The Saudi-Iranian conflict, or what can be called the broader Iranian-Gulf conflict, represents a complex conflict in terms of political and historical dimensions. It is a historical conflict whose roots can be traced back to the great strife within the early Islamic state and the emergence of the Shiites.
The conflict continued until the United States announced the Nixon Doctrine, which stipulated the necessity of providing military and logistical support to two countries in the region, namely Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The US support provided to Iran militarily represented an amount of $103.6 million in 1970, while Saudi Arabia received $ 312 million in 1972.
Currently, the conflict increased with the appearance of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, which became a threat to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The aforementioned revolution came to overthrow the pro-Western Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi; the government of the revolution worked hardly towards echoing the Iranian revolution, in an attempt to provoke Iranian-style religious uprisings throughout the Middle East.
This step represented a threat to Saudi Arabia’s heavy influence in the Middle East as well as other Arab countries that follow Sunni Islam.
At the core of that conflict lies the issue of the balance of power between Riyadh and Tehran as the conflict is based on two radically different visions of the regional order. The Iranian regime has enshrined the role of religious authorities in political life while giving the people a partial say in ruling through the electoral process (religious democracy) or in other words restricted (conditional) democracy.
In response, Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab Gulf states formed the Gulf Cooperation Council, an organization initially designed to counter and contain Iranian influence.
Despite the length of the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran, few of those interested agree on the real causes of that dispute, which reached a clash several times and was on the brink of an open confrontation in various historical stages.
For the Saudis, they do not see a normal state with which they can reach an understanding after they have exhausted all attempts, while Iran believes that what it calls “Saudi dependence” on the West makes meeting with it difficult.
As for the Arabs, with their different attitudes, as well as the Iranians, hardly a large number of them agree on one reason for the emergence of what might be called the ongoing conflict in general between the two countries. Nationalists see the strife between the Arabs and the Persians was and will inevitably remain forever.
But by looking at the threads of the first relationship, the disagreement, its stations, and its main justifications, we find that the story is more complex.
Back in 1929, modern Saudi Arabia signed an early treaty with the Shah’s Iran that treaty was soon disturbed by the Shah’s statements against the Arab lands near him, the State of Bahrain, which he demanded at the time or the Emirati islands that it has occupied since the British left them in 1971, which necessitated a Saudi position rejecting it.
It can be said that Saudi-Iranian relations since the beginning of the twentieth century have gone through several fluctuations between divergence and rapprochement. Tracing the relations of these two countries, which form the spearheads of any deterioration in the Middle East, is “interesting”.
Since the fall of the Shah’s regime in the Khomeini revolution in 1979, relations have begun to fluctuate between the two parties, but tend more to tension and estrangement, while the state of rapprochement at times and divergence at other times has prevailed throughout the history of relations between them since 1925-1979.
After the overthrow of the Shah and the declaration of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979; the competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the eligibility to lead the Islamic world began, and this was summed up by the call of Khomeini to overthrow the Arab rulers from US’s allies, to liberate the region from Western influence.
He also called for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy, and “his argument in this way that Muslims should unite in one nation to manage the affairs of the holy places in Mecca and Medina,” according to the Iranian researcher Banfshah Kosh in her study entitled “Saudi-Iranian Relations.”
Following this upheaval in Iran’s rule and policy, Saudi Arabia sided with Iraq in the eight-year war with Iran (1980-1988).
However, relations returned to what can be described as warm after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in the early nineties of the last century.
At that time, relations witnessed a remarkable improvement with the arrival of Muhammad Khatami to the presidency of the Iranian Republic in 1997, who was known at the time for his positions calling for openness to his neighbors and the world.
As soon as relations stabilized, Ahmadinejad, a “fundamentalist with a nationalistic tendency,” came to the presidency in 2005 to spread a transformation that continues to this day occurred in Iran’s foreign policy in the Middle East.
At that stage, a study by the Arab Center for Research entitled “Saudi-Iranian Tension: The Roots of the Crisis and Its Repercussions” says that Ahmadinejad “began to promote not only the export of the Islamic Revolution to neighboring countries, as was the case during the reign of Ayatollah Khomeini, but also to establish an Iranian project that would extend to the Mediterranean, using tools to export the revolution, such as politicizing sectarianism and supporting sectarian militias.
Khatami had suspended uranium enrichment in 2003, a year after the Iranian opposition revealed the existence of a secret reactor in the country. However, Ahmadinejad restarted enrichment immediately after taking power, thus opening the page of tension in the twenty-first century with Saudi Arabia, which began to view with concern Iran’s efforts to upset the balance of power.
Throughout the period between 2003 and 2011, Iraq was the most prominent arena for the state of regional tension between the two powers.
Iraq became the most prominent arena of tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran since the fall of the Sunni Iraqi regime led by Saddam Hussein, Iran’s enemy.
Now, Iran’s allies have come to power, this step led to the increase of Saudi Arabia’s fears of the expansion of Iranian influence in Iraq.
The Arab Spring constituted the distinguishing mark in changing the form of influence in the Arab region between the Gulf and Iran, especially as the Middle East lives today with the extensions of this era that may not end in peace.
A study cited by Arab Center for Research says: “The outbreak of the “Arab Spring” revolutions created other new reasons for the dispute between Tehran and Riyadh. While Saudi Arabia took a “principal” position in opposing the Arab revolutions, Iran’s positions varied according to its interests. After Iran supported the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt (as an “expression of an Islamic awakening” according to Khamenei), and supported the popular protests that erupted in Bahrain, and also considered them an extension of the Islamic awakening that began with the Iranian revolution in 1979, the revolution turned into US-Israeli “conspiracy” when it reached Syria.
While the revolutions of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya did not witness any competition between the two powers, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen were the most prominent areas of the regional conflict between them, stemming from the geopolitical changes in these countries. At a time when Saudi Arabia supported the opposition against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Iran, the latter supplied its forces and weapons to Syrian territory, represented by Shiite militias, to defend Assad.
In Iraq, Iran formed what is known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, which have a large military force, and now have a significant card of influence in Baghdad. However, the latter is trying to return to the Arab depth, despite the difficulty of consolidating this in light of the entrenchment of the forces allied to Iran within it.
Perhaps the Yemeni dilemma for Saudi Arabia is one of the most combustible points of contact with Iran. The former has been at war for years against the coup of the Iranian-backed Houthi group against the rule of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, while the group receives constant military support from Iran. Its latest form was the group’s bombing of Riyadh with a ballistic missile, which the Saudi leadership said Iran was behind its launch. This sparked the ongoing crisis.
Today, Iran has military influence in each of the three countries, in addition to Lebanon, which hosts the most prominent force represented by Hezbollah. While Saudi policy continues with the approach of strictness initiated by King Salman, it appears that his Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is leading the same policy and with a greater impact in an attempt to reduce Iranian influence.
Thus, Saudi Arabia found itself, since its early inception, in an inevitable conflict with Iran, which was mostly for the sake of its Arab nation, and sometimes the Islamic (Sunni) nation.
An Iranian study from the University of Isfahan prepared by three researchers, “Sadiq Shafi’i, Asghar Muntazer, and Muhammad Ali Glonkar” describes this relationship, despite its tension, as one of the factors of suspicion rooted in the view of the new rulers of Tehran to their neighbors on the other side of the Gulf, saying, “The victory of the revolution Islam not only reduced the importance of the relations between the two countries (which were prevalent) but also gave the relationship between them a special sensitivity and extraordinary complexity.
However, this view did not prevent the Gulf people from welcoming the Khomeini regime, for several considerations, such as the aforementioned tense relationship with the Shah’s regime, and also the region’s preoccupation with the Cold War and confronting communism, with which the Gulf states believed that conservatives would be less tolerant, in addition to the fact that the Gulf states at that time tend to be social and religious conservatism which gave a glimmer of hope that these points can be built on for good neighborliness with Iran, even after a while.
Therefore, in the years of dialogue with the Iranians, building on this part was sufficient to bring about some rapprochement, which was met with good Saudi intention before it became clear that it was no more than the stages of Iranian “strategic patience,” or “Persian cunning,” as some Arabs like to describe it.