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Iranian-Saudi Rapprochement: Searching for Substance Amid Symbolism

The recent announcement that Iran and Saudi Arabia would restore their bilateral diplomatic relations has been welcomed by many countries, including the United States, despite the fact that China played an important role in brokering the deal. The restoration of ties between the two largest countries in the Gulf ought to signal a new direction for an antagonistic relationship that has defined the Gulf’s geopolitical environment for many years. Nevertheless, serious fundamental differences remain between Tehran and Riyadh, and it is unclear how long warm handshakes and reopened embassies can mask the tensions that will continue to simmer underneath.

Grievances Run the Gamut

Iranian-Saudi relations have fluctuated since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Saudi Arabia felt threatened by the new Islamic Republic. Not only did Tehran stoke discontent among the Shi’a minority in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich eastern areas, but worries quickly spread within the Kingdom that the Islamic Revolution could serve as a model for Sunni extremists to overthrow the monarchy—a fear that was seemingly validated after the seizure of the Grand Mosque, the holiest site in Islam, by a group of Saudi fanatics later in the year. It did not help matters that during his exile in Iraq, the leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, proclaimed that monarchy was incompatible with Islam.

After Khomeini died in 1989, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia improved somewhat, but never fully recovered. Both countries saw themselves as the rightful leader of the Islamic world, leading them to support proxies and clients throughout the Gulf region and beyond. In the aftermath of the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran was able to expand its influence across the border with its war-torn neighbor. This greatly alarmed the Saudis, who saw a Shi’a-led Iraq as inimical to their interests. It was only after significant prodding by the United States and other countries that Saudi Arabia sent an ambassador to Baghdad in 2015.

Events in 2015 and 2016 proved the final straw for long-teetering Iran-Saudi Arabia ties. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia assembled a coalition of Sunni Muslim states and launched Operation Decisive Storm, its military intervention against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. This conflict—now halted by a tenuous ceasefire—soured bilateral relations between Riyadh and Tehran. But it was the Saudi government’s execution of Nimr al-Nimr, an influential Shi’a cleric who had called for democratic reforms and criticized the royal family, in early 2016 that precipitated a mob in Tehran—with Iranian police standing by—to torch the Saudi Embassy. Diplomatic ties between the Gulf’s most powerful states were immediately severed.


Naturally, the two sides’ theological differences pervaded their mutual antagonism. In 2017, then-Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammad bin Salman denigrated Shia beliefs including the return of the 12th Imam from occultation; in 2016, the Iran’s then-foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, blamed the austere Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam, which is widely practiced in Saudi Arabia, as a major cause of extremism and violence in the region. The Saudis also blamed Iran for missile strikes on its oil facilities, while Iran blamed the Saudis for the deaths of Yemeni civilians, including the country’s Shi’a population, and for encouraging neighboring states like Bahrain to continue their crackdown on Shi’a activists.

Turning the Page

In spite of this broader hostility, both Iran and Saudi Arabia over the past few years have come to regard rapprochement as in line with their foreign policy interests. The two parties have met regularly in Baghdad—an erstwhile ideological battleground rehabilitated after the rise and fall of the mutually-despised “Islamic State” (ISIS) terror group. From Riyadh’s perspective, easing tensions with Tehran may lead to a weakening of Iranian support for the Houthis and an end to the Yemen conflict, from which the Saudis desperately want to extricate themselves. Moreover, with the United States no longer seen as a reliable security partner—Washington’s sluggish response to the oil facility attacks is a prominent case in point—Riyadh hoped that restoring relations with Tehran would address its vulnerability. From Tehran’s perspective, reestablishing relations with Riyadh would help it break out of regional and international isolation and possibly put pressure on Western countries to ease sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

But even if full diplomatic ties are restored in a couple of months, Iran and Saudi Arabia still have a long way to go before their relationship becomes truly normal, as ongoing differences and geopolitical hazards may converge to dash bilateral progress once again. Riyadh sees Iran’s nuclear program, as well as its development of missiles and drones, as serious security threats. If Saudi Arabia continues to believe that Iran holds sway over the Kingdom’s Shi’a population, it will blame Iran if Saudi Shi’as—who have long faced discrimination—stage protests again. Moreover, Yemen remains a litmus test for Saudi-Iranian relations; if the Houthis continue to spurn Saudi proposals for a peace deal, Riyadh will blame Tehran for failing to cooperate, even though Iran might lack the leverage to dictate how the Houthis act in negotiations with Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, Iran will not want to scale back its support for various Shia groups operating throughout the Arab world, such as the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq or Hezbollah in Lebanon, because they give Tehran significant regional power. Such continued Saudi antagonisms against militant Shia groups would undoubtedly adversely impact Saudi-Iranian relations.

As for Washington, the restoration of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been welcomed as a way to ease tensions between these two countries, which would allow the United States to better focus its efforts on Asia, where the China threat looms large. Although China has won a diplomatic victory of sorts for its mediatory role in brokering the Iranian and Saudi rapprochement, the U.S. retains significant influence in the Middle East region, as recent visits by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other U.S. officials attest. In the coming years, the U.S. will remain a key player in the region, but it hopes that it can at least shift some military assets from the Middle East to Asia if regional tensions, like those between Iran and Saudi Arabia, truly abate.

Ironically, it was the Saudis who were angered in 2016 when then-President Barack Obama stated in an interview that Riyadh and Tehran must agree to “share the neighborhood.” The restoration of relations between these two countries may eventually come to that, though the process is likely to be protracted, and any number of events could derail it.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Professor Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, and a Senior Professorial Lecturer at American University where he teaches courses on U.S. foreign policy. Professor Aftandilian is also an adjunct faculty member at Boston University and George Mason University, teaching courses on Middle East politics. Previously, he worked for the U.S. government for over 20 years in such capacities as Professional Staff Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Middle East Analyst at the U.S. Department of State. He holds B.A. in History from Dartmouth College, M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from University of Chicago, and M.Sc. in International Relations from London School of Economics.

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