Iran and Saudi Arabia: A Power Struggle and A Way Forward

The Middle East's most poisonous rivalry.

Al Arabiya, the news agency owned by Saudi Arabia, recently reported that Frederic Hof, a State Department official, has said that he was told by Iranian diplomats that their country considers Saudi Arabia, not Israel or the United States, as the main threat to its national security. This is important, but not new to Iranians. Ever since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran, the relations between the two nations have been strained. Saudi Arabia has always helped in propagating the Salafi-Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam and considers itself the guardian of Islam’s holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina, but the Shiite-led revolution in Iran challenged its authority and created a competitor and alternative for what it preaches.

The first challenge to Saudi Arabia after the Iranian revolution was about Palestine. The Islamic Republic considered itself the most important supporter of the Palestinians, constantly espousing the view that the Arab governments are puppets of the United States and, hence, do not react strongly to occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel. This could not be considered as mere Shiite propaganda, as Iran was giving funds and weapons to Sunni Palestinian groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. To protect itself against Israel and to expand its influence in the region, Iran also helped in the founding of Lebanese Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia’s Support for Iraq during its War with Iran

Less than two years after the Islamic Revolution, Saddam Hussein’s regime invaded Iran. The Arab nations of the Persian Gulf provided Iraq with tens of billions of dollars in aid. During the first 20 months of the war Saudi Arabia was giving $1 billion a month. A report by the CIA stated that Western powers gave Iraq $35 billion, while Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates provided another $30-40 billion. Another report indicated that the trio gave Iraq $30.9, $8.2, and $8 billion, respectively.

Breakdown of the Diplomatic Relations

But, two events during the war led to termination of diplomatic relations between the two countries, both tied to Iranian pilgrims to Mecca. In his daily memoirs of the war, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani wrote on 11 August 1986, “[Interior Minister} Mr. [Ali Mohammad] Besharati informed me that Saudi Arabia has announced that the explosive T.N.T. has been found in the luggage of several Iranian pilgrims.” On 28 August 1986 he wrote that Saudi Arabia had released 110 of the 113 of the Iranians that it had detained, and Mehdi Karroubi, a representative of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was to thank King Fahd of Saudi Arabia for their release.

In his resignation letter to then President Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on 5 September 1988, former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi wrote, “I became aware of the explosives in Saudi Arabia only after they had been discovered. Unfortunately, and despite all the damage that such moves have inflicted on our nation, they can still happen at any moment and in the name of the government.” In a letter to Khomeini dated 10 October 1986, Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri who was Khomeini’s deputy at that time, wrote , “During Haj [Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca] the Sepaah [IRGC] commits inappropriate acts, abusing the luggage of old men and women without informing them, and making a bad name for Iran and the Revolution, so much so that Mr. Karroubi must ask [King] Fahd for a favor [to release the arrested people].” In response, Khomeini’s son Ahmad wrote, “Is there any other way to carry out revolutionary acts in Mecca? Sometimes such acts go smoothly, sometime they create problems. I do not necessarily support them, but this is typically how they are done.”

Then, in a demonstration on 31 July 1987 in Saudi Arabia, Iranian pilgrims chanted “death to America” and “death to Israel.” The Saudi security forces opened fire on the demonstrators, killing 402, of whom 275 were Iranians, and injuring 649. Saudi Arabia closed its embassy in Tehran and cut off its diplomatic relations.

Resumption of Diplomatic Relations

Pages