A Widening Gulf: Impediments to Saudi Rapprochement with Iran

Despite reports to the contrary, Saudi Arabia and Iran are not about to turn a corner in their 35-year-long confrontation. These two oil-producing Middle Eastern heavyweights are diametrically opposed on a host of regional conflicts and the Iraq crisis on both countries’ borders additionally stands to push the two countries further apart.

Leaders in Tehran and Riyadh already seem to be doubling down on their antagonism. “This blood will boil in the hearts of tens of millions of Shia and between the Muslims of the world, and the burden of that for [Saudi] Arabia will be quite heavy.” That’s how the Chief of Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, Major-General Hassan Firoozabadi, recently responded to reports that Saudi Arabia is preparing to execute the Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr who had led protests in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province. Meanwhile, the Saudi King promoted Prince Bandar, the Kingdom’s point-man for backing anti-Shi’ite jihadist groups in the Levant, as his personal advisor and emissary.

As standard bearers for Sunni and Shi’ite Islam, respectively, Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been at each other’s throats. They are in an economic and strategic battle for regional leadership, with theological disputes rooted in the 7th century providing a bloody background.

For decades, Saudi Arabia has had the upper hand. As America’s golden goose, pumping mass quantities of oil into the global economy, Riyadh enjoyed a protected status. But now, the tide may be turning. Iran is trying to cash in on the benefits of its recently extended interim nuclear deal with the world’s leading powers. Gulf leaders are sensitive to these shifting sands. On the one hand, they seek to block Iran’s rise. On the other, these countries are fearful of Iran, and are looking for ways to hedge.

To this end, Saudi Arabia invited Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, to visit in May. The trip never materialized, although Zarif’s deputy indicated that the door was open for a Saudi visit. He also noted that Iran and Saudi Arabia have not discussed the situation in Iraq together, suggesting that the two parties are not currently engaged in substantive talks at all.

Developments in Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite-heavy (and oil-rich) Eastern Province are likely to present a major obstacle to rapprochement. Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency and Press-TV trumpeted a warning by Human Rights Watch that Saudi authorities seem to be infecting mobile phones of Eastern Province residents with surveillance malware. Saudi human rights defenders such as Mikhlif al-Shammari (a Sunni) and Fadhil al-Manasif (a Shi’ite) have recently been given long prison sentences for their advocacy that Saudi Shi’ites should be accorded equal rights. Saudi Arabia’s new terrorism list included the Kingdom’s branch of Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed network responsible for the 1996 Khobar Towers Bombing that killed 19 American servicemen, which has in recent years become active again in the Eastern Province.

Iraq has also become a major impediment to Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. King Abdullah has long refused to work with Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, because he considers Maliki “an Iranian agent.” Presently, thirty thousand Saudi troops have gathered near the Iraqi border to ward off attacks by the terrorist group now known as the Islamic State (formerly ISIS), but the Saudis are undoubtedly pleased to see Maliki’s career in trouble thanks to a Sunni uprising.

Meanwhile, Iran sees Saudi Arabia as posing a direct challenge to its interests in the region. Hojjat-ol-Eslam Ali Saedi, who serves as Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), described Saudi Arabia and Qatar in June as having “opened up another front named Iraq” due their inability to effect outcomes in Syria, where the Gulf Sunni bloc has funded a wide range of bad actors in an attempt to undermine the Iran-backed Assad regime.

When Saudi Arabia and Iran started moving toward dialogue this spring, the expectation was that the Saudis had reconciled themselves to their proxies’ military defeat in Syria. Thus, the two sides would focus on reaching agreements to reduce hostilities in secondary arenas such as Bahrain, Yemen, and Lebanon before negotiating a more difficult ceasefire to extricate them from a bruising proxy battle in Syria. Without question, Iran’s concerted attempt to engage and buy off the Kingdom’s neighbors put added pressure on Riyadh to reach a less-than-ideal modus vivendi.

Now that Iraq is falling to pieces and subject to increasing Iranian encroachments, the Saudis are far less likely to sue for peace with Tehran. Similarly, the Iranians will fall back on blaming Iraq’s terrorist crisis on Riyadh.

In short, although Tehran’s overtures in the Persian Gulf may continue – indeed, in early July Iranian Deputy FM Hossain Amir Abdollahian visited Oman, Kuwait, and the UAE – this campaign is now less likely to succeed at roping in the GCC’s crown jewel, Saudi Arabia, compared to several weeks or months ago.

The enmity runs deep between these two Islamist powers. It is therefore easy for regional upheavals to set Iran and Saudi Arabia on the path to renewed conflict. The Saudis are not about to forget thirty-five years of Iranian efforts to promote terrorism and subversion across the Persian Gulf. Nor are the Iranians inclined to trust Saudi Arabia, which has its own nasty record of sponsoring terror and intolerance toward Shi’a.

As Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding father of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, previously told the world, “if we overlook Saddam, if we forget about the issue of Jerusalem, if we overlook the atrocities of America, we will not put aside the Saudis.”

 

Behnam Ben Taleblu is an Iran Research Analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation.

 

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