Iran-Saudi Relations*

By Rachel Ehrenfeld
Sunday, January 24th, 2016 @ 8:53PM

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Left: Iranian anti-Saudi cartoon, Fars News, January 4, 2016 —

Secretary Kerry’s Sunday visit to Riyadh to diffuse the tension between the Saudis and Iran tried reassuring the Saudis that “Nothing has changed because we worked to eliminate a nuclear weapon with a country in the region.” But that has done little to lessen the Saudi Kingdom’s anxiety regarding Iran’s new status in the region and their resentment of the Obama administration for strengthening their sworn enemy, Iran.

On the same day, Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir told reporters that Iran has to stop its hostilities against the Arabs.  It should “change its 35 years old policies meddling in their Arab neighbors’ internal affairs, sowing sectarian strife and backing terrorism as confirmed by numerous strong evidence.” Only then “the path will be open to building better relations with its neighbors,”

Some watchers of the growing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia predict further escalation. But most are venturing to predict no open war,  

According to the ICIT, Iran’s encouragement of “Shi’ite separatism and its relentless subversive activities in neighbouring countries contributed to the worsening of its relations with the Sunni Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, which also seeks regional hegemony. Ever present are the age-old Sunni-Shi’ite religious rift, the ethnic-cultural conflict (Arab vs. Persian). But the nuclear agreement between Iran and the West and the lifting of the sanctions on Iran, are making the Gulf States more fearful of Iran’s growing power. In addition,  the significant changes in the Saudi leadership resulted in transforming Saudi Arabian regional policy from passive to active, and clearly anti-Iranian.

Following of the dramatic deterioration of Saudi Arabia-Iran relations, other Arab-Muslim countries cut off diplomatic relations with Iran, including Bahrain, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti and the Comoro Islands. The UAE lowered the status of its relations with Iran, and the governments of Qatar and Kuwait recalled their ambassadors for consultation. Jordan joined the protest against Iran retained diplomatic relations.

The decision of several Arab countries to follow Riyadh was met with fierce criticism in Iran, and calls were heard to reconsider its relations with the Arab world. Editorials in the Iranian media complained that Iran’s generous aid to the Arab states had been repaid with hostility and betrayal. It was up to Iran, they said, to exploit regional circumstances and the nuclear agreement with the West to distance itself from the Arab world. So far the senior Iranian leadership has apparently not responded to the suggestion.

While relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been deteriorating, apparently, neither country feels it would be in its best interests to turn the crisis into a direct military confrontation, especially since both face serious challenges internally, and externally in the fighting in Syria and Yemen.

If Iran does, in fact, decide to escalate the confrontation with Saudi Arabia, it may  choose  four possible avenues of action:

1)      Using proxies: Iran may decide to increase support for the forces loyal to it in Syria and Yemen, where both it and Saudi Arabia are fighting through proxies. In the fighting in Syria Iran supports Hezbollah and Shi’ite fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, who fight alongside the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) against the rebel organizations (some of which are supported by Saudi Arabia). In Yemen, Iran supports the Shi’ite Houthi rebels fighting the central government, which is supported by Saudi Arabia.

2)      Intensifying efforts to subvert the Shi’ite minority in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province: After the Islamic Revolution, Iran worked to export the revolution to Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, where the country’s Shi’ite minority is centered. The Shi’ites make of about 10% of the Saudi Arabia population and throughout modern history have suffered from discrimination. The eastern province is considered highly sensitive because it is the region with the greatest concentration of oil fields. Between 1979 and 1981 the Shi’ites there rioted and were supported, according to Saudi claims, by Iran. At the end of the 1980s, especially after the death of Khomeini in 1981, Iran sought to improve its relations with Saudi Arabia and to a great extent abandoned its efforts to encourage Shi’ite separatism. However, it continued supporting the Shi’ite demands for equal rights, [ublic protests and subversive activities, which were led by Sheikh al-Nimr who was beheaded by the Saudis on January 2, 2016. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei strongly condemned the execution and threatened the Saudis with “divine retribution” against the heads of the regime

3)      Terrorist activity in Saudi Arabia and abroad: During the past few years, Iran has tried a number of times to assassinate Saudi Arabian officials abroad. In October 2011, the United States revealed it had prevented an Iranian attempt to assassinate Adel al-Jabeir, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington, currently the Saudi foreign minister. Participants in the plot were a man with dual Iranian-American citizenship, and senior officers in the IRGC’s Qods Force, including its commander, Qasem Soleimani. In May 2011, the Qods Force was apparently also involved in the assassination of Hassan al-Hatani, the head of security for the Saudi Arabian legation in Karachi, Pakistan. According to Saudi and American sources, the Qods Force or its proxies were behind the assassination, because the assassin was a member of a local Shi’ite separatist group which had close ties to the Qods Force (Washington Post, October 13, 2011).

4)      Cyberterrorism: On August 15, 2012, Iranian hackers attacked the Saudi oil company Aramco. The cyber attack affected 30,000 workstations and about 2,000 servers. According to private Western Internet security experts, Iran was behind the attack (Haaretz, September 11, 2012).

Whether or not Iran and Saudi Arabia resolve the current crisis, it is safe to assume that their history, religious-cultural-ideological differences, conflicting interests and power struggle for regional hegemony will, in the foreseeable future, prevent a significant improvement in their relations.”

* For the full report Crisis in Iran-Saudi Arabia Relations see ITIC

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