Nawaf Obaid is a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. He is also Special Counselor to Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, who served as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States from 2005-2007. Nawaf spoke to IranWire in person and by email about the past, present and future of Iran-Saudi relations. 

How would you characterize relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran under the Shah?

Under the Shah it was quite different. There wasn’t the same kind of tension and the same kind of rhetoric that you’re seeing today. The Shah [was] trying to continuously reaffirm affirm his position as the emperor, not just of Iran, but as the strongman of the region. He had some ideas that obviously were very ill suited for how the Middle East would develop. That was seen vividly in 1979. 

He was gearing towards a western-oriented form of industrialization and development, and was in a pursuit against time to try and bring upon Iran the kind of development he was seeing in Europe. As much as the late King Faisal tried to advise him that he should take it much more slowly not to break the fundamental pillars of Iranian society, which were based on Islam, he still decided to go ahead with it, and that brought the clashes of ’78 that precipitated the revolution of ’79.

How did that revolution influence Saudi policy, both toward Iran and domestically?

That changed everything. From then on, this revolutionary fervor that had brought Khomeini to power [caused] his group of people to believe that they could carry this [revolutionary ideology], and start expanding it throughout the Muslim world. This is where, fundamentally, the problems began. 

It was one thing to do a Shiite revolution in a Shiite majority country. It was a quite different thing to do a revolutionary-based movement and create revolutions and chaos throughout the Muslim world, which is predominantly, vastly Sunni. It started with the Iraqis, then it went to some of the Gulf States, then we started having problems in the Eastern Province [of Saudi Arabia, where there is a substantial Shia population]. They’ve tried so many times to bring up all these new revolutionary movements across the Muslim world, and they’ve all failed.

I’m guessing that if I was to ask many Iranians about Saudi-Iranian rivalry, they would cite Saudi support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War as the great trauma between the two countries.

Where it started on the battlefield, yes. That was the first test. But it really started when Khomeini took over in Tehran, because Saudi Arabia, with its strong Salafi doctrine, is the antithesis of a Twelver-led revolutionary movement. That movement—people tend to forget—it was the first time that a Twelver revolutionary movement took over a country. Before, it was always monarchical; it was dynasties after dynasties in Persia. The moment this happened ideologically Iran and Saudi Arabia were on opposing sides, and then the year after, it started playing out on the battlefield.

They wanted to keep their revolutionary fervor, they wanted to—by their own admission—expand their revolution to other countries, and they started with Iraq for a simple reason: In Iraq you have Najaf and Karbala, which are the centers of Shia Twelver learning, and this would have brought a lot of needed legitimacy to the [Khomeinist] order as it started setting up its new state in Iran.

What was the significance of the 1987 Mecca Incident?

On the ground it was small compared to the other conflicts, but the Mecca Incident was a war of wills. The Saudi government had repeatedly told [Khomeini supporters among the Iranian pilgrims] that the Hajj is not to be used for political purposes, and they kept ignoring it [and decided] that this was the perfect time to introduce to the wider Muslim world this new doctrine. What happened happened, they got out of hand, the police shot, and unfortunately there was a large amount of casualties on the Iranian side.

This brought to the forefront the clash between a Sunni order in the Muslim world, against this new-arriving Shiite revolutionary ideology, which by definition cannot just stay still.

To what extent do Khomeini’s verbal attacks on the Saudi leadership still influence Iranian policy today?

He saw—rightfully so—that Saudi Arabia would be the ultimate challenge for [him] to establish a serious, credible presence in countries beyond Iran. The problem with his scenario was that in Saudi Arabia you have the two holiest places in Islam. It is a Sunni country, and that [denomination] represents about 90 per cent of the Muslims in the world. So they were up against certain demographics that were beyond politics and current affairs and the strategic balance of power. They thought that if they kept attacking the leadership in whatever way they did—which was in some cases very harshly—they could take away the legitimacy that the Saudi leadership has by being the guardian of the two holy shrines. 

The rhetoric has ceased from the senior Iranian clergy, because in a way they see it as a futile game. Ultimately they are selling themselves in a way that is very foreign to over 90 per cent of the Muslims. They are very careful not to go down the path of sectarianism. But at the same time, it’s still there. By default of their foundations, Iran is still revolutionary, they still want to grab onto more people, more territory than they can, and we see it playing out today across the Arab world. 

In every country that has a sizable Shia population, they are somehow present. Even in countries where the Shia are not from the Twelver sect, they still have a presence. Now that has been over-magnified, it’s been blown completely out of proportion, but at the same time, they still try. Even though at home they have monumental problems, you still see them trying in Lebanon, in Syria—it’s a losing battle in Syria and they’re still there—in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Yemen, they’re still there. It comes back to the fundamental basis of the state.

How does Iran relate to Saudi Arabia’s Shia population?

If you speak to most people, they believe that they have a lot of influence. Speak to someone like me who has been there, who has been studying this, I am of an opposite opinion. They have influence through the Marjaia, through the schools of thought that within Twelver Islam, believers are bound to follow. You have them being influential with a very limited segment of society within the [Eastern Province city of] Qatif. Other than that, it’s more of a perception issue than anything, because our Shia, the vast majority of them are Arabs. They don’t have that automatic, easy Persian cultural link that you find with other communities.

What role do you see domestic actors playing in the relationship in both Iran and Saudi Arabia?

That’s a problem. Unfortunately in Saudi Arabia you have non-state actors who keep playing the sectarian card, and it’s to their advantage, because there you’re putting the wider Muslim Sunni world against [the Iranians]. That prohibits any serious rapprochement at the people level.

The same with the Iranians. If you listen to what the Iranians say, “[Saudi Arabia] is a Salafi, jihadi [country]. Be careful, they’re out to destroy Iran.”  That brings in fear from the Shias in Iran, and in other Arab countries.

So on the perception level, on the public level, they’re a big problem. Government-to-government—governments are more lucid than their people—we have a president in Iran who is much more lucid than the previous one, who brings in more reason and balance to this messianic way of doing things, and realities have helped him. The country is nearly bankrupt, the public finances are in disarray, and he needs to keep the country going. This is where we’re going, toward a dampening down of tensions between the two countries for the time being.

Which factions within Iran do you see as most hostile to good relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

Now everyone’s kind of tempered because of the situation the Iranians find themselves in domestically, but usually it’s always been Khamenei and his people, the real inheritors of Khomeini’s ideology, who keep on these crazy projects throughout the Islamic world.

People like Rouhani, who are much more pragmatic with the problems the country is facing—as they are the ones managing it—are more like “Let’s just stop with all this and come to an agreement.” I doubt [it will happen] unless there’s a big change of equation.

How do you measure the success of Iranian pragmatists and reformists in improving the relationship?

That’s a good question. Rafsanjani’s done some good things, we expect a Rouhani visit soon. To be honest, I don’t think there’s a way you can really measure it. When you’re dealing with the Iranians, you always have to ask who you’re talking to, especially these days, when the president and the supreme leader are on completely different wavelengths. 

I doubt Rouhani will have that much of an influence on foreign policy, which in our case would be the way to grade how improved [the Saudi-Iranian relationship] is, especially in Syria.

What is the Saudi view of the Syria conflict, as it has unfolded since 2011?

The view is that the president there and that clique of people ruling with him need to go. The Iranians believe this is a fundamental strategic issue, that if this happens to them it will break this messianic project of trying to expand their influence all the way to Lebanon, of dealing with groups and not with countries per se, of being able to support local Shia communities. 

Over the long term it’s a failing issue, because at no time in history—in European, African, Asian history—has a head of state that’s done so much harm to his country been able to survive in the long term. I don’t see why he should be any different.

How does Iran fit into that endgame?

It doesn’t, because Iran will do anything not for that to happen. But where we have a more difficult problem is when he goes, what comes after? And if Iraq is any example, it’s as dangerous if not more, because today you have this [Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham] movement that has taken over a good part of northern Syria, it’s taken over most of the northern part of Iraq, it’s taken over Iraq’s second largest city, it’s a disaster. These Arab states are falling, and Iran, as much as it will continue to defend its [Shia] communities simply doesn’t have the power or the resources to take over these countries. You have failing states that are emerging in the Arab world, including two large ones—Syria and Iraq.

To what extent have Iranian actions in Syria, and their support for Bashar al-Assad, contributed to the formation of ISIS?

To a very large extent. The Iranians, with their delusional policy in Syria, have created a monster that has substantial popular support in both countries and hence will be practically impossible to defeat. Sooner or later, the murderous Assad regime will fall and with it, Iran's dream of a grand sphere of influence from Tehran to Beirut.

To what extent has Iran's support for the Iraqi government, and Shia militia groups, such as Jeish al-Mahdi, influenced the rise of ISIS?

Again, to a very large extent. This sectarian policy they have adopted in Syria and Iraq is coming back to burn them. Over the medium to long term, geography, demographics and economic resources are so titled toward the Sunnis across the Muslim world, that this is a battle they will lose and lose badly! ISIS and the other Al Qaeda franchises cannot be defeated by the entire might of the US let alone Iran or the crumbling Maliki regime. 

ISIS is acronym for Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria, but, as far as you know, are they active in other countries?

For now not to a large extent, but they clearly have their sights on Lebanon and especially Jordan.

Has there been any support for ISIS from within Saudi Arabia?

ISIS is on Saudi Arabia's official list of terrorist organizations. The Kingdom absolutely does not support ISIS. ISIS as an Al Qaeda-affiliated movement was always considered a terrorist organization by the Kingdom and at no time would the Saudi government or any of its affiliated agencies have supported ISIS or any of its activities in Syria and Iraq.

 How do you think the fall of Assad would affect relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

The fall of Assad, for us, would be a watershed, and for the Iranians as well. If he falls, I believe they would completely recalculate their position. But for this to happen, we have to get there first, and we’re not there by a long margin.

What would be needed to get there?

You need to put together a potent force that would be able to go into Damascus, and this is something that Saudi Arabia and their allies still haven’t been able to muster. If you take Damascus, then you have more than 50 per cent of the job done. But for Iranian interests, that would be a disaster. 

Reflecting on 2011, I recall the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington. How did that affect relations?

Clearly this came from a very specific group of people within Iran. It’s the same group that keeps doing these things. They’ve done it there, they’ve done it in other countries, so it’s not a surprise, especially the way they did it, because in a lot of these cases, you see a lot of amateurism in the way they do things. It’s definitely not Rouhani and boys who would do things like that.

How does Saudi Arabia regard Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear deal, and what solution would Saudi Arabia put forth on the nuclear issue?

If they’re serious about having a deal, we’d be all for it. But from the history we have—you just mentioned the attempted assassination of the ambassador—it’s the same people who ultimately have the last say on these things. They have not spent so much of their country’s resources, made so many sacrifices, in order to make a deal in the way they are doing with the Americans in order to get some sanctions relief. So we don’t believe they can actually do a deal.

What’s the ideal outcome to the nuclear issue for Saudi Arabia?

The ideal outcome would be for them to renounce their nuclear militarized program, and I just don’t think they’re ready to do it. It wouldn’t make sense based on how they’ve behaved about it.

Is there any sense in which Iran’s isolation benefits Saudi Arabia, or would Saudi Arabia prefer to see it become a status quo power?

The normal, logical thing would be [to say] isolation, but with isolation comes all sorts of problems. So yes, if they’re willing to come back into the fold, all the better, but for this to happen, there must be a fundamental change in how Iran is governed. And the interests of the people who rule right now would be counter to a lot of what would be needed for Iran to be a status quo, open country in the region.

It would mean taking away the nuclear [weapons] program, stopping the funding of all these ridiculous militias across the Arab world, opening up their oil and gas sectors to foreign companies to bring up the export potential of Iran to where it should be, opening up the other key industries: telecommunications, aviation.

Where do you see the relationship going in the near future?

I think tensions will subside, but I don’t think there will be any serious breakthrough, because Rouhani is not the ultimate decision maker. It comes back to the issue of, does Iran want to be a country that realizes its natural capabilities and tries to develop normally, or are they still with that messianic belief that they are a great country, that they can do everything. It’s also about them realizing how they want to be perceived and how they want to go about developing the country, and knowing their true potential, and working on it.

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