Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
- In recent weeks, there have been several rounds of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia in an attempt to temper tense relations. However, both countries claim regional Islamic hegemony and are on opposite sides of the historic Shiite-Sunni divide.
- Iran, which considers itself a defender of the Shiites, is very sensitive to the situation of Shiites in the oil-rich Eastern Province of the Saudi kingdom and assists them in various military and political ways. For its part, Saudi Arabia surreptitiously supports Sunni organizations inside Iran, mostly in Khuzestan province and on Iran’s eastern border.
- Tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in the Muslim world cannot be bridged, at least not in the coming years.
- From time to time, Iran and Saudi Arabia try to present a semblance of “business as usual” and attempt to improve relations between them, but beneath the surface, the historical factors intensified by current developments in the Middle East reflect the depth of the gaping religious chasm between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The two countries are on a permanent collision course.
In recent weeks, there have been several rounds of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia in an attempt to temper tense relations. While Saudi Arabia is cautious about the chances of successful negotiations, Iran is showing a more optimistic approach and a willingness to echo talks taking place mainly in Iraq, for the first time since Iranian President Raisi took office.
Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, revealed on October 3, 2021, that “the fourth round of talks took place” on September 21 in Iraq, and although the discussions “remain in the preliminary phase,” he hopes they will lay the groundwork for further clarification of issues between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Saudi King Salman confirmed at the end of September that Iran and Saudi Arabia were in talks, but that any “progress depended on respecting sovereignty, not meddling in internal issues, and ending support for terrorist organizations and militias”. This was a strong hint at Iran’s continued support for the Houthis in Yemen and Hizbullah-Hijaz. At the same time, the Saudi foreign minister stressed that the kingdom supports the continued international effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.1
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, for his part, noted that Iran and Saudi Arabia had contacts on a “regular basis,” and the recent talks in Baghdad focused on bilateral relations between the two countries which had achieved “good progress” on regional issues. Khatibzadeh rejected reports that Saudi Arabia would reopen its embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad, which closed in January 2016 after the execution of Shiite Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia and the assault of Iranian mobs on Saudi diplomatic missions in response.2 An Iraqi diplomatic official familiar with the details of the agreement said that “the last round of talks between Tehran and Riyadh took place inside Baghdad International Airport” and that the atmosphere was “very positive.” He said that Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, and Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi government’s foreign affairs adviser, were present at the last meeting.
Iranian media channels quoted Arab media outlets, primarily Iraqi,3 stressing progress and agreements achieved. The Iranian news agency ISNA quoted the Arab Post site as saying that Saudi Arabia had agreed, following a demand by Iran, to end its support for organizations opposed to Iran, especially the Sunni Jaish al-Adel, which is operating against the Iranian regime in Sistan and Balochistan province, and Arab opposition groups in Khuzestan Province. Moreover, according to the Arab Post, Iran asked Saudi Arabia not to exert security pressure on the Shiite minority in the east of the kingdom and to allow them to visit the holy city of Mashhad in Iran.
The Iranians also suggested that Saudi Arabia invest in Iraq and Syria, pave an international road between Mashhad and Mecca that would pass through Karbala, and even reopen its embassy in Tehran.
Another substantial issue reportedly discussed during the talks was the continuation of the war in Yemen and the Iranian-backed Houthi Ansar Allah movement that leads the war against the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and is responsible for missiles and drone fire at Saudi territory. The parties agreed that a political solution should be reached in the presence and supervision of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the dispute between the two sides over this issue is still very intense on the ground. Shortly after the fourth round of talks, Ali Fadavi, deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, said on September 24, 2021, “Those who started the war in Yemen (i.e., Saudi Arabia) are now begging us now to save them from the crisis.”
Meanwhile, on October 6, 2021, Hans Grunberg, the UN’s new special envoy for Yemen, held talks with the internationally recognized government in Aden on ways to end the civil war. It seems that Saudi Arabia is signaling that it is willing to give international peace efforts a chance, given the U.S. political efforts to end the war. It has taken a heavy toll and loss of prestige following ongoing Houthi drone and missile attacks on strategic civilian and oil infrastructure in the kingdom and recent Houthi territorial gains in Marib, Yemen. On October 9, Houthi rebels fired an explosive drone that wounded ten people at the King Abdullah Airport in Jezan.4
Several Iranian officials, who wished to remain anonymous, told ISNA that Saudi security delegations had come to Iran to renovate the Saudi embassy in Tehran in order to reopen the embassy together with the Saudi consulate in Mashhad. They came to Saudi Arabia to arrange the reopening of the Iranian embassy in Riyadh and the consulate in Jeddah.
According to ISNA, several Iranian sources also claimed that the sensitive negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia were transferred from the Iranian Foreign Ministry to the Supreme National Security Council. The change may reflect the tensions between Shamkhani’s Supreme National Security Council and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard over the Foreign Ministry’s additional authority. It was granted under the leadership of the influential Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who enjoys the Supreme Leader’s and the IRGC’s full confidence. Upon taking office, Abdollahian vowed that the Foreign Ministry would work on the ground to bring Iran proxies – Shiite militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Palestinian terror groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (the Resistance Front) – closer together as part of its national defense strategy, which sees the Front as Iran’s first line of defense and a vital component in deterring its enemies throughout the region.
The Foreign Minister said during his meetings in Beirut on October 8, 2021, that “the talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia are on the right track,” and the cooperation and consultations should be continued to implement the agreements reached so far and that foreign officials should be stopped5 from interfering in the region. During a meeting with the Speaker of Lebanon’s Parliament, Nabih Berry, head of the Lebanese Amal movement, the two stressed the need for continued contacts with Saudi Arabia. The Iranian Foreign Minister rejected accusations that Iran had severed diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, saying that Riyadh decided to sever ties and that the two countries played a central role in maintaining the region’s security.
Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have known ups and downs. Both countries claim regional Islamic hegemony and are on opposite sides of the historic Shiite-Sunni divide. Recently, Saudi Arabia’s concern has increased because of the growing shadow of Iran’s progress in its nuclear program and the lowering of the U.S. posture in the region, exemplified by the recent removal of Patriot missiles and THAAD air-defense systems from Saudi Arabia, the possibility of a U.S.-Iran mutual return to a renewed JCPOA, and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. To express its growing dissatisfaction with U.S. Middle East policy, Saudi Arabia signed a military agreement with Russia in August 2021, during a meeting in Moscow between Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu.6
Iran, which considers itself a defender of the Shiites, in particular, and Muslims, in general, is very sensitive to the situation of Shiites in the oil-rich Eastern Province of the Saudi kingdom and assists them in various military and political ways. For its part, Saudi Arabia surreptitiously supports Sunni organizations inside Iran, mostly in Khuzestan province and on Iran’s eastern border.
The 2016 Saudi beheading of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, one of the kingdom’s most senior Shiite religious leaders and the leader of the Shiite protests following the Arab Spring, brought a new height to the historical tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. With Iranian support, the sheikh criticized the Saudi royal court (“liberate Palestine, not Bahrain”) and expressed support for Iran. These demands were the basis for his death sentence served in 2014. He was eventually executed along with 46 other people charged with involvement in terrorism.
Following the execution and the harsh criticism against Saudi Arabia led by the Iranian Leader, an Iranian mob broke into the Saudi Embassy compound in Tehran and set it on fire after taking down the kingdom’s flag. Saudi Arabia, for its part, was quick to announce its severing of diplomatic ties with Iran. Iran was quick to change the name of the street where the Saudi Embassy was located (Boustan Street). In the past, Iran also renamed the street where the Egyptian embassy was located to “Khaled al-Islambuli Street,” in honor of the man who murdered President Sadat; it even issued a stamp in his memory.
Saudi Arabia also severed relations with Iran in 1988 (relations resumed after the 1991 Gulf War) and accused it of subversion in its territory and among the Persian Gulf countries. In July 1987, Saudi security forces clashed with Iranian pilgrims during an “infidel condemnation” ceremony performed by Iranian pilgrims during the Hajj, which has since been a source of tension between the two countries. During the riots, hundreds of Iranian pilgrims and several members of the Saudi security forces were killed. (Iran avenged their deaths in a series of attacks against Saudi diplomats abroad.) Dozens more pilgrims died in the panic and stampede that erupted. In September 2015, hundreds of pilgrims were killed again in Saudi Arabia, and Iran accused the kingdom of “mismanagement that led to the disaster” and the deaths of more than 40 Iranian pilgrims.
After surviving the Trump administration’s sanctions regime, Shiite Iran has undertaken a regional resurgence, advanced its nuclear program, and is even on the verge of “accepting” the United States back into the nuclear deal on its terms (removing all the sanctions). Iran is anchoring its grip on countries bordering Saudi Arabia, mainly Yemen and Iraq, and in Lebanon, where Saudi Arabia has influence. For its part, Sunni Saudi Arabia seeks to stabilize the crumbling post-Arab Spring region to ensure its own internal stability and standing in the Muslim world, while following with great concern the Shia revival to the east (Iran, Iraq) and south (Yemen), as well as the waning of U.S. interest and influence in the region.
Tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in the Muslim world cannot be bridged, at least not in the coming years, and they are also exacerbated in the face of the dramatic developments that characterize the Middle East, which is in the process of profound change. These are expressed both within the political boundaries once designed by the colonial powers that are now being reshaped, in demographic changes involving ethnic minorities, refugees, and a return to tribal elements, and in geostrategic changes, such as reduced American involvement in the Middle East, the U.S.withdrawal from Afghanistan, and increased Russian involvement.
From time to time, Iran and Saudi Arabia try to present a semblance of “business as usual” and attempt to improve relations between them, but beneath the surface, the historical factors intensified by current developments in the Middle East reflect the depth of the gaping religious chasm between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The two countries are on a permanent collision course, for now in the secondary arenas (Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon, Iraq, and Pakistan), but in the future, this trend could also lead to a head-on collision.
Saudi-Iranian relations, in particular, and the Arab world’s relations with Shiite Iran, in general, will continue to be characterized by the religious division between Sunnis and Shiites, which is the dominant factor that has defined these relations for centuries. Within this frame, the execution of a senior Shiite official in Saudi Arabia, the Israeli-Arab conflict, and peace agreements between Israel and the Gulf states will also affect the various arenas throughout the Middle East where Iran will try to apply its influence – in Syria and Lebanon through Hizbullah, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere in the Arab world and beyond, where there are Shiite Muslim populations or a Muslim population receptive to Iranian aid and propaganda.
Saudi Arabia, which has its back against the wall, and given the blunt American about-face, will continue to try to be a counterweight in Syria and Lebanon with money, and in the Persian Gulf, sometimes by military involvement (deployment of Gulf forces to defend Bahrain during the Arab Spring), and to deal with the growing Iranian-Shiite threat. It will continue as well in the continuing struggle against Iran in its backyards – Iraq and Yemen.
Iran will continue to use its advantage over Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arab world through its nuclear program and its geostrategic power, which has recently gained Western recognition, or, in simpler terms, a looming Shiite bomb. In doing so, Iran will succeed, from its perspective, to correct a historic injustice – since the beginning of Islam – of a disparaging and condescending attitude by Sunnis to the Shi’ites. Iran seeks to define and even present a suitable Shiite Islamic alternative to compete with the West and with Israel that was “planted” in the heart of the Middle East region, where Arab nationalism has failed repeatedly. If Iran completes its nuclear program and secures a bomb, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries will have to settle for an American nuclear umbrella (despite recent doubts and concerns raised by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states about the depth of the American commitment to the kingdom) or a Pakistani guardianship (“the first Sunni Islamic bomb”), or may even choose to conduct their own nuclear program and start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
In March 2009, Iranian President Ahmadinejad visited Saudi Arabia. More than contributing to calming tensions, the 24-hour visit exposed the deep divisions surrounding their relationship. For now, despite Iran’s open satisfaction with the progress of relations stemming from Tehran’s sense of security after recent developments in its nuclear program and its regional and international status, and Saudi caution, given the uncertainty in its relations with the United States, a genuine Saudi-Iranian reconciliation does not seem to be on the table.
* * *
1 https://tinyurl.com/2sc8ed68; https://aawsat.com/home/article/3224856/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D8%B9%D9%88%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%A9-4-%D8%AC%D9%88%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%AD%D8%A7%D8%AF%D8%AB%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA%D9%83%D8%B4%D8%A7%D9%81%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%85%D8%B9-%D8%A5%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86
2 https://tinyurl.com/jk7vyjwe; https://www.irna.ir/news/84493399/%D8%AE%D8%B7%DB%8C%D8%A8-%D8%B2%D8%A7%D8%AF%D9%87-%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%A8%D8%B7-%D8%AE%D9%88%D8%A8%DB%8C-%D8%A8%D8%A7-%D8%A8%D8%A7%DA%A9%D9%88-%D9%88-%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B1%DB%8C%D9%85
4 https://tinyurl.com/tasnimnews24sep; https://www.tasnimnews.com/fa/news/1400/07/02/2577911/%D8%B3%D8%B1%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D9%81%D8%AF%D9%88%DB%8C-%D8%A2%D9%85%D8%B1%DB%8C%DA%A9%D8%A7-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D9%85%D9%88%D8%B6%D8%B9-%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%81%D8%B9%D8%A7%D9%84-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%A8%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%82%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%A8-%D9%82%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%B3-%D8%B9%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%AC%D9%86%DA%AF-%DB%8C%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%A8%D9%87-%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%AE%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%AC-%D8%A7%D8%B2-%D8%A8%D8%AD%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86