by Adnan Tabatabai
Antagonism between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia reached a new peak this year. The wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen—as well as the nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran, and the recent catastrophic stampede in Mina during the Hajj pilgrimage—have caused serious harm to Tehran-Riyadh relations.
The downturn in relations has become so significant that some European countries as well as regional countries like Oman have expressed a willingness to initiate dialogue meetings between Iranian and Saudi officials. During his recent regional visit, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier met decision-makers on both sides and tried to convince them that dialogue indispensable.
As discussed in an earlier LobeLog article, the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president in 2013 raised hopes that bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia would improve. Indeed, Rouhani formed a cabinet with a number of ministers who had been in official posts when the two countries had better relations in the 1990s.
Because of regional developments and the death of Saudi King Abdullah, however, such prospects now look rather grim.
Fostering dialogue between Tehran and Riyadh first requires an understanding of how the conflicting parties perceive each other. During a recent trip to Iran, I had numerous conversations with former and current officials, their advisors, and strategists close to the security establishment, as well as prominent journalists and columnists.
Out of these conversations, five differing (yet non-exclusive) views emerged of Saudi Arabia’s regional policies and its explicit enmity towards Iran.
1) Opposition to nuclear agreement as means to seek compensation
Iran sees Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the nuclear agreement as a political strategy that aims first at derailing or delaying its implementation phase. It is, second, meant to deliver a message to Western allies that Saudi Arabia’s acceptance of the nuclear agreement will come with a “price tag.” According to this argument, Riyadh will seek compensation in military equipment and political support for its regional policies and operations.
Once the implementation phase of the nuclear agreement starts, however, many Iranians believe that Saudi Arabia will soften its position and be more open to dialogue with Tehran.
2) Threat perception and feeling encircled by Iranian proxies
Saudi Arabia perceives Iranian influence, particularly in the bordering countries of Iraq and Yemen, as a threat to its territorial integrity and national interests. Riyadh maintains this perception regardless of the actual capacities, causes, and overall approaches of groups like Hashd al-Shabi or the Badr Brigade in Iraq, and the Houthi movement in Yemen.
Many Iranians say that such views exaggerate Iranian influence on and overestimate Iranian capacities toward those groups—especially the Houthis. Riyadh, they believe, seeks to neutralize any threats on its southern border. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia will only be willing to enter better relations with Iran if it secures a strong strategic win in Yemen.
3) Bolstering link with clerical establishment
Many in Iran believe that Saudi Arabia is facing a worsening legitimacy crisis. This crisis has become more serious after the events of the so-called Arab Spring, and the rise of Islamist movements such as Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which showed strong support for electoral processes and found their way to power through the ballot box (albeit only temporarily).
Iranians perceive the Saudi kingdom to be very concerned about similar developments on its domestic scene. The only way to compensate for the lack of bottom-up legitimacy is a strengthened link between the royal leadership and the influential clergy. Such a link, however, can only be established sustainably if Saudi politics are explicitly anti-Shia. Thus, Saudi Arabia’s rhetoric is much more anti-Shia than Iran’s rhetoric has ever been anti-Sunni.
This sectarian rhetoric may, however, become less inflammatory when the ruling class of the kingdom is less dependent on the ideological backing of its clerical establishment.
4) Turning regional uprisings into sectarian conflicts
Many Iranians believe that the above-mentioned legitimacy crisis explains Saudi Arabia’s reactions to the uprisings and people movements in the past years – be it in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, or Yemen. Saudi Arabia has been accused of seeking to turn civil rights movements with rather nationalistic demands into religious and sectarian conflicts by playing different groups against each other.
Playing the sectarian card also involves accusing Iran of instigating social conflicts—particularly in Bahrain and Yemen. Riyadh has thus sought to discredit civil rights activists as agents of the Islamic Republic.
Most Iranian interlocutors were convinced that Saudi Arabia will only refrain from accusing Iran of ideologically driven regional interference when it believes to have the upper hand in the “soft politics” in the region.
5) Seeking closer ties with wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states.
Iranian observers also believe that Saudi Arabia is facing economic challenges, which have only worsened with the costly war in Yemen. In order to compensate for economic weakness at home, Riyadh is seeking closer economic ties with wealthy GCC members Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
To cement such ties, Riyadh has demonized Iran as a non-Arab state interfering in Arab affairs. Iranians accuse Saudi Arabia of adopting various measures to discredit their country as a geostrategic partner for business in the region and will campaign against bilateral or multilateral security arrangements between GCC member states and Iran.
Saudi Arabia will only change course, Iranians believe, if it understands that better relations with Iran are needed to stabilize the region, lower economic risks, and make more profitable business possible.
Perceptions as Starting Point for Dialogue
All the people I talked with in Iran agreed on two major points. First, Saudi Arabia is facing complex crises and is hence acting very confrontationally in the region. Second, stability in the region can only be reached with a stable Saudi kingdom. No one, in other words, wanted to push Saudi Arabia into a deeper crisis, a view they believed was shared by decision-makers in Tehran.
Whether such perceptions and perspectives are accurate or fact-based is not that important. Even if baseless and false, perceptions need to be taken seriously. They are the starting point of any effort to facilitate exchange and dialogue.
Attempts to improve the climate between Iran and Saudi Arabia must be embedded in the societies of the two countries. It is very unfortunate to witness intensified racist rhetoric among ordinary citizens in Iran. Such remarks, directed at the Saudi leadership, entail deep-rooted anti-Arab sentiments. These views, along with anti-Shia rhetoric in Saudi Arabia, will need to be addressed in due time as part of any rapprochement.
Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif meets with Saudi ambassador to Iran Abdolrahma Bin Gharman al-Shahri (courtesy of Amin Khosroshahi/ISNA)