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

February 27, 2014 Topic: Great PowersTerrorismSecurity Region: IranSaudi Arabia

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.="#use-of-illicit-smuggling">="#use-of-illicit-smuggling">

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.="#page-1">="#page-1">

Resumption of Diplomatic Relations

The Iran-Iraq war ended in July 1988, but on 2 August 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait and annexed it to its territory. The Arab nations of the Persian Gulf asked Iran for help. On 23 August 1990 Kuwait’s foreign minister visited Iran, followed by Saudi’s foreign minister’s visit on October 28. Then Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati spoke by phone with Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi Foreign Minister, on 13 February 1991, and a few days later the two met in Geneva. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were resumed on 20 March 1991.

Terrorists attacked the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia on 25 June 1996, where U.S. military personnel were living, killing 19 and injuring 400. President Bill Clinton ordered the Pentagon to update its plans for bombing Iran, but did not order any attacks. The next year the reformist Mohammad Khatami was elected Iran’s president and Clinton wanted to pursue diplomacy with Iran. Saudi officials believed that the bombing had been done by domestic dissidents, who might have received some help from Iran. A report in 2003 indicated that the attacks had been carried out by Al Qaeda. In his memoirs, Clinton wrote that during summer of 1996 there was no definitive evidence as to who had carried out the attacks.

Saudi Arabia Demand Bombing of Iran

Saudi Arabia views Iran as its most dangerous enemy. A document released by WikiLeaks indicates that in a meeting in April 2008 between King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, then U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus, the King urged the United States to bomb Iran. King Abdullah had reportedly said that the U.S. “must cut off the head of the snake,” namely, Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Another secret cable released by WikiLeaks indicated that in December 2005 King Abdullah lashed out at George W. Bush’s administration for ignoring his warnings against invading Iraq in 2003, noting that the new Iraqi government was dominated by Shiites with close ties to Iran. “Whereas in the past the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Saddam Hussein had agreed on the need to contain Iran, U.S. policy had now given Iraq to Iran as a ‘gift on a golden platter,’” the U.S. Embassy cable quoted the king as complaining. And, in his memoirs Bush wrote that both Israel and Saudi Arabia pressured him to attack Iran, and that when he met with King Abdullah in January 2008, he told him that he was angry with the National Intelligence Estimate of November 2007 that stated that Iran did not have an active nuclear-weapons program. Saudi Arabia has also always supported imposition of crippling economic sanctions on Iran, which are now in effect.

Saudi Arabia Confronting the Arab Spring

Saudi Arabia has been opposed to the Arab Spring, because it was meant to replace dictatorships with democratic systems that respect human rights. Former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Prince Turki al-Faisal declared that Arab Spring is a cause of “ruin and destruction.” The Arab Spring is “evil,” declared a member of the Grand Oulemas, Sheikh Saleh al-Fawzan, and Saudi officials have referred to the Arab Spring as fitnasedition. On the other hand, Saud al-Faisal declared arming the opposition in Syria “a duty.” Thus, Saudi Arabia began countering the democratic aspirations of the Arab people by carrying out major plans for financial and military backing to those that it saw fit. Some of what the Saudis have done is as follows:

One is transforming the struggle for democracy to a sectarian war between the Shiites and Sunnis. The sectoring war has been consolidated, leading to more religious killings. But, the Islamic Republic fiercely opposes such a war because Shiites are a minority in the Islamic world, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has called Arab Spring an “Islamic awakening” against Israel and the United States. Muslims killing other Muslims also benefits only their enemies, a point emphasized by Khamenei time and again, who has warned against what he calls “Islamic takfiri terrorists.” A takfiri is a Muslim that accuses other Muslims of apostasy, which is what some Sunnis do routinely against the Shiites. In addition, Iran lacks the resources to fight the Arab nations of the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia, even if it were inclined to—during 2012-2013, for example, Saudi Arabia increased its military budget by 111 percent, totaling $59.6 billion in 2013. Iran cannot match this.

Second, the secular regime of President Bashar al-Assad tried to violently put down its opponents. Russia, China and Iran are allies of Assad’s regime, but the U.S., its European allies, a majority of Arab nations and Saudi Arabia want to overthrow the regime. Thus, the war in Syria, in addition to being sectarian, has also become one of vicegerency, one in which each side fights on behalf of its supporters. In the process, Syria has been destroyed and tens of thousands of people have been killed. It has become a great magnet to, and a center of terrorism in the world, and the Salafi fundamentalists that are supported by Saudi Arabia and are the enemies of democracy and human rights have become stronger. Saudi Arabia is still pursuing the fall of the Assad regime and its replacement by the groups that it supports. It is also opposed to Iran’s participation in the Geneva peace conference. Iran, while having no particular attachment to Bashar al-Assad, views his leaving the scene as the complete collapse of his regime and the dominance of Al Qaeda-linked groups, which it opposes.