state, as the monarchical bodies are vested with the most power.92
The Saudi kingdom, being a hereditary monarchy, is led by the royal family, the Al-Saud. The regime’s legitimacy lies both in its tribal relations in Najd and the tight alliance with the religious establishment.93 This latter, deep-rooted connection between the royal family and the Wahhabis dates back to the eighteen century. Still today, it is determinant in the domestic affairs.94 One might see them as mutually dependent on each other, as the Wahhabi clerics support the Saudi government’s policies 95 (as long as they do not violate the rulings of the Islamic law96 ), and they are granted in return with some legitimacy and protection by the ruling family.97 As long as the Al-Saud continues to rule according to the Sharia and consult regularly with the clerics, the ulama accept the regime’s leading position.98 As a result, the Wahhabi establishment stands more as a subservient to the monarchy, in return for their primary position in the religious and moral matters where they have a “free hand” from the Saudi government.99 Although by time some originally clerical functions were re-allocated, the influence of religious authority has never been diminished from the Saudi public sphere.100 For instance, if a regulation conflicts with the religious rules, the ulama have the right to eliminate the latter at any time - similarly to the Islamic Republic. 101
Even though there have been disagreements and tensions between the state authorities and the religious establishment from time to time, the relationship seems to have survived the testing. The Kingdom’s answer to the problematic legitimacy issues was often the strengthening of its Islamic credentials, as well as widening the ulama’s sphere of influence. Today, the aforementioned mutual dependence and strong historical alliance are still determining the cooperation.102
Having this comparison in mind one may see that Islam has been playing completely different roles in the cases of Iran and the Saudi kingdom. While religion is extremely important for both countries as the source of their legitimacy, in Saudi Arabia it has been seen as a conservative force, whereas in Iran as a source of revolutionary transformation.103 These divergences may derive from the different natures of the religious branches as well as the respective jurisprudential traditions and cultural practices. 104
The question of the hajj
In Islam, there are two major pilgrimages for the believers to attend, both performed in and around Mecca. The greater pilgrimage, called hajj,is a religious duty for Muslims, since it lies within the five main pillars of Islam: it should be performed at least once in a lifetime.105106
These holy “journeys” have a strong emotional impact upon Muslims either they host and manage it, as the Saudis do, or participate in it as pilgrims. For the Saudis, the hajj is a source of extraordinary pride, not only because they organize the greatest Islamic religious event, but also because they are perceived as the guardians of the holy places.107108 Besides the feelings of pride, the pilgrimages also provide the Saudi state with an immense income.
These religious journeys, being international Muslim “meeting points”, apart from creating a sense of community, have often been venues for sectarian rivalry, where Shi’a-Sunni clashes were apparent. 109 The pilgrimages after the 1979 revolution also became sources of religio-political tensions, as many Iranians were among the pilgrims. They thus were carefully examined and banned to carry out any political activities.110 Particular attention was paid to them, as they were mostly Shiites, and their religious practices and beliefs did not conform to the official state ideology, the Wahhabism.
The Saudi fears were mostly about seeing the Iranian pilgrims as possible carriers of their regime’s revolutionary messages.111 These concerns were well grounded as the Iranian regime used every opportunity at its disposal to promote its vision of Islam, and the pilgrimage was an event where the revolutionary messages might be transmitted by the pilgrims.112 As a result of the sectarian disagreement and motivated by Khomeini’s speeches, occasional clashes were taking place between the Saudi forces and the pro-Khomeini zealots in Mecca.113 At the same time, the Saudi leadership was working hard to promote its own Islamic vision. After the events in Saudi Arabia following the Iranian revolution, it was crucial for the kingdom to re-assert its Sunni Islamic credentials and to protect its Wahhabi doctrine against Shiite influences. 114 As a result, the Saudis started to build new mosques, and Islamic education became a highly invested area. The kingdom could not allow its Wahhabi basis to be shaken,115 and the pilgrimageswere certainly sources of bilateral competition. The most sensitive issue was the access itself, the quotas for the Iranians and their mistreatment. From the Saudi side, the agitation against the kingdom was a crucial area of concern.116
The most violent conflict during the hajj of 1987, after a demonstration lead by the Iranian pilgrims, cost around 400 lives and wounded many. The Saudi police’s brutal repression was naturally denounced by the Iranian government and therefore it permitted public demonstrations against the actions. The Kingdom’s embassy in Iran became sacked by the demonstrators and one diplomat died. This event marked the end of the diplomatic relations between the two states, as the Saudi government broke the connection off with Tehran in 1988.117 As a consequence, Iran boycotted the hajj in the years that followed.118
The break-off, however, did not come as a long-standing solution to the problems, but generated more difficulties. Economic concerns had to be taken into account by both sides, as Iran began to see its relations with Saudi Arabia more significant in terms of oil revenues, which would help to re-build the country after the war with Iraq. Also, the Saudi national budget was greatly affected by the loss of income flowing in from the pilgrimages. By alienating the Iranians, the largest group of foreign pilgrims was missing.119 Therefore, it was mutually desirable to restore the diplomatic relations, although it did not take place until 1991.120
At times, the pilgrimageshave also been an arena for smoothing the differences between the two states. As an instance, during the Iranian Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, there was a reasonable friendly gesture in relation to hajj: he was invited by the king and stayed in the country as his prominent guest.121
Even though the Saudis made some conciliatory gestures, they still fear that the Shiite messages and influence might infiltrate to Saudi Arabia. As a result, they are discouraging the long-term settlements of the visiting pilgrims in the kingdom. It might raise some doubts though, whether some Shiites would actually have a significant impact in Saudi Arabia.122 In any way, the regime prefers to be careful related to the events of the pilgrimages.
2. Ethnicity - Persian-Arab mutual sense of superiority
Even though the political and religious rivalries are known to be the most important elements of the Saudi-Iranian competition; ethnic hostilities between the two countries are also notable,123 as there is a considerable sense of self-superiority on both sides. To be able to capture the essence of ethnic hostilities between these two states, a few theoretical simplifications are needed related to both the Iranian and the Saudi population. Therefore, from the Saudi point of view, the Iranian state is going to be referred as the land of the Persians. Even though only half of its people are actually Persian,124 they are yet determinant as being the biggest ethnic group. 125 The Wahhabi state therefore, - as being mostly inhabited by people from Arabian origin – from the Persian viewpoint, will be seen as the land of the Arabs. Firstly then, the major differences between the two ethnic identities - the Arab and the Persian - should be drawn up.
As it would be a difficult task to draw a general picture of the Arabs, talking about some 300 million people widely spread in the world with great diversity,126 in this thesis the emphasis again would be put on the people of the Arabian Peninsula, more precisely the followers of the conservative Wahhabi tradition.
Since Islam is often identified with the Arabs on the basis of the Quran having been revealed in Arabic and in Mecca and Medina, the people of Saudi Arabia have been taking extreme pride of their country being the motherland of God’s revelations.127 In historical terms, Iranians take pride from their thousand year old civilization and statehood, their rich cultural heritage and their talent in arts.128 They feel superior because of their language culture as well as their achievements in the fields of science and scholarship.129
In the former Persia, the new faith of Islam arrived in the seventh century by the conquest performed by the Umayyad. The Bedouin Arab dynasty successfully toppled the Sassanid Persian Empire, and managed to impose their Islam on the inhabitants. However, it took a long time until full conversion could be achieved in Persia: the majority of the Iranians had become Muslims only by the ninth century. 130 Even though people were unified under the umbrella of the new religion, ethnic differences could result in opposition from time to time - the Arab-Persian divide is such an example among many others.131 The Arabs remained long in control; however, they adopted various administrational and other practices from the Sassanid. Previously, they did not have a state structure either. 132
From the Iranian point of view, Arabs were just barbaric nomads who destroyed the great Iranian empire.133 On the other side, many Arabs think that Iranians were fire-worshipper pagans until they were ‘enlightened’ with the Muslim message. According to the Salafi’s point of view, Arabs had (have) the absolute primacy in Islam.134
In case of Iran, after the Islamic revolution, another element has been added to the list of factors to be proud of: the divine nature of Iran’s destiny. As a result, the pre-revolutionary ideals became mixed with a Shi’a sense of superiority.135
Old historical grievances still determine the way the two populations see each other. However, the trend of re-Islamization should also be mentioned: according to its ideology, belonging to the religious community (ummah) is the most important element in the hierarchy of identities, putting the questions of ethnicity and statehood second place.136 However, in the case of Iran and Saudi Arabia, as the long history of rivalry formed a notable part in the psyche of both groups; deep prejudices have been created as well.
3. Politics: state structures and the question of domestic political stability
The constitution of the Islamic Republic, which was accepted through popular referendum, facilitated the birth of a complex system, as it combined the democratic and the theocratic principles and institution in a unique way.137
According to the new constitution, on the top of the power ’pyramid’, the Rahbar (spiritual leader) stands, who has the right to lead the Muslim community.138 As it was mentioned in the sub-chapter about the religious establishments, he owns extraordinary leverage on all of the three power branches. Legislative power lays in the hands of the Majlis, however its mandate is not absolute, as its provisions are supervised by the Guardian’s Council.139 Executive power is held the members of the government, led by the directly elected President. Even though this president is quasi-selected by popular will, before going on elections, all candidates –either for presidency or for the Majlis- are screened by the Guardian’s Council,140 which creates a considerable religious-political filter.
The aforementioned body is furthermore important to be emphasized, since it is in charge of the constitutional review, as well as the examination of all laws passed by the Majlis if they are in compliance with the constitution, i.e. Shiite Islam.141
After the government (president) and the Majlis, the third power branch separated from the former two is the judiciary,142 whose work is based on the Islamic law, Sharia.143
If we take a deeper look into the system, we may find some quasi-democratic elements as well, even enshrined in the constitution. These are the division of power branches, the presence of a legislative body, the presidential office, regular elections, the presence of checks and balances.144 On the other hand, though, the popular will is somehow “subordinated” to the institutions of velayet-e-faqih.145 What the Western world sees as a democracy had never materialized in the Islamic Republic. Compared to the Saudi Arabian system, though, Iran’s governance seems to be more representative.146
In Saudi Arabia, constitutionalism was not a matter on the political agenda till the end of the twentieth century, since with the governing according to the Quran and the prophetic traditions; they felt no need for a man-made document. 147 Even today, the Saudis lack a constitution which would define legislative processes. The Wahhabi doctrine, however, in its political theory, requires Muslims to be obedient to the ruler in all cases as long as his provisions are not in contrast with the Sharia. Therefore, as the ruler has an almost free hand in most matters, he is entitled to organize governance as well. However there has been one other important limit of his power, deriving from the Sharia: the qadis’ provisions in matters within their jurisdiction. Thereby, the ulama had managed to preserve some autonomy.148
In 1992, a Basic Law for Government was announced by the Saudi monarch and at the same time he set up a Consultative Council. 149 However, the pluralisation of the political system did not take place in the kingdom. 150 The decision making process can, therefore, be best seen as two concentric circles: one is the senior princes of Saudi Arabia and the other is the cabinet. The first group does not contain the members of the ulama, though they are represented in the Saudi cabinet. In each ministerial council the members of the ulama can be found -within the government of kingdom, they are responsible and subject to the prime minister.151 This way, the power in decision making processes is concentrated in the hands of a relatively small, interconnected group.
The chief of the state, as well as the head of the government is the monarch.152 He combines the legislative and executive functions and he is the ultimate source of judicial power as well. Therefore, there are no general parliamentary elections in the Kingdom. This lack of pluralisation, coupled with the need for structural reforms, make the rulers especially volatile regarding the basis of their legitimacy. If not chosen by the popular will, it is very difficult to accept them as the rightful “guardians of the nation”.153
Although after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, fears of popular uprising aiming to reform the system were especially high among the Saudi regime, when opposition movements appeared in the Kingdom, the regime has so far been able to crush them with the support of the ulama.154 However, even though they could keep their status any demand for democratic reforms is seen as a threat in their eyes.155 It is important to note about both the Iranian and the Saudi cases that regime survival is central and extremely important. 156
Economic concerns- with the focus on oil and natural gas
The Persian Gulf is considered to be the most important strategic region in the world today; having the two-thirds of Earth’s proven oil reserves under its ground and waters. While Saudi Arabia is the country with the greatest crude oil production, the Islamic Republic is also significant in this sense, as being the sixth one in the ranking. 157 Furthermore, it controls the Strait of Hormuz, a key opening to the Persian Gulf.158 As a result, Iran has been seen in the Saudi eyes as the state which challenges the supremacy of the kingdom’s interests not only on security and religious grounds, but also related to economy and most importantly oil policy.159
Saudi Arabia ranks as the largest exporter of petroleum, as it owns 25.99 per cent of the world’s oil resources160 (265.85 billion barrels), while the natural gas reserves are also significant. The value of the petroleum exports is 336.12 billion dollars.161 The country stands among the OPEC162 (Organisation for the Petroleum Exporting Countries) founding members,163 and is still considered to be the most powerful and influential country in the group.
Iran was also among the states that founded the organization,164 as the extraction end export of crude oil has been the leading source of revenue for the country in most of the twentieth century. It has been an issue with central importance; however, attracting large-scale investments for expansion was not always so successful. 165 The Islamic Republic, compared to Saudi Arabia, has the value of petroleum exports of 101.47 billion dollars (about the third of the kingdom’s), and proven crude oil reserves of 157.30 billion barrels. However the ‘oil competition’ in this sense is won by the Saudis, it is significant to mention Iran’s strength too: as the world’s leading state in relation to natural gas production, it has 33,780 billion cubic meters of proven reserves, about four times more than the Saudi kingdom does. 166
In addition to the various aforementioned challenges arising from the Iranian revolution in the eyes of Saudi Arabia, the oil market was another source of friction. As Iran re-entered the market (now as Islamic Republic), the world demand of oil had experienced a rapid decline. Therefore, the Iranians had to discount their oil substantially, which caused a severe dispute with Saudi Arabia, whose aim was to maintain the OPEC price. Faced with harsh criticism and pressure within the OPEC, the Saudis had eventually cut their production, to be able to leave room for the Iranian expansion.167
As the above mentioned case shows, Iran and the Saudi kingdom had different ideals on oil prices in the past. The Iranian aim was to have them as high as possible, while Saudi Arabia wanted rather to have slightly lower prices.168
Today, the competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, related to oil issues might intensify in case of the lack of agreement over production quotas within the OPEC. Saudi Arabia, as it has an extraordinary capacity of spare oil, could threaten to increase its output and therefore to start a price war.169 Countries like the kingdom can rely on oil far more into the future than the Islamic Republic can, partly because the Saudis do not have the high energy consumption that Iran has to deal with. The Islamic Republic is deeply vulnerable to the fluctuations of oil price.The other disadvantages of the Iran in opposition to Saudi Arabia lay in its long disputes with the world’s leading industrial powers, as well as in its inability to raise production capacity to the levels required by the large population.170
Most recently, as a result of the introduction of new sanctions in 2011, Iran found itself unable neither to attract new customers, nor to keep the existing buyers on the required level of purchase. As a consequence, notable economic hardship has emerged in the country.171 At this point of the Saudi-Iranian friction, one might say that the energy-related ‘battle’ was won by the kingdom. However, the case would not be this simple if the Islamic Republic and the West finally manage to reach a deal.
As the main sources of disagreement and areas of competition between the two countries have been religion (ideology), ethnicity, politics and economy (energy resources), these areas had been presented in the first part of the thesis. Now, the major proxy (and actual) battlefields will be discussed, the arenas where the Iranian aims opposed the Saudi goals the most.
Foreign policy - distinct alliances and actual conflicts in the region
Among the main sources of Saudi-Iranian disagreement, opposing foreign policies have long been a crucial area. From a political point of view, both Iran and Saudi Arabia consider themselves as indispensable regional players, with their spheres of influence spreading across the Middle East and Central Asia. However, they both face significant challenges from almost all directions as well.172 As a result of their competition, their opposition can be felt in most countries of the region - what constitutes a good potential for one, is rather seen as a challenge or threat for the other.
The United States of America
Although the United States stands out from the regional sphere, it is still significant to mention in relation to the Saudi-Iranian competition, since it has been the major deterrent for Iran, and the same time, an important ally for the Saudi kingdom.
The Islamic Republic’s foreign policy now is just as much concerned about the USA, as it was prior to the revolution, but it took a great turn from being partners to harsh enmity.173 Iran’s assumption that the country could be an actual target for the USA became clear after the “Axis of the Evil” speech by George W. Bush, as well as the American neoconservatives’ push for the Iranian regime change.174 Nowadays, the Iranian regime still sees the USA as a danger to its very existence.
What has been seen as the major threat in the eyes of the Islamic Republic, has historically been the main security guarantor for Saudi Arabia. While from the Iranian perspective, the United States should not maintain forces in the Gulf and must allow the states in the region to organize their own security system, Saudi Arabia prefers to see the US being involved in the regional security arrangements.175
Both the Iranian revolution, which in 1979 posed a common concern and threat to the US and the kingdom, and the following Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, where mobilizing Salafis could lead to American victory, significantly strengthened the cooperation between the kingdom and the US.176 Due to the events of history, the two states have developed a strong, mutually beneficial relationship which works for more than 80 years now. Even though there was a considerable setback as a result of 9/11 and the following human rights abuses, the partnership still endures. Today, their alliance is based on their common interests - these interests have mostly been related to economic and commercial issues.177
The Saudi Kingdom’s approach evolved around the prevention of any regional hegemony (but its own), and, therefore, its aim has been finding key allies to maintain the balance of power in practice.178 The partnership with the US has thus been a great potential for the country. On the other hand, the alliance is also significant source of friction with the Islamic Republic.
On the “periphery”, the Saudi-Iranian competition can especially be felt in Lebanon, as both states have significant, long standing interests in the country. Though they have avoided an open conflict yet, the Lebanese developments have been very stimulating for their opposition. 179
The Shiites in Lebanon have developed a special connection with Iran from the 15-16th centuries, when Lebanese Shiite mollahs converted the Iranian people to Shiism.180 The Revolutionary Guards Corps provided Lebanon with military training, not to mention the significant financial and spiritual support given to the local Shiites either. 181 Iran, as the founder, also acts as the main supporter of the Hezbollah movements.182 Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has long been backing the Salafi groups within the country.183
The two major events in the new millennium, which emerged as central catalysts for increased intervention on both side, took place in 2005-2006. In 2005, when Lebanon had experienced a political crisis after the assassination of its Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Iran supported the March 8 alliance, which included Hezbollah as well. On the opposite side, Saudi Arabia stood as the ally of the pro-Hariri coalition.184
Subsequently, in 2006, the war between Israel and Hezbollah was the event that posed a top concern related to Lebanon, for both Iran and the Saudi kingdom. The results, in the eyes of Saudi Arabia, represented a significant shift in regional balance of power - in favour of the Islamic Republic. Therefore, Riyadh made its commitment to the reconstruction of Lebanon a top priority.185
Following the war, the Saudi kingdom has still been struggling to counter the rise of Hezbollah with its growing financial support to the Salafi groups, who have thus been spurred toward greater political activism.186 On the other side of the conflict, Hezbollah has also been increasingly supported by Iran. However, the Islamic republic’s financial commitment is not as immense as Saudi Arabia’s.187
Nowadays, as the recent conflict in Syria has unfolded and sectarian clashes became even more apparent in Lebanon too, both Iran and the Saudi kingdom have a growing interest and significance in the region.
For the Islamic Republic, Afghanistan has an obvious importance not only because of its proximity and shared history but also as a result of the country’s significant Shiite minority in the Western areas, which constitute 15-20 per cent of the whole Afghan population.188
Although in the eyes of Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan itself would not be especially significant, it is still highly important, as the kingdoms’ relations with Iran and Pakistan have been notably affected by the situation in Afghanistan.189 When the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan started, another field of competition had been created between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the long war, the Saudi kingdom supported the insurgents (mujahedeen) against the Soviet Union, with young Saudis sent to Afghanistan to fight.190 For the kingdom, it was especially important to fight for the protection of the religion, opposing the Soviet atheism. In spite of the fact that Iran also stood on the side of the Afghan resistance, the pre-existing divisions between the two countries became soon apparent.191
Besides the recruitment, travel and training of the jihadist volunteers against the Soviet invaders, Saudi acts also had an-anti Shiite dimension,192 as the kingdom competed with Iran for influence with the support of Pakistan.193 The Saudis, besides being generous in funding the more radical parties, also did a significant campaigning of their ideology, Wahhabism, to counterbalance the Shiite Iran’s influence.194 Therefore, they gave their support to the Sunni resistance, while the Islamic Republic backed the Shiite group of Wahdat (unity).195
After the Soviet withdrawal, although both countries’ agendas had been modified to some extent, their involvement in Afghanistan did not end.196 The civil war continued even without the Soviet threat, as the country fell into the hands of several warlords.197 In the middle of the 1990s, a new movement had appeared on the Afghan scene: the Taliban. As Saudi Arabia accepted the Pakistani decision to support them, 198 it offered notable financial help: with the resources of the kingdom, and the weapons supplied by the US and Britain,199 the Taliban gradually gained enough power to expand their influence across Afghanistan. It has become clear that the collaboration of the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were responsible for the rise of this kind of Sunni extremism in Afghanistan – which later ironically became a major threat in the region and farther away.200
As the rise of the Taliban became the new main concern for Iran in relation to Afghanistan, the competition between her and Saudi Arabia for influence continued throughout the 1990s. The Taliban’s religious extremism especially targeted the Shi’a Muslim faith, which it considered heretical. Their opposition peaked in 1998 when the Taliban attacked the Iranian consulate and murdered some of its diplomats.201 Afterwards, as a result, Iran’s high-profile and consistent support for the anti-Taliban groups further continued.202 The Saudi-Iranian friction in Afghanistan seemed a long-standing issue, which only after the American overthrow of the Taliban from the agenda has been removed.203
After the events of 9/11, the United States seriously challenged both Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s profile as defenders of political Islam. Tehran was quick to distinct herself from the Taliban-backed violence represented by the al-Qaeda: without hesitation it cooperated in the removal of the violent regime in Afghanistan.204 Saudi Arabia was also about to re-assert its credibility and religious credentials after the terrorist attacks, but its main aim has still been keeping Iran out of Kabul. As a result, since the NATO decision about the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Riyadh has been increasingly struggling to put together a government which would include some Taliban as well, to be able to contain the Islamic Republic.205
Recent steps suggest that the competition of Iran and Saudi Arabia did not end in Afghanistan: they are both aiming to build up immense mosques and Islamic centres of the Muslim faith of their own, which is clearly a sign of a still existing religious competition.206 Iraq
From both Iran’s and the Saudis’ point of view, Iraq, as a neighbour country with significant Shi’a population 207 has long been an important area of concern and/or opportunity. Its importance became especially apparent during the Iraq-Iran war. Since the Islamic Revolution, the secular, Arab nationalist Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran 208 had been the first major ‘battlefield’ where Saudi and Iranian interests notably conflicted.
Being a Shiite majority country with Sunni leadership, it raised significant concerns for Iraq that the new government of Iran championed the cause of the Shiites abroad too.209 However, in fact, the Iraqi Shiites did not change sides in favour of the Islamic Republic during the conflict.
From the Saudi point of view also, Iran’s aspirations started to seem threatening, as the kingdom was worried about its own stability and security. It was initially not simple to decide how to interfere the conflict and to what extent, however, the kingdom saw far more threat in Iran than in Iraq. The Saudis therefore offered their support to Iraq during the war to be able to keep their own stability,210 since there was a direct concern that the violence would spread beyond the two states. Another important factor has made Saudi Arabia to back Iraq: the championing of the “Arab cause”.
Initially, the kingdom tried to avoid a confrontational public position towards Iran, 211 but as the war dragged on, the Saudis increasingly committed themselves on the side of Iraq in the conflict. Their most tangible assistance was financial.212 Three years in the war, the danger of the escalation and the Iraqi collapse became the greatest concern for the kingdom.213
Iran, after some victorious battles, had been encouraged enough to say that in case of a decisive victory of its own, it intends to go further and not stop until it liberates Jerusalem, and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Saudi Arabia, naturally, was deeply concerned about these aspirations. The kingdom’s worries about Iran at the time were not completely unfounded, as the incident during the Mecca seemed an important indicator of the Islamic Republics’ aims.214
As the Iraq-Iran war progressed, the Saudis used also economic policy measures to put more pressure on Iran: they flooded the international markets with oil, causing a significant decrease in the prices. These measures, as they resulted in decreasing revenues for Iran, notably destroyed the country’s economy.215 An additional Saudi step against the Islamic Republic was the establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council, 216which had a strong anti-Iranian political agenda.217
At the end of the longest inter-state military clash in the Middle East, both countries became devastated – one might say that a lose-lose situation had been achieved by the adversaries, as the war had extraordinary costs in terms of human lives and property alike. Both economies had been destroyed. As the war was a total one, as both Iran and Iraq fully committed themselves and used all possible manpower, economic and monetary resources at their disposal in order to win the conflict.218
In the eyes of Iran, ending the war 219 probably seemed a rational decision since its economy reached a critical level. As a result of this economic pressure, the Islamic Republic made some adaptations in its foreign policy according to the new circumstances.220 Inter alia, Saudi Arabia was also among the countries that were affected by the new Iranian policies, as the Islamic Republic in 1988 was ready to improve relations with the Gulf States, mostly because of strong economic considerations.221
After the Iraq-Iran war, the next important landmark event in Iraq both in the eyes of the Saudis and the Iranians was the eventual fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, since it had caused sweeping changes in the Middle East in terms of the regional balance of power.222 As a result, the redistribution of power in the area created four competing poles: Israel, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. As Iraq was ‘deleted’ from the scene in the sense of regional influence, these countries became the main competitors for relative power share.223
The post-Saddam Iraq has a strategic importance for Iran, since its Shiite majority managed to acquire significant governmental positions in the new Iraqi system. 224 In the eyes of the Saudi Arabia, in contrast (or as a result), Iraq is seen as a potential threat. Since the fall of Saddam in 2003, the Iranian and the Iraqi threats have been even more interrelated from the Saudi point of view. Proximity of both Iraq and Iran to Saudi Arabia gives these fears a strategic dimension.225 Bahrain
With the elimination of Iraq as a significant Gulf power, regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for the dominance over the Persian Gulf has became even more obvious.226 Bahrain, being especially important for both countries, has long been a source of tension between the Islamic Republic and the Saudi kingdom, both for historical and religious (sectarian) reasons.227
Bahrain, with a 70-75 per cent Shiite majority, has significant ties to the Islamic Republic. In contrast, the ruling power is in the hands of the Sunni Al-Khalifa; therefore, the sectarian source of tension is naturally given within the country. The royal family came into power in the eighteenth century, overthrowing the Persian rulers. The small monarchy was therefore an example of disagreement between the two states even well before the Islamic revolution took place.
As the British withdrew their troops from the Persian Gulf, Iran used the opportunity to assert its dominance in the region: it revived its historical claim to the sovereignty over Bahrain. Naturally, Saudi Arabia strongly opposed the idea that conflicted significantly with the kingdom’s aspirations. Saudi Arabia also has deep roots within Bahrain, stemming partly from the tribal relations to the Al-Khalifa, as well as (more recently) from economic ties. Besides, Bahrain also plays a crucial role for Saudi Arabia as a potential target country for the implementation of the Wahhabi doctrine. Therefore, the kingdom provides ideological guidance to its neighbour, in an attempt to limit and decrease Shi’a power in the country. Iran, on the other hand, has been involved in Bahrain by also spreading the ideological views of the Islamic Revolution, and at the same time by challenging the Al-Saud’s legitimacy, too.228
After the Iranian regime change in 1979, the Islamic Republic’s expansionist aspirations became the most tangible in Bahrain, when in 1981; the authorities arrested Arab conspirators who received their training near Isfahan in Iran. A coup might have been envisaged, but as it was revealed early, it did not cause fundamental changes. However, a strong concern has been raised by this event throughout the Gulf, and especially in Saudi Arabia. In a matter of weeks, as a result, the kingdom and Bahrain announced that they had signed a security pact.229
Even though the extent of Iranian influence in Bahrain following the Islamic revolution is uncertain, its existence is beyond doubt. Most probably, as the Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, the Bahraini Shi’a may also have been encouraged and inspired by the revolution, rather than being directly motivated by the events. The Shiites of Bahrain have long been viewed as a potential base of Iranian influence thus the Islamic Republic always kept an eye on the small Gulf kingdom.230
A landmark event took place in 2007, which seriously shook Iranian-Bahraini relations: historical Iranian claims over the kingdom have been again revived. In a Persian newspaper it was argued that Bahrain was an inseparable part of the Islamic Republic –an act terrifying not only from kingdom’s, but also from the Saudi point of view.231
The Shiite-Sunni division in Bahrain is still an important issue, as the members of the Shi’a community are not able to acquire significant positions of power. However, the protracted tension between the government and the opposition should not be described as a purely sectarian friction as Sunnis are also present among those who are unsatisfied with the governmental system. While the tensions within the kingdom have been long present, oil prosperity has helped to smooth them to some extent. However, as revenues decreased, frictions have gradually grown within the society.
With the so-called Arab spring spreading cross the North African region and the Middle East, Bahraini conditions have also experienced changes in terms of anti-regime protests. The country has become an area of significant damage, which was mostly a result of its sectarian schism, along with the involvement of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the conflict. Initially, the protestors (mostly Shiites) were demanding political and democratic reforms in a peaceful manner. Later on, however, the response from the monarchical forces was disproportionately harsh, which led to the evolution of the unrest. Saudi Arabia played a significant role in helping the brutal repression of the opposition, in order to keep the Al-Khalifa in ruling position- they deployed troops to the country.232 Though the Iranian involvement on the side of the protestors was less apparent, the ties between the Shiite clerics in Bahrain and Tehran have been obvious.233
Warming of relations from the 1990s and the impacts of 9/11
Even though a certain extent of Saudi-Iranian competition could be felt ever since the Islamic revolution until the very recent days, there had been years of conciliation and signs of warming as well between the two countries.
The impetus for the detente that first happened in the 1990s was stemming from a number of domestic and regional factors on both sides. The invasion of Kuwait made Iraq a threat for both states, and the fact that Tehran did not support the Shi’a intifada in Iraq in 1991 indicated that Iran might have given up its expansive revolutionary goals.234 The warming of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia might have been also a consequence of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, which considerably helped the Islamic Republic in re-engaging with certain countries.235 By the end of 1991, diplomatic relations had been restored with Saudi Arabia, too.236
For Iran, all the damages caused by the Iraq-Iran war were highly motivating to change priorities in foreign policy, based more on economic considerations. Since oil revenues were extremely important for Iran, cooperation with the GCC countries and especially with the Saudi kingdom became the new top priority in the Iranian foreign policy.237
First under the Presidency of Ali Akbar Rafsanjani the Islamic Republic sought better relations with its neighbours. Rafsanjani’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 1996 was an important indicator for these warming relations. A year later, Crown Prince Abdullah also paid a visit to Tehran in order to take part in a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The trip significantly strengthened Iranian-Saudi ties by Abdullah’s friendly words to the Muslim people of Iran, where he recognized their “immortal achievements”.238
Later, Muhammad Khatami’s presidency brought further considerable developments in Saudi-Iranian relations, as he strongly reinforced the non-ideological aspects of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy. He travelled to Saudi Arabia too and the two countries defence ministers also met on several occasions.239 Direct telephone lines were established between the senior leaders of the two states, and a number of bilateral economic and security agreements were also signed during that period. 240
Despite the achievements of better relations in the 1990s, religious competition between the two countries lingered further, which was probably the most apparent in the Saudi backing of the Taliban in Afghanistan.241 Therefore, the fundamental tensions between Iran and Saudi kingdom continued to exist.242
The 2001 9/11 events posed serious challenges for both Iran and Saudi Arabia, as the defenders of political Islam.243 Thus, the rescue of Muslims from disrepute after the al-Qaeda attacks resulted in a campaign which also helped the two countries to reach out towards each other. As an important example, King Abdullah initiated an Interfaith Dialogue with other religions. Furthermore, during the International Islamic Conference in 2007, he signed a declaration and thereby recognized all groupings and schools of Islamic law, even the Shiite ones.244 The declaration said that “...all who accept the basic tenets of the faith are Muslims and it is not permissible to brand them apostates...” This was in contrast with the long Saudi practice.245 Following the declaration’s signal, Abdullah has made some other conciliatory gestures to the Saudi Shiites, for example, he invited a Shiite imam to participate in the Interfaith Dialogue, as well as he let a Shiite sportsman carry the Saudi flag in the 2008 Olympic Games.246 These were not only gestures towards the Saudi Shiites, but they can be seen as a friendly step towards the Islamic Republic as well.
Another important era of rapprochement was, therefore, from the middle to the end of the 2000s. This was also the time when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad accepted King Abdullah’s invitation to Riyadh.247 The meeting has become an important signal of a working relationship between the two countries. Even though the Saudis maintained their position on the Arab politics as well as on the containment of the Iranian influence in the Arab countries, the invitation was a clear sign of cooperative relations.248 During the trip, the Saudi press referred to the two states as “brotherly nations”. This first significant rapprochement since the 1990s has probably been a result of the diminishing of the Iranian revolutionary zeal, as well as different policies. The leaders of the Islamic Republic no longer publicly questioned the legitimacy of the Saudi kingdom. Saudi Arabia, on the other side, attempted to lessen its dependence on the United States not least because of the US public reactions to 9/11, and promoted the deepening of relations with China.249 Even though the two countries had still been regarding each other as ideological rivals, Saudi Arabia remained keen to develop its friendship with the pragmatic elements of the Iranian leadership.250
The case of Syria (current opposition)
The most prominent area where Saudi and Iranian interests are clashing today and where the two states’ competition is the most visible is the current Syrian civil war. For the Islamic Republic, the Syrian regime constitutes a long-standing important ally, as their good relation dates back to the birth of the new system in Iran. Syria was the first Arab country to recognize the Islamic Republic.251 Since then, the two states collaborated in various ways, even on military and political matters.252 The partnership is still strong, because they have the ability to compromise on key issues.253
Besides the mutual “hatred” towards Iraq (based on another historic competition between Iraq and Syria), Syria had various other reasons to have strong ties with the new Iranian leadership. As its relation with Saudi Arabia and Morocco significantly deteriorated in the 1980s, the President of Syria saw the Syrian-Iranian axis as a regional strengthening.254 In the 1990s, in spite of the ideological differences, Arab nationalist Syria and the Islamic Republic continued to cooperate with each other on various grounds, especially militarily and in politics.255 Despite the fact that Syria is a secular state, the leadership belongs to the Shiite Alawite sect, 256 therefore, it has been a strong interest for the Shiite Iran to help President Bashar al-Assad stay in power.257 Since Syria’s future is extremely important for Iran, the two regimes’ alliance is likely to remain strong through the current situation.258
The recent conflict in Syria which has escalated into a bloody civil war by the time, started as a peaceful demonstration of Assad’s opposition, to be able to acquire more rights.259260 Besides the regime’s harsh oppression, the influence and interference of regional powers also contributed to the maintenance of the conflict and the current stalemate. Apart from Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah and Russia intervened by supporting the government, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar stepped into the picture on the side of the Syrian rebels.261
To have a comprehensive view on the current civil war, it is important to examine the rebels’ background as well. Initially most of them have been Sunni Muslims, who – besides the regional events - were motivated by the support of Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood in their opposition.262 Later on, the anti-Assad coalition was expanded by Turkey, and the US in the background.263
Besides Saudi Arabia’s initiative for the isolation of Syria within the Arab League, its other contributions to the revolution are not negligible either. The significant financial support to the rebels coming from mostly private funds helped to cause the protraction of the conflict, as well as its radicalization, since the support often came from the jihadists.264 Besides the financial backing, the technical training organized by the Saudis is also worth mentioning.265
Notwithstanding the efforts of the rebels and their supporters, what they really aimed at, a split within the regime, has not taken place yet. Ironically, it was rather the armed opposition that was split into various smaller groups.266267 Even though there are significant cross-country alliances as well, many groups are operating on the local level, with various agendas.268
The rebels’ foreign supporters do not share completely unified goals either, nor use the same methods to overthrow the current regime. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is campaigning for a more radical, active involvement, whereas the US would be more ready to compromise. The Saudi kingdom, as the conflict escalates, has a harsh criticism towards the international community that they could not do anything worthwhile in order to overthrow Assad’s rule, nor to protect the civilians.269 For Saudi Arabia, a diplomatic solution and the keeping of the current president in power are unacceptable.270
Over the three years of the war, more than 100.000 Syrians lost their lives and more than nine million people had to leave their homes. For the conflict, to reach these lows, the regional powers’ oppositions worked as a catalyst - especially the Saudi-Iranian competition.271
This paper sought to present the competition between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia through various factors. The countries are long considered to be a challenge to each other’s supremacy in all aspects that matter to them the most: religion, security (politics), and economy272 - these areas, therefore, gave the backbone of the thesis.
In relation to ideology and religion, it was concluded that Islam played very different roles both in the construction and the maintenance of the two states.273 These differences may derive from the very nature of Sunni and Shiite Islam as well as the diverse cultural practices of each country. Both believe that “their” Islam is superior to the other’s, which has been causing much tension. Iran - just as much as Saudi Arabia - seeks to present itself as the “leader” of the Muslim nations, therefore, religious competition constitutes to exist and still has an impact on foreign policies.
Apart from this competition, the two powers are considered to be rivals in respect to culture and ethnicity as well. They both take pride in their respective heritage and feel superior vis-á-vis each other.274 On political grounds, the considerably different regime types constitute a notable obstacle to warm relations.
In relation to foreign policy, there have been several proxy “battlefields” where Saudi and Iranian interests notably conflicted or still conflict. Either we examine Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan of Bahrain, the rivalry is apparent.275 To the competition, both powers bring all tools at their disposal: they promote ideologically friendly regional groups in order to advance their interests,276 as well as they seek out international allies to be able to dominate in the area.277 Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have advocated a particular group of political Islam and supported a type of Islamic fundamentalism.278 The tools of advancing their interests have mostly been financial, technical, or based on ideology. The Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia bring different strengths to their rivalry: Iran, for example is more successful in supporting non-state actors like Hezbollah, whereas the Saudi kingdom have far more financial resources and the notable alliance of the Unites States.279
From warm relations before the Islamic revolution to the cessation of diplomatic ties in the late 1980s and then to gradual detente, the relationship of the two powers changed significantly over time and again seems to be uncertain.280 Today, in the light of the sweeping regional changes (also known as the “Arab Spring”) both countries face enormous challenges and neither of them is able to come out as the “ultimate winner” of the competition.281 Important to note as well that they seem unwilling to confront each other directly, even though they both still yearn for regional dominance. In the near future, the Iranian economic reliance on Saudi Arabia and the Saudi fear from the Iranian nuclear weapon potential is likely to keep them reluctant to confront directly. At any possible future scenario, their relation will surely have an enormous impact on the region’s stability.282
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