Find a Security Clearance Job!

Military


Saudi-Iran Relations

Saudis will never like or trust the Iranians -- they did not do so even before the revolution when at least they believed there were major shared interests -- but they remain acutely conscious of the long-term need to live with their large and unruly neighbor. The Saudis understood that it was a very long road indeed from Iran's fundamental, theological hostility to the al-Saud regime to a degree of moderation that would make Iran a tolerably safe neighbor.

Historically, relations with non-Arab Iran had been correct, although the Saudis tended to distrust Iranian intentions and to resent the perceived arrogance of the Shah. Nevertheless, the two countries had cooperated on regional security issues despite their differences over specific policies such as oil production quotas.

The Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979 disrupted this shared interest in regional political stability. From a Saudi perspective, the rhetoric of some Iranian revolutionary leaders, who called for the overthrow of all monarchies as being un-Islamic, presented a serious subversive threat to the regimes in the area.

While both states define themselves as Islamic, the differences between their foreign policies could hardly be more dramatic. Saudi Arabia is a regional status quo power, while Iran often seeks revolutionary change throughout the Gulf area and the wider Middle East with varying degrees of intensity. Saudi Arabia also has strong ties with Western nations, while Iran views the United States as its most dangerous enemy.

Surely the most important difference between the two nations is that Saudi Arabia is a conservative Sunni Muslim Arab state, while Iran is a Shiite state whose senior politicians often view their country as the defender and natural leader of Shiites throughout the region. The rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran has been reflected in the politics of a number of regional states where these two powers exercise influence including Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Bahrain and others.

The Saudi view is that Iran, ever since the 1979 revolution, responded to strength and firmness, rather than conciliation. Political disturbances in the kingdom during 1979 and 1980, including the violent occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Sunni religious extremists and riots among Saudi Shia in the Eastern Province, reinforced the perception that Iran was exploiting, even inciting, discontent as part of a concerted policy to export its revolution.

In November 1979, shortly after the success of the Iranian revolution, serious unrest ignited among Shiites in Saudi Arabias Eastern Province, beginning with an illegal religious procession to celebrate the important Shiite holiday of Ashura. These religious activities had a political edge to them, and some members of the crowd carried pictures of the Iranian revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as well as signs denouncing the Saudi government and United States. When Saudi authorities attempted to disperse the crowds, three days of rioting ensued, culminating in considerable property damage.

The Saudi government was not displeased when Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980. While, Saudi Arabia remained officially neutral throughout the Iran-Iraq War, in practice its policies made it an effective Iraqi ally.

The thorniest issue in Saudi-Iranian relations during the 1980s was not Riyadh's discreet support of Baghdad but the annual hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, that took place in the twelfth month of the Muslim lunar calendar. Contention over the participation in hajj rituals of Iranian pilgrims, who numbered about 150,000 in this period and comprised the largest single national group among the approximately 2 million Muslims who attended the yearly hajj rites, symbolized the increasing animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Tehran insisted that its pilgrims had a religious right and obligation to engage in political demonstrations during the hajj.

Riyadh, however, believed that the behavior of the Iranian pilgrims violated the spiritual significance of the hajj and sought to confine demonstrators to isolated areas where their chanting would cause the least interference with other pilgrims. Because the Saudis esteemed their role as protectors of the Muslim holy sites in the Hijaz, the Iranian conduct presented a major dilemma: to permit unhindered demonstrations would detract from the essential religious nature of the hajj ; to prevent the demonstrations by force would sully the government's international reputation as guardian of Islam's most sacred shrines.

During the early 1980s, Iranian pilgrims repeatedly disrupted the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia which all Muslims who are able must make at least once in their lifetime. Tensions increased yearly without a satisfactory resolution until the summer of 1987, when efforts by Saudi security forces to suppress an unauthorized demonstration in front of Mecca's Grand Mosque led to the deaths of more than 400 pilgrims. Iran blamed Saudi Arabia for the incident and in a sea of invective demanded that Riyadh turn over custody of the Holy Places to the Islamic Republic.14 Saudi Arabia, which closely controls the entry of foreigners into the kingdom, had few options other than accepting at least some Iranian Muslims seeking to fulfill a religious duty, but Riyadh also moved to dramatically reduce the number of Iranians allowed into the kingdom for Hajj.

This tragedy stunned the Saudis and galvanized their resolve to ban all activities not directly associated with the hajj rituals. In Tehran, angry mobs retaliated by ransacking the Saudi embassy; they detained and beat several diplomats, including one Saudi official who subsequently died from his injuries. These incidents severed the frayed threads that still connected Saudi Arabia and Iran; in early 1988, Riyadh cut its diplomatic relations with Tehran, in effect closing the primary channel by which Iranian pilgrims obtained Saudi visas required for the hajj.

Although Iran began to indicate its interest in normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia as early as 1989, officials in the kingdom remained suspicious of Tehran's motives and did not reciprocate its overtures for almost two years. The Persian Gulf War, however, significantly altered Saudi perceptions of Iran. The unexpected emergence of Iraq as a mortal enemy refocused Saudi security concerns and paved the way for a less hostile attitude toward Iran. For example, Riyadh welcomed Tehran's consistent demands for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait and interpreted Iran's strict adherence to neutrality during the conflict as a positive development.

Despite their lingering doubts about Tehran's aims vis-a-vis the Shia population of southern Iraq, the Saudis recognized after the war that they and the Iranians shared an interest in containing Iraq and agreed to discuss the prospects of restoring diplomatic relations. The issue that had proved so vexatious throughout the 1980s, the hajj, was resolved through a compromise that enabled Iranians to participate in the 1991 pilgrimage, the first appearance in four years of a hajj contingent sponsored by Tehran. In effect, once Saudi Arabia and Iran decided that cooperation served their regional interests, the hajj lost its symbolic significance as a focus of contention between two countries that defined themselves as Islamic. The reopening of embassies in Riyadh and Tehran accompanied the resolution of the hajj and other outstanding issues.

After Ayatollah Khomeinis death in 1989, relations gradually improved between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with post-Khomeini leaders including Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, who established themselves as less contentious than their predecessor. Khatami, in particular, sought to improve relations with Riyadh and end Iranian subversion and covert action directed against Saudi Arabia. In 1999, he became the first serving Iranian president to visit Saudi Arabia, where he was courteously received. Nevertheless, neither Rafsanjani nor Khatami were fully able to control the hard liners.

In 2006, King Abdullah responded to Iranian Foreign Minister Velayeti's claim of Iranian interest in good bilateral relations by insisting on an end to Iranian interference in Iraq. The King reportedly told Velayeti that "we believe you are doing something very dangerous." The Iranians denied interfering in Iraq.

By 2007 Saudi Arabia believed that Iran was behind most of the difficulties facing the US and Saudi Arabia in the region. King Abdullah believed that only a show of US strength will stop Iran's expansionist policies and halt its nuclear program, which was clearly intended to produce nuclear weapons. The King rejected the argument that military action against Iran will coalesce popular support around President Ahmadinejad. Saudi anxieties regarding Iran's nuclear program were growing, and the Saudi government's confidence in the ability of current economic sanctions to alter Iranian behavior remained limited.

The Saudis continued to see Iran as the Kingdom's principal security threat. The Saudis accuse Iran of taking advantage of political instability throughout the Middle East and South Asia to increase its influence. No one in Riyadh wished to return to the poisoned relations of the early 1980s when Iran was intensely involved in supporting propaganda, subversion, and terrorism directed at the Arab monarchies.

In 2009 Iran was the subject of long discussions at the 29th annual summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Muscat, the Prince said. All agreed that Iran should not have nuclear facilities to produce nuclear weapons, but opinions diverged on how to achieve this, with some suggesting making positive gestures to Iran.

Since King Salman's succession to power in January 2015, there had been a more forceful response to the regional stand-off between Iran and Saudi Arabia largely set in motion by Prince Mohammed. This could mainly be observed in Saudi's military intervention in Yemen as well as its increased support for Syrian rebels in a bid to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A stampede during the annual Hajj pilgrimage on the outskirts of the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia on 24 September 2015 was the deadliest tragedy to strike the annual Hajj pilgrimage in a quarter-century. Pilgrims blamed the stampede in Mina on police road closures and poor management. Saudi authorities said the total number of victims was at least 769 people with Iranians making up the largest share. Iranian officials sharply criticized Saudi Arabia while Iranians staged daily protests outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

Saudi Arabia announced 15 December 2015 what it called a new Islamic military alliance made up of 34 countries to fight terrorism. The state-run Saudi Press Agency published a statement saying the initiative will include an operations center in Riyadh to coordinate military operations. The statement said terrorism is a "serious violation of human dignity and rights, especially the right to life and the right to security," and that "acts of corruption and terrorism cannot be justified in any way."

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman said at a news conference there will not be a focus on any one terror group. "Today there are a number of countries that suffer from terrorism, for example Daesh [Islamic State] in Syria and Iraq; terrorism in Sinai, terrorism in Yemen, terrorism in Libya, terrorism in Mali, terrorism in Nigeria, terrorism in Pakistan, terrorism in Afghanistan and this requires a very strong effort to fight. Without a doubt, there will be coordination in these efforts," he said.

The alliance included Jordan, Bahrain, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, which are conducting airstrikes in Syria as part of a U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State. Others from the Middle East include Tunisia, Lebanon, Libya and Egypt. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Malaysia were said to be part of the effort, as are a number of African countries such as Sudan, Somalia, Mali and Nigeria. The new coalition did not include Shiite-led countries of Iran, Iraq and Syria.

A day after Riyadh announced the formation of the coalition, some of its members said that have been caught off guard and never agreed to take part in the alliance. Malaysia, a Muslim country which was put by Riyadh in the list of the 34 participants, denied taking part in the military alliance. Malaysian Defense Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein told journalists that Kuala Lumpur will not join Riyadh, however it will continue to be part of the international fight against terrorism.

Indonesia, a country with the worlds largest Muslim population, said that it was approached by Saudi Arabia concerning anti-terrorism cooperation, however it needs details before considering to join a military alliance.. Indonesian Chief Security Minister Luhut Pandjaitan said: "We don't want to join a military alliance."

Pakistan, one of the coalition members announced by Saudi Arabia, initially denied its participation. Pakistan's Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry told journalists that he got to know of the coalition through news reports, adding that Pakistan was not consulted about it.

Pakistan confirmed 17 December 2015 that it was part of a Saudi-led "Islamic military alliance" against terrorism in the Muslim world but remained vague about when exactly it joined the new alliance. Foreign Office spokesman Qazi Khalilullah told reporters in Islamabad that, "yes, we're part of it." He also denied media reports that claimed Pakistan was "surprised" when its membership in the 34-member group was announced on Tuesday. He insisted Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry had earlier only said that Pakistan was "ascertaining details" about the announcement.

Saudi Arabias embassy in Tehran was covered in ash residue after it was partially set on fire 02 January 2015 by protesters who stormed the building following Saudi Arabia executed prominent Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr. Iranian protestors were angry over the Saudi regime's simultaneous execution of 47 people, including a prominent Shiite cleric, over security grounds and terror charges.

Saudi Arabian officials said 03 January 2015 the country was breaking off diplomatic relations with Iran after protestors in the Iranian capital of Tehran raided the Saudi embassy. Saudi Foreign Minister Abel al-Yubeir confirmed the news, who added that Iranian diplomatic officials had 48 hours to leave the country.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have severed or downgraded ties with Iran following the attack on the Saudi Embassy. The Comoros, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, became the latest ally of Saudi Arabia 15 January 2016 to announce that it had cut off diplomatic relations with Iran. A foreign ministry statement blasted Tehran's "aggression" towards Riyadh and accused it of "interfering in the internal affairs of certain countries" and "not respecting diplomatic conventions." Comoros, an Arab League member, said it had asked the Iranian ambassador to leave after recalling its own ambassador to Tehran a week earlier.

In a 10 January 2015 in The New York Times op-ed, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused Saudi Arabia of "sponsoring extremists and promoting sectarian hatred" in the region. He also denounced the kingdom's human rights record and recent execution of 47 prisoners, including prominent Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, whose death prompted the storming of Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.

The Saudis calculate that they can force Iran to withdraw from Arab conflicts, and that the United States will back them to counteract the prevalent view among Sunni Arabs that Washington was tilting toward Tehran because of the nuclear deal. Saudi Arabia had hundreds of billions of dollars in reserves it can burn through to keep fighting in Yemen and supporting proxies in Syria.



NEWSLETTER
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list