By Dr. Ali Akbar Asadi,
Researcher; Center for Strategic Research
Source: Iranian Diplomacy; translated By: Iran Review
Iran's relations with Saudi Arabia have been a function of the two countries' geopolitical situation in the Middle East and political rivalries between Tehran and Riyadh. Rivalries between Iran and Saudi Arabia date back to many decades ago and the time of the first Pahlavi monarch. Following the Islamic Revolution and more specifically during the 1980s, Iraq waged the imposed war against Iran through obvious support of the Saudis. At that time, tension in bilateral relations was high.
Though tensions were reduced in the next two decades, it seems that political rivalries between these regional players have entered a new phase following 9/11 terror attacks, especially after the United States' occupation of Iraq.
Three main areas of competition between Tehran and Riyadh after 2003 included Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf.
Areas of rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia
The Iraqi Baath party swayed power for a few decades and despite threats that it posed to the entire region, Saudis considered it a counterweight to Iran's regional influence. Following invasion of Iraq by the United States and the fall of the country's Baathist rule, new conditions reigned in Iraq. Shiites enjoyed a special position in the new political system due to their majority and a democratic government was established consisting of all political groups, but with a special role for Shias.
This was not acceptable to Saudis. Therefore, Riyadh took a negative approach toward the new Iraqi government one of whose dimensions was to imbalance new relations between Iran and the Iraqi state. Saudi officials believed that if new relations between Iran and Iraq became powerful enough, the balance of regional power will be disturbed to their detriment. Therefore, they held a negative view of the Iraqi government and have never offered firm political support for the new government in Baghdad.
As for Lebanon and Palestine, new developments have unraveled fast. In Saudi Arabia's view those developments both in Palestine and Lebanon were influenced by Iran and Riyadh spare no effort to thwart that influence. The war between the Lebanese Hezbollah and Israel broke out in 2006 followed by invasion of Gaza in 2008. The end result was further strengthening of the resistance axis. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia conducted clandestine efforts both in Lebanon and Palestine to undermine Iran's role and influence.
The third area of rivalry, which is geographically closer to both countries and more sensitive, is the Persian Gulf. During the past few decades, Iran and Saudi Arabia have taken different approaches to security arrangements in the Persian Gulf. While the Islamic Republic of Iran called for local security arrangements through cooperation of regional players and opposed presence of transregional powers like the United States, Saudi Arabia and other littoral states of the Persian Gulf welcomed transregional powers to the Persian Gulf and signed various contracts, especially following 1990, to let the United States establish new bases in the region.
The crisis in Bahrain and Iran-Saudi rivalry
Given new developments and popular uprisings, Bahrain has come to the fore and gained special prominence both for Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The small island is now an important arena in which Iran and Saudi Arabia are following their different views. Although popular uprisings in Bahrain against Al-Khalifa regime were natural sequel to uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, they are also rooted in discriminatory policies adopted by the Bahraini government toward Shia groups.
After street protests soared in Bahrain and Al-Khalifa proved incapable of curbing them, they turned to Saudis for assistance. Therefore, more than 1,000 security forces arrived in Bahrain to suppress its people in collaboration with Bahrain's own security forces. At present, Saudi Arabia plays an axial role among member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council and it seems that even recent espionage charges leveled against Iran by Kuwaiti government have been a result of Saudi pressures.
Since the majority of Saudi Shias are concentrated along its eastern borders close to Bahrain and that region happens to be rich in oil reserves, Riyadh considers collapse of Al-Khalifa regime a red line. Saudi officials believe that in case of a regime change in Bahrain, Iran's regional influence will increase in the Persian Gulf therefore, though Bahrain's uprising is a popular development with local causes, they firstly talk about Iran's influence in fostering unrest in Bahrain and, secondly, try to depict it as a sectarian strife. This policy aims to facilitate suppression of people's uprising while gaining regional and international support. This is why they are incessantly stressing on Iran's threat and intervention in Bahrain.
It seems that Saudi Arabia will continue its presence in Bahrain in support of Al-Khalifa regime. Of course, Shias may be given small concessions, but Saudis will by no means give in to basic reforms in that country and the change of Al-Khalifa regime.
Cause of escalation
Regional rivalries between Iran and Saudi Arabia have always been there, but tension escalates only when crisis breaks out in areas which are of interest to both countries. Crisis needs prompt action and rapid decision and this may lead to tension. Bahrain is a good example to the point. Developments in Bahrain unraveled very fast and positions taken by Iran and Saudi Arabia only served to increase tension.
In addition to geographical propinquity, the two countries' interests are at odds in Bahrain. Iran is defending the rights of Bahraini people while Saudis are lending their support to Al-Khalifa regime. At present, there is no solution for both countries to achieve their goals.
The way out of tension
The crisis in Bahrain needs a broad-based solution which goes far beyond diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It seems that both regional and international mechanisms are needed to manage the crisis. As long as such mechanisms which may also involve Turkey, Qatar, and even the European Union, have not been put in force, tension in Iran's relations with Saudi Arabia will continue. Therefore, to reduce the tension, broad-based mechanisms beyond Iran-Saudi relations are needed.
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