Iran and Saudi Arabia once had an overlapping set of interests that put them on the same side of major geopolitical issues, but the Iranian Revolution of 1979 turned them into adversaries, each hostile to the other’s regional ambitions and very conceptions of state. For Saudi Arabia, Iran’s newfound pretensions of global Islamic leadership were menacing, as was the Islamic Republic’s budding influence in the Levant and patronage of Palestinian militant groups . For the Islamic Republic, Saudi Arabia’s position as both center of Muslim worship and cultivator of Western alliances was an unbearable hypocrisy that guaranteed its American rival’s long-term military reach to the Persian Gulf.
Although relations have softened at times—notably during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami—they have engaged in recent years in their own regional cold war.
Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Iran under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was characterized in part by the fact that they were both monarchies at a time when Middle East monarchies had been falling for decades and were vulnerable to the rise of secular, republican leaders like Gamal Abdel Nasser, says Gregory Gause, professor of international relations and Middle Eastern politics at the University of Vermont. The Shah, he says, joined Saudi Arabia’s efforts to use Islam as a block to secular Arab nationalism, and as a result was quick to sign on to the Organization of the Islamic Conference when it was founded in 1969. “I would say relations were correct, not warm, somewhat wary, and somewhat cooperative.”
The two countries took the same side on a range of questions: neither of them liked the Soviet Union, and both were allied to the United States in the Cold War. But although Saudi Arabia was more concerned with Nasser, various leftist forces, and the Baath Party in Iraq, Gause says, it was also nervous about the Shah’s ambitions. “The Shah kept talking about being the dominant military power in the region, having a navy that would go into the Indian Ocean. Just for natural balance of power reasons, neighboring states are always worried when someone has said he wants to dominate the region.”
In the 1960s and 70s, says Afshin Molavi of the New America Foundation, the Shah had an uncomfortable relationship with King Khaled and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. “They viewed the Shah as a preening hegemon who was uncomfortably close to the United States, who they also wanted to be close to, but even more so, the sin in their eyes was the Shah’s relations with Israel.” But although the two parties eyed each other warily, he says, both were ultimately status quo powers that did not want to see revolutions and uprisings, a fact demonstrated by the Shah’s militarily intervention in Oman in 1973 to defend the ruling monarchy against the Dhofar Rebellion.
Both the Shah and King Faisal were on warm enough terms to offer each other counsel, though neither was keen to take it. In the late 1960s, Prince Bandar bin Sultan told PBS, the Shah wrote to King Faisal, “Please, my brother, modernize. Open up your country. Make the schools mixed women and men. Let women wear mini skirts. Have discos. Be modern, otherwise I cannot guarantee you will stay in your throne."
As the Shah pursued western-oriented industrialization and development, says Nawaf Obaid, fellow of the Belfer Center of International Affairs at Harvard University and an adviser to Prince Turki Al Faisal, “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.”
The Limits of Revolution
The Iranian Revolution marked the beginning of a persistent mutual animosity between the states. “Aside from the fact that it was a bottom-up revolution, which no monarchy could be particularly happy about,” Gause says, “The message of the revolution was inherently anti-Saudi. Two of the biggest messages of the revolution were ‘monarchy is un-Islamic’ and ‘relations with the United States are un-Islamic.’ Take that double whammy and add the fact that [Iran] was looking to export the revolution.”
Iranian revolutionary élan met hard realities across the Persian Gulf. “This revolutionary fervor that had brought Khomeini to power [caused] his group of people to believe that they could carry this throughout the world,” Obaid says. “[But] it was one thing to do a Shiite revolutionary movement in a Shiite majority country, and it was a quite different thing to do a revolutionary-based movement and create chaos throughout the Muslim world, which is predominantly, vastly Sunni.” All such attempts, Obaid says, have failed. Khomeini, he says, rightfully saw Saudi Arabia, as guardian of the two holiest shrines in Islam, as the ultimate obstacle to the export of his Islamic Revolution.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, saw its support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War largely as a struggle to contain Khomeini’s movement (even though Iraq had started the conflict). “On the battlefield, that was the first test,” Obaid says. Saudi Arabia, he says, saw Iran’s new regime pursuing greater legitimacy at home by exporting its revolution to Iraq, where the two main centers of Twelver Shia learning—Najaf and Karbala—are located. “Iraq was only the natural choice,” he says.
Saudi Arabia offered Iraq substantial financial backing in the war. “There was one famous statement,” Molavi says, “where King Fahd of Saudi Arabia said to Saddam Hussein, ‘You provide the rijal’—‘rijal’ means ‘men’ in Arabic—‘and we’ll provide the rial.’” Saudi Arabia, Gause says, “said that they gave Iraq something like 24 or 27 billion dollars during the war, [and] they certainly supported Iraq diplomatically.” But, Molavi says, Saudi Arabia also acted diplomacy to end the war. “This had to do with Saudi Arabia’s constant need for the status quo. They didn’t like the fact that tankers were getting shot at in the Persian Gulf. That was bad for business.”
Another major trauma in early relations between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic took place in Mecca in 1987. From the early 1970s, Khomeini had issued anti-imperialist, pan-Islamic themed messages addressed to all Muslims via pilgrims visiting Mecca, in spite of Saudi Arabia’s objections to his use of the hajj for political purposes, and the punishments it had meted out to those acting on his behalf. “[The 1987 incident] was kind of the last straw,” Gause says. “There had been a number of incidents that were less bloody before that, but ’87 really was the peak of those incidents.” Around 400 people were killed in clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security forces, and most of them were Iranian. “After that, the Saudis finally broke off diplomatic relations, and also instituted a quota system for how many pilgrims each country could send to the pilgrimage, and it marked the Iranians down quite a bit.”
Khomeini, Molavi says, reserved his most vitriolic scorn for the Al Saud regime, stating that he would restore relations with the United States before he restored them with Saudi Arabia. He also condemned the country’s leadership in his will.
The period between 1979 and 1989—the year Khomeini died—was the lowest point in Saudi-Iran relations. “If Khomeini had stayed alive,” Molavi says, “we wouldn’t have seen rapprochement with Saudi Arabia [but] Khomeini was not in the grave for too long before Hashemi Rafsanjani simply ignored Khomeini’s antipathy to the Al Saud regime and began a campaign of outreach.” During that period, he says, there was a realpolitik moment, marked by a gradual cooling of heads between the two parties. Iran’s new supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, did not share Khomeini’s scorn for Saudi leaders, but he didn’t pursue better relations, either, merely tolerating rapprochement. The two countries restored diplomatic relations in 1991.
The negative consequences of Iran-Saudi hostility had become increasingly apparent to the more pragmatic Iranian elites, and among those consequences, says Gause, were the dangers of the Sunni-Shia divide, which places Iran in a minority position. “They would rather not have severe sectarian tensions. The position of the Rafsanjani element in the Iranian elite [is that] one way you can avoid that is to have better relations with Saudi Arabia.”
The high point in Iran’s post-revolutionary relations with Saudi Arabia, says Molavi, came between 1997 and 2003, during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami. On the Saudi side, he says, “Crown Prince Abdullah—who is now King Abdullah—felt that it was important to engage Iran. He got along very well on a personal basis with both Rafsanjani and particularly Mohammad Khatami.” One important moment, he says, was when Crown Prince Abdullah attended the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit in Tehran in December 1997. “There were good feelings all around. Despite being separated only by a body of water, they didn’t know each other; they hadn’t visited each other’s countries for almost 20 years. Suddenly Iran had opened up.”
Enduring Fault Lines
While Khomeinist antipathy toward Saudi Arabia stayed dormant for many years, and seems unlikely to erupt again with full force, Khomeini’s influence still lives among hardline elements. “The whole export of revolution element hasn’t disappeared,” Gause says. There are others who don’t care about the Saudis and are happy to be in confrontation with them—the Qods Force, elements of the Revolutionary Guards who are responsible for trying to support Iranian allies in other parts of the world. They see the Saudis as one of their major enemies.”
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad beginning in 2005, both strained the relationship. The Iraq War, Molavi says, was a defining moment. “That’s when the Saudis began to view Iran as engaged in far too much meddling in Iraq, and Prince Saud Al-Faisal gave a famous speech in 2005 at the Council on Foreign Relations in which he said to the Americans, you guys have handed the entire country over to Iran.” Relations between King Abdullah, whose reign began in 2005, and Ahmadinejad, were poor. “King Abdullah is an old-school leader who believes in honor and loyalty and respect in leader-to-leader relations, and he never felt he got that from Ahmadinejad. He saw him as a charlatan.”
An OIC meeting in Mecca in 2012 characterized the new mood. “There was a particularly bad moment,” Molavi says, “when the king was trying to [present] a new vision for the Muslim world—an industrial renaissance, an economic renaissance—but Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole the headlines because he made ‘wipe Israel off the map’-type remarks.” The Ahmadinejad era, he says, saw the marginalization of the pragmatic and reformist figures who had sought a new relationship, in favor of Revolutionary Guards elements that weren’t keen to develop relations.
Crisis in Syria
Beginning in 2011, the war in Syria put Iran and Saudi Arabia on opposing sides of a catastrophic struggle, with Iran fighting for the survival of President Bashar Al-Assad, and Saudi Arabia pushing for his downfall.
“The [Saudi] view is that the president there and that clique of people ruling with him need to go,” Obaid says. “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 being able to support local Shia communities.” He believes Iran will fail: “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.”
Iran, Molavi says, has supported Assad through soft loans and the provision of oil, and has mobilized Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards.
Saudi Arabia met the crisis with both hesitation and innovation. “The Saudis were a little late to the game in Syria,” Gause says. Saudi Arabia had for some years tried to draw Assad away from his strong alliance with Iran, and failed to do so. When the peaceful demonstrations in Syria turned into a civil war because of the violent reaction of the regime, Gause says, Qatar and Turkey were involved before Saudi Arabia, although the Saudis, too, were strongly involved by the end of 2011. “They saw it as their best chance to roll back Iranian influence in the eastern Arab world.”
The Arab uprisings disoriented the Saudis, Molavi says. “Saudi policy, which has tended to be more cautious, suddenly became much more adventurous.” Prince Bandar bin Sultan, he says, took over Saudi Arabia’s Syria file, argued that if the Shiites of Hezbollah had a militia, [Syrian] Sunnis needed a militia as well. This, strategy, Molavi suggests, is an atypical one for Saudi Arabia. “There have been exceptions, but generally speaking, Saudi Arabia has been a status quo power that has not tried to change the status of other countries. To actually have a stated policy of overthrowing a government, that’s new. And that brought Iran and Saudi Arabia to a new low point.”
Toward a Cold Peace
Relations between the two countries have begun to shift again. “Presidents do matter in Iran, even if they don’t have ultimate power, because they can change perceptions. Foreign ministers matter, too.” Molavi says. “Hassan Rouhani and Javad Zarif, ever since they came into office, have been engaged in a charm offensive aimed at Riyadh.” Although Saudi Arabia resisted overtures at first, he says, Prince Saud Al Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s minister of foreign affairs, has said we would welcome a Zarif visit. (Zarif has yet to visit, giving priority to nuclear talks). Iran and Saudi Arabia, Molavi says, may yet compartmentalize their disputes and put aside foreign battlefields.
The recent ISIS storming of Iraq could force Iran and Saudi Arabia to cooperate to broker a political compromise to end Sunni-Shia conflict, and put a new government in place that would better address legitimate Sunni grievances.
“Saudi Arabia and Iran in a cooperative relationship could do extraordinary things,” Molavi says. “This relationship has been equally traumatic for both sides.” But his prediction is modest: “We could see Iran and Saudi Arabia going back to the ‘89-’97 era,” he says. “We could see the way paved for a cold peace.”
Quotations from Nawaf Obaid have been taken from an interview that can be read in full here.