Iran-Saudi Arabia relations: Figuring out the next move

11-01-2016

Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia – two powerhouses and major rivals of the Muslim world – have always been complicated. The 1979 Revolution in Iran, and the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), have contributed to entrenching their historical antagonisms and left an imprint in the foreign policies of both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Since 2011, Tehran and Riyadh have repeatedly exchanged blows, including through their proxies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Iran has also often been accused of interfering in the internal affairs of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Gulf countries with significant Shiite minorities. Iran, on the other hand, has accused Saudi Arabia of promoting anti Shiite policies and practices. Both sides have also resorted to downgrading or suspending diplomatic ties in the past – as was the case of Iran and Saudi Arabia in 1988, and Iran and Bahrain in 2011 and 2015. In that sense, the recent decision by Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf countries to cut or downgrade diplomatic ties with Iran does not represent a radical change in their bilateral relations but is nonetheless worrying given growing sectarian problems in the region. The escalation of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia – only a few weeks after the two countries sat for the first time at the same table to discuss the conflict in Syria – comes at a particularly sensitive moment. Implementation of the carefully brokered diplomatic undertakings of the past few months – in particular the nuclear deal with Iran and the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015) on Syria – depend on good relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Therefore, diplomatic efforts to find a means to help de-escalate the conflict and present all sides with a face-saving option will remain the main challenge for the coming months.

Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia – two powerhouses and major rivals of the Muslim world – have always been complicated. The 1979 Revolution in Iran, and the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), have contributed to entrenching their historical antagonisms and left an imprint in the foreign policies of both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Since 2011, Tehran and Riyadh have repeatedly exchanged blows, including through their proxies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Iran has also often been accused of interfering in the internal affairs of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Gulf countries with significant Shiite minorities. Iran, on the other hand, has accused Saudi Arabia of promoting anti Shiite policies and practices. Both sides have also resorted to downgrading or suspending diplomatic ties in the past – as was the case of Iran and Saudi Arabia in 1988, and Iran and Bahrain in 2011 and 2015. In that sense, the recent decision by Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf countries to cut or downgrade diplomatic ties with Iran does not represent a radical change in their bilateral relations but is nonetheless worrying given growing sectarian problems in the region. The escalation of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia – only a few weeks after the two countries sat for the first time at the same table to discuss the conflict in Syria – comes at a particularly sensitive moment. Implementation of the carefully brokered diplomatic undertakings of the past few months – in particular the nuclear deal with Iran and the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015) on Syria – depend on good relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Therefore, diplomatic efforts to find a means to help de-escalate the conflict and present all sides with a face-saving option will remain the main challenge for the coming months.