The news that Saudi police sexually harassed two Iranian teenagers at Jeddah airport intensified what was already a tense relationship between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Iranian Foreign Ministry retaliated by summoning the Saudi envoy and filing a complaint. The incident caused hundreds of demonstrators to gather outside of the Saudi Embassy in Iran in what the Islamic Republic News Agency, the official news agency, called an “unauthorized” protest. The influential Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi also urged the government to stop sending Iranian pilgrims to Saudi Arabia if there was no guarantee they would be safe. The victims were returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca when they were assaulted.
But strained relations between these two regional powers are nothing new. Over the past 80 years, numerous incidents have undermined ties between them. Back in 1943, an Iranian citizen on pilgrimage to Mecca was beheaded for “polluting the house of God;” he had thrown up during Haj rituals. Iran reacted by cutting ties with Saudi Arabia for four years and banning Iranians from going on the Haj pilgrimage.
Then, in 1987, the Iranian people and government were enraged once again when Saudi police killed 275 Iranian pilgrims in Mecca — the officers attacked them for staging an anti-American and anti-Israeli demonstration. In response, demonstrators attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran, killing a Saudi diplomat in the process. This time it was the Saudis who cut relations with Iran for three years.
Twenty-eight years later and relations are once again at breaking point.
Old Rivals Across the Board
Throughout the history of Islam, Sunni and Shia spiritual leaders have often been in conflict but it is Iran and Arabia that have exchanged the harshest words.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are long-standing rivals, particularly in terms of oil, politics and religion. As the heart of the Shia branch of Islam, Iran differs from Saudi Arabia, which traditionally promotes Sunni values and teachings. From 1932 onwards, rivalry between the two countries intensified when Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, an ardent follower of Wahhabism — a strict and puritanical movement within Sunni Islam — renamed what was then “Arabia” “Saudi Arabia.”
Ethnic and racial differences also, arguably, play a role in worsening hostility between the two countries. While the majority of Iranians are Persians, and thus not Arab in ethnicity, Saudi Arabians are. This has contributed to both sides viewing the other with suspicion and scorn. This is apparent in the countries’ literature, folk tales and everyday jokes.
It goes without saying that if relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia improve, it will be a significant step in resolving certain conflicts in the Middle East, much the way that better ties between Iran and the US would. However, it is also worth noting that mistrust between Iran and the US is much newer in historical terms than that between Iran and Arabia, which dates back more than a thousand years and consequently, has much deeper roots.
A Fully-Fledged Proxy War
More recent events have also worsened tension between the two nations. Firstly, Saudi Arabia supported Iraq during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Secondly, Iran and several Arab countries in the Middle East are engaged in a long-running disagreement over what the Persian Gulf should be called, culminating in the Arabs renaming it the Arabian Gulf. Thirdly, Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned by the Iranian nuclear program, and lastly, the two countries have taken opposing sides in the unrest and Arab Spring uprisings in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and Iraq.
Saudi Arabia also takes the view that Iran is plotting a long-term plan against it by its support of the Shia community in Bahrain and the Houthis, a Shia rebel group, in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is largely intolerant of any religion other than Sunni Islam within its borders, although a number of Shias live in eastern Saudi Arabia, a part of the country that borders Yemen. If Bahraini or Yemeni Shias come to power, it is likely they will support Arabian Shias, who oppose the Saudi government and monarchy, both of which have reacted angrily to this possibility.
This has led to a full-scale proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East.
Cheap Oil as Political Conspiracy
When Hassan Rouhani became president two years ago, there was hope that relations would improve, but subsequent events have shown the exact opposite to be true. In December 2014, the Iranian president blamed a fall in oil prices on a political conspiracy by “certain” countries and although Rouhani never outright named Saudi Arabia, it is beyond doubt that that was who he was referring to when he accused “certain countries” of flooding the market with cheap oil in order to put pressure on Iran’s sanction-weakened economy and its aging petroleum industry.
Amidst this escalating tension, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has shown little interest in attempting to defuse friction. In his latest speech on April 9, Khamenei criticized Saudi Arabia’s new rulers and said that “despite disputes, Saudis used to display composure with us, but now inexperienced youngsters have come to power and replaced composure with barbarism. I warn that they should refrain from any criminal move in Yemen.” He also drew parallels between Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen and Israel’s bombing of Gaza, warning Saudis that their “noses will be rubbed in Yemen’s mud.” Yemen remains the most immediate and potentially, cataclysmic dispute between the two countries.
Both blame the other side for causing and worsening conflicts in the Middle East. This was exemplified by the Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal in October 2014 when he said that Iran was "part of the problem."
Zealots Welcome Tension
Another factor, which worsens relations, is that there are a number of religious extremists in Iran that promote the idea that the return of the Twelfth Imam, the Shia Messiah, is near, but that the current Saudi regime is one of the main obstacles preventing it. In 2012, the Supreme Leader’s Representative to the Revolutionary Guards, Ali Saeedi, said that the Twelfth Imam would only return when certain changes happened in the Middle East, including in Saudi Arabia. This is why when King Abdullah died on January 23, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, chairman of the powerful Guardian Council, welcomed the death.
This outlook helps to explain why certain Iranian hardliners welcome amplified tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But looking at recent events between the two nations, there is cause for both optimism and pessimism about the future of relations.
To begin with, the possibility that relations will better should never be ruled out, especially as there were instances in the past when they were as bad, if not worse, as they are now. For instance, when a large number of Iranians were killed in Mecca in 1987, Ayatollah Khomeini said that Iran would never forgive Saudi for the murders and even asked the Iranian people to write down the incident in their calendars so they would remember it year after year. However, just a few years after Khomeini died, the Iranian people and government forgot about it, introducing a new chapter in Saudi-Iranian relations.
But equally, the current, unstable situation in the region, combined with the fact that both countries have unpredictable and ambitious rulers, is a serious cause for concern for Saudis, Iranians and the Middle East more generally. According to a 2008 confidential cable published by WikiLeaks, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia repeatedly urged the United States to "cut off the serpent’s head" by launching military strikes at Iran's nuclear program. Several years later, the Saudis are still tirelessly following developments for a nuclear deal between the US and “the serpent.” Time will tell what is in store for these two regional powers and whether over time, tension will abate as it has in the past, or continue to worsen as the proxy war in Yemen develops.