The Arab Spring: Iran vs. Saudi Arabia

CNN provides an interesting perspective on Iran and Saudi Arabia: how they perceive their roles in the region, how they view each other, and how each sees the current “Arab Spring” unrest. The excerpts are from a transcript of a Q+A with Karim Sadjadpour and Chris Boucek, associates at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace focusing on the Middle East.

How is Saudi Arabia responding to the unrest in the region? How is Iran?

Boucek: What Saudi Arabia hates the most and wants to avoid at all costs is a situation defined by insecurity, instability, and uncertainty. This is what Riyadh sees in the transforming Middle East. The Arab awakening is not something that is perceived to be in its own interests–quite the opposite actually, as it threatens its foreign policy objectives.

Since Saudi Arabia wants to preserve the status quo, it has moved to shore up its friends in the Middle East using money and religious ideology. At the same time, the unrest has led to greater tensions with the United States as Riyadh feels that Washington has not responded effectively to the protests. The United States and Saudi Arabia, once closely aligned on many issues in the region, don’t at first glance appear to have the same interests at this time.

Sadjadpour: Iran, on the contrary, tends to thrive in an atmosphere of instability and chaos. The 2003 Iraq war, the 2006 Israeli war in Lebanon, and the 2009 Israeli war in Gaza seemed to enhance, not diminish, Iran’s regional clout by creating a more fertile ground for its ideology.

Tehran initially saw the Arab upheavals as unsettling and unseating only Western and American-allied Arab autocracies like Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain. Iran’s current leaders have long believed that democratic Arab governments that genuinely represent the will of their people would produce political systems much closer in nature to Tehran than Washington.

They didn’t anticipate that the upheavals would spread to Syria, which is of tremendous concern to Iran given that the Assad family in Damascus has been their only consistent regional ally since the 1979 revolution. If the Assads were to fall, Iran would be rendered virtually friendless throughout the Middle East, with the possible exception of the current Shia-led government in Iraq.

In the near term, Tehran is scrambling to do in various countries what it did effectively in Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion–fill the power vacuum by offering financial patronage to various political groups. Over the medium and long term, however, the more democracy there is in the Middle East, the more it highlights the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a salmon swimming upstream against the current of history.

What is the history of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

Sadjadpour: There is a natural competition between the two sides in that both predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia and predominantly Shia Iran see themselves as the vanguard of the Muslim world and, according to most estimates, they rank first–Saudi Arabia–and a distant second–Iran–in terms of proven oil reserves.

In the 1970s, the United States saw Iran and Saudi Arabia as the twin pillars of the Persian Gulf. The Shah’s Iran had a somewhat more privileged role as America’s policeman in the region, but the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran was stable and not zero-sum: They could each have a strong relationship with Washington while enjoying more or less cordial bilateral ties.

The relationship deteriorated significantly after the 1979 Iranian revolution. Iran became an Islamic Republic, led by radical Shia clergy, and Saudi Arabia’s concerns about the threat of Shia fundamentalism–emanating both from Iran and at home–grew more acute.

The father of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had tremendous contempt for Saudi Arabia, particularly because of Saudi support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

After Khomeini died in 1989, the Iran-Saudi relationship improved significantly during the presidencies of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) and Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005).

But the election in 2005 of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad–whose politics and temperament are often reminiscent of the early days of revolutionary radicalism–has exacerbated tensions and relations have subsequently deteriorated.

Boucek: Additionally, when King Abdullah officially took power that same year, Saudi Arabia chose a more activist foreign policy that put Riyadh more at odds with Tehran.

It’s difficult to think of one instance since 2005 when the two countries worked together constructively to resolve a problem. Today’s tremendous rivalry and deep distrust are here to stay for the moment.

Why are the two countries considered rivals?

Boucek: The rivalry runs deep. In certain respects, there is a sense of superiority in Saudi Arabia. It is the birthplace of Islam and the Arabic language and Saudis rightfully take pride in their heritage. There are also hardline Sunnis who feel that Saudi Arabia is the leader of the global Muslim community and Shias are the worst kind of heretics.

There has always been a fear that Iranians cannot be trusted and Saudi Arabia is therefore actively working to check Iran’s rise. But much of what Riyadh does is for domestic consumption. This partially explains the Islamization of its foreign policy and the championing of the Sunni agenda–all of this helps shore up internal support for the government. Even Saudi Arabia’s actions to help Bahrain’s Sunni government consolidate and maintain authority in the face of protests is in part a message to Saudi Arabia’s own Shia population.

It is also interesting to note that in times like when Bahrain’s stability is in question, the Iranian boogeyman is a useful tool in uniting countries in the Gulf. The Gulf Cooperation Council was essentially started to protect the Arab Gulf states from Iran. And the problem that many countries have with Iran goes much deeper than just the current government. So even if there is democracy in Iran tomorrow, the Gulf’s historical animosities with Persians or Shias are not going to evaporate overnight.

Sadjadpour: There is similar chauvinism among Iranians, who are inheritors of ancient history and often feel a sense of civilizational superiority vis-

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  • CC says:

    If the Iranian government didnt have such contempt for the U.S, they would be a perfect ally. Their culture is a lot closer to that of the United States’ than Saudi Arabia’s culture. In my opinion, when Khamenei kicks the bucket there will be a significant thaw in relations. It’s going to take a long time to work through it though.

  • Vyom says:

    I agree of what you say CC………. Iran is a vital spot because of proximity to Afghanistan, Pakistan. US dependance on Pakistan for support lines is of null importance……… Nice work…..

  • CJ says:

    I can agree that without the Iranian revolution its fanatical ways, I will support Iran as they are more culturally rich and diverse, educated and hard working. They are very good people. So unlike the saudis who are arrogant, illiterate and cannot offer anything productive in this world….
    It is the Saudi sponsored Islamic madrassas with their intolerant teachings that caused 3/4th of the islamic terror we see today.
    I wish Iranians will be free of their fanatic mullahs and be the great nation they were once again with the international community.

  • Benacerraf says:

    Cream rises to the top no matter what the geopolitical winds. However, its hard work being on top and I really don’t think either country or their people have the stamina to manage this chaos laden part of the world. Good luck to both they cant even unite/agree on Israel. How Islamic is that?

  • Hayat Shah says:

    As far as the history section of this article is concerned,I am totally agree with it. But whenever we talk about the antagonistic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, no doubt Sectarianism is one of the factors of friction between the two. But in International Politics Ideology comes next than National Interest. Probably there is disharmony over vital interests between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both the states are in struggle to attain the regional hegemonic status and the rest of other issues like Sectarianism etc are the tools to promote and protect their interests in the region. Similar example can be taken from the WW-1 and WW-2 where not only the ideology was priority for the two great wars but it was national interests of the state which plunged europe into wars…i.e the issue of security. Though Germany was Capitalist state with same ideology of the Allied powers. But Still Russia being a communist had hormony of intrests vis-a-vis europe over the vital intrest of security and sided them…….so i think this perception is wrong that the friction between Saudi-Arabia and Iran is based on Ideological or religious line rather it is a conflict over intrests.


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