Understanding the Saudi-Iranian Cold War: A Road Map

Image by Iqbal Osman1

Image by Iqbal Osman1

The execution of a renowned Arab Shi’a cleric, Sheikh Nimr, just after the New Year has set long-standing rivals Iran and Saudi-Arabia on a new collision course. Radical elements in Iran attacked the Saudi diplomatic compound in the country prompting Riyadh to sever its relations with Tehran. While the Iranian government condemned the attacks, immediately dismissing some officials linked to the incident, it seems that Riyadh has decided on a course of escalation, urging its allies to downgrade relations with Tehran. At this point the much needed dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia to find a solution to the civil war in Syria seems more remote than ever. With the January 25th Syria peace-talks likely to be delayed, concrete measures need to be taken to get the two rivals to the negotiating table. Understanding the origins of the deep-seated Saudi-Iranian rivalry is essential, both to make sense of current developments and to recognize where a possible resolution to this conflict may come from.

Regional Rivalry: A Quest for Hegemony

In 1979 Iran became an Islamic Republic after the revolution, led by Imam Khomeini, who successfully overthrew the Western-oriented monarchy. During the reign of Shah Pahlavi, Iran and Saudi Arabia constituted the Nixon administration’s “Twin Pillar Policy” in the Middle East, promoting U.S. interests in the region and allowing both countries to acquire the latest military technologies. Khomeini’s Islamic ideology succeeded in creating a new type of government guided by a religious doctrine. He called for Muslims worldwide to follow in Iran’s footsteps and sought to export the revolution to countries near and far. Iran’s ideological transformation posed a serious threat to the region as Khomeini questioned the overall legitimacy of the Saudis’ mode of Islamic governance. In his view, the newly established Islamic Republic, ruled by a Vali-ye Faqih (Guardian Jurist), was the most appropriate model of an Islamic political system. Meanwhile, in the Eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution had inspired the Shi’a minority to organize their first uprising demanding equal rights, further heightening the fears of the Saudi Arabian government.

Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 provided Riyadh a means of militarily countering the Islamic Republic. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies financially supported Baghdad, hoping that the Iran-Iraq war would eventually extinguish Iran’s ambition of becoming a regional hegemon. In 1981, with the war still in its early stages, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was founded by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies to further curb Iran’s power in the region. As the eight-year war progressed and the zeal for exporting the revolution started to wane, Khomeini urged Iranian pilgrims to maintain peace, especially during the Hajj in Mecca. This was contrary to Khomeini’s message at the beginning of the revolution, in which he specifically instructed his followers to spread the revolution. Nevertheless, the pilgrims’ protests during the Hajj continued, eventually leading to a deadly clash in 1987 when 450 Iranians were killed. Khomeini’s response was harsh accusing Saudi Arabia of heresy and simultaneously calling for the downfall of the House of Saud, even as angry mobs in Tehran attacked the Saudi embassy. It was at this point that Iran decided to formally support the Saudi Shi’a opposition group, Hezbollah al-Hijaz in which Sheikh Nimr played an important role. Saudi Arabia consequently cut off ties with Iran in 1988 and Iran boycotted the Hajj pilgrimage for a couple of years as Riyadh drastically reduced the number of visas issued for the pilgrims. The two nations only re-established ties in 1991 following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which both countries saw as a threat, although Tehran remained neutral during Desert Storm.

After Khomeini’s death in 1989, Iranian president Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani initiated a strategy of rapprochement and reconciliation with Saudi Arabia. Rafsanjani also attempted to restore relations with the United States during his presidency but the Clinton administration responded by sanctioning Iran through the Iran Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) in 1996. Tehran was more successful in rebuilding its ties in the Middle East, making way for the first direct talks in 1997 between Prince Abdullah and Rafsanjani in Islamabad. In the same year, Prince Abdullah attended the eighth Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) summit in Tehran, meeting with the then newly elected Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami on the side. Abdullah was the highest ranking Saudi official to visit Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Khatami, for his part, introduced various reforms, and advocated the ‘good neighbour policy’ aimed at strengthening the ties with the Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the reformist president proposed a dialogue among civilizations at the UN in 1998, which was welcomed more enthusiastically by Washington. This prompted Madeleine Albright to make an apology in March 2000 admitting U.S. involvement in the 1953 coup that overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh.[1]

By 2001, Iran had made significant headway, with Tehran and Riyadh reaching agreement in various areas such as security, terrorism and immigration. However, the consequences of the disclosure of Iran’s nuclear program, followed by the country’s inclusion in George W. Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ in 2002, and the fall of Saddam in 2003, undermined the efforts to establish a trusting relationship between Tehran and Riyadh. Iran’s influence in Baghdad grew as Shiites rose to power in Iraq, while Iran’s support of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon increased. When King Abdullah ascended the throne and Ahmadinejad became president in 2006, the relationship became more cordial, despite both the rising popularity of the Iranian president in the Arab world for championing the Arab cause in Palestine, and his fiery rhetoric against the United States. Ahmadinejad’s visit to Riyadh in 2007, when he sat next to the King in welcoming the delegations for the 2012 OIC summit which was being held there, was a distinct high point in relations between the two nations.

However, the Arab uprisings which followed Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009, negatively impacted the blossoming relations as political uncertainty mounted in many of the Arab countries that Riyadh counted as its allies. Further complicating matters, several internal Shi’a protests were held in 2011 and 2012 within the Kingdom, once again threatening the legitimacy of the ruling Saudi monarchy. It was the developing civil war in Syria, however, which was to bring relations between the regional titans to their current low ebb. As the Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, continued their efforts in backing the opposition with the aim of eliminating the Assad regime, Iran has fought relentlessly to turn the tide in Assad’s favour.

Two key developments in 2015 were to cause a further worsening of relations between the two states. The first was King Salman’s creation of an alliance to contain Iran, one strand of which is the establishment of a purely Arab coalition against DAESH in Syria. King Salman’s approach to Iran has been very different from the previous King as he regards Iran to be a menace and a hindrance to Saudi interests. The second development was Iran’s agreement with the West in July over its nuclear program aimed at ending the sanctions and Iran’s isolation. Further intensifying the situation was the death of 464 Iranian pilgrims during a stampede at the Hajj in September, prompting the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei to issue harsh statements against Saudi Arabia.

However, it was the attacks on the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran and the consulate in Mashhad a few months later that drove Riyadh to recall its ambassador from Iran. The attacks were carried out by the radical elements in Iran as a response to the execution of Sheikh Nimr. Nevertheless, the Iranian government has condemned the attacks on the Saudi diplomatic sites and dismissed officials that were thought to be involved in an effort to de-escalate the situation. The Saudis, however, do not seem convinced by Iranian motives. Saudi Arabia’s allies in the region such as Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have followed Riyadh in downgrading their diplomatic ties with Iran. While the current situation seems to be a repetition of the events in 1987-1988, (with Iran again apparently considering a boycott of the Hajj pilgrimage), this time around the stakes in the Saudi Iranian rivalry are much higher for both countries.

Leading the Ummah (Islamic Community)

Religious sectarianism is perhaps the most prominent feature of the rivalry between Shi’a Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Iran’s official state religion since the 16th century, Shi’ism, is a sect of Islam that has been at odds with the Sunnism that predominates in most of the Muslim world. Traditionally Shi’ism has been apolitical but Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 changed that, giving this branch of Islam a distinctly political orientation, and making it a contender for the ideal Islamic political system. This strategy, initiated by Imam Khomeini, made Iran a viable candidate to lead the Ummah in the contest of pan-Islamism while also bringing the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy to do likewise into question. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran claim that their respective governments act in accordance with God’s will, placing sovereignty in the hands of God, effectively turning the sectarian strife into a competition about the right form of Islamic governance and political system. The establishment of the Velayat-e Faqih (Islamic Government), led by the Vali-ye Faqih (Guardian Jurist) in Iran, which replaced the Shah, was promoted as the proper alternative to the monarchical system of the Gulf States, effectively threatening their legitimacy.[2] Facing a serious challenge, it is logical for Riyadh to perceive Iran’s hegemonic ambition to be driven by Shi’a expansion as it is often expected that ‘birds of the same feather flock together’.[3] Thus, scholars and political leaders across the Gulf have expressed the threat of a ‘Shi’a revival’ or a ‘Shi’a crescent’ as Iran has bolstered its influence in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.[4]

The Black Gold

Although oil prices have dropped sharply since last year, the fact that oil resources are dwindling remains a reality. As rentier states, Saudi Arabia and Iran heavily rely on oil sales to run their economies and access to this precious natural resource is essential for their interests until an alternative source of income is established. The religious sectarian tension has a significant impact on this aspect of the rivalry as most of the fossil fuel is located in areas dominated by a Shi’a population in the Middle East such as Iran, Iraq and Bahrain. Even in Saudi Arabia, the oil lies beneath the Eastern provinces, which are also predominantly populated by Shi’a Saudi’s. This is likely an aspect in the calculation of Riyadh in militarily supporting the Sunni government in Bahrain during the uprising in 2011 as the country’s population largely consists of Shi’a Muslims. If the Sunni government is overthrown, it is very likely that a Shi’a government will take its place – a scenario that the House of Saud clearly wants to avoid after witnessing what had happened in post-Saddam Iraq. If such a scenario were to unfold, the Shi’a minority in the Gulf will control the lion’s share of the oil reserves.

US patronage

The role of the United States in the region is perhaps the single most significant feature of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry. Much to the delight of Riyadh, Iran severed its relations with the United States in 1979, which, coupled with the hostage-taking at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, and generally bellicose rhetoric from the regime, was to have an adverse impact on U.S.-Iranian relations for years. These developments further strengthened Washington’s relationship with the Saudis, and in the years since, the United States had stood squarely behind its Arab ally, providing Riyadh with a certain amount of security in the region. However, the rapprochement between Iran and the United States, signified by the July 2015 agreement, together with the U.S. mismanagement of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, have conspired to dent U.S. credibility in the eyes of Riyadh. Therefore, it is only logical for the Saudis to be worried about the long-term developments of this rapprochement, given their long-standing assessment of Iran’s ambitions.

Saudi Arabia was well aware that the execution of Sheikh Nimr was going to upset Iran’s hardliners. The question, then, is whether the House of Saud has been so overwhelmed by Iran’s diplomatic success with the nuclear agreement that they deliberately proceeded with the execution as a means of polarizing the region in the Saudis’ favour? Is the idea of an Iran that is open to the West so frightening? From the perspective of Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, Riyadh ‘is panicking’ and, seeking to reassure the Saudis, noted that ‘there is no reason to panic our friends’ and that Iran is ready to talk. One thing is certain though: since King Salman and the Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, took office, Riyadh’s stance towards Iran had been much harsher. It won’t be an easy task for the moderate President Rouhani to maintain peaceful relations with Riyadh while keeping the radical elements in Iran at bay. If there is to be a reversal of the current breakdown in relations, it is most likely to come through a diplomatic intervention by the U.S. and other Western countries. Nevertheless, as long as Saudi Arabia perceives Iran as a mischief-maker in the region, re-instilling trust into Saudi-Iranian relations will be difficult.

Image courtesy of Iqbal Osman1

[1] Abright stated in her speech: “In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular Prime Minister, Mohammed Massadegh. The Eisenhower Administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons; but the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development.” Albright 2000, available from: http://fas.org/news/iran/2000/000317.htm

[2] The position of the Vali-ye Faqih is conceived to be quite similar to that of the Pope in the Roman Catholic tradition.

[3] Stephen Walt discusses this phenomenon in his article “Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power” in International Security, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Spring, 1985), pp. 3-43

[4] An example is Vali Nasr book ‘The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future’ (2006).





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About Laleh Gomari-Luksch

Laleh Gomari-Luksch is a Friedrich-Ebert Foundation scholar researching Iranian foreign policy at the University of St. Andrews in the UK and the University of Tübingen in Germany. She holds a Masters degree in Peace Research and International Politics from the University of Tübingen and a Bachelors degree in International Studies major in European Studies from De La Salle University Manila, Philippines. Her co-authored publication entitled ‘An Eye for An Eye: Bargaining Theory, Mistrust and the Iranian Nuclear Crisis’ (2014), is to be found in Iran, die Bombe und das Streben nach Sicherheit (Iran, the Bomb and the Pursuit of Security) published by NOMOS.

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