Saudi-Iran tensions show no sign of abating
Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to simmer as both countries engage in verbal diatribes and proxy wars that show no sign of easing. Part of the problem is sectarian and part is based on long-standing feuds over regional influence and leadership.
Saudi Arabia continues to see Iran as a threat, suggesting that the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and the P5+1 countries merely afforded Iran with more resources — because of the lifting of sanctions — to engage in proxy wars and subversive activities in the Arab world.
The Saudis say Iran will figure out a way to cheat on the nuclear deal and maintain a clandestine nuclear programme despite international inspections.
The Saudis also claim Iran’s policies are designed to encircle the kingdom. Riyadh views the war in Yemen between the Houthis, who follow the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam, and the Saudi-backed Yemeni government of Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi as Iranian meddling in its backyard because of Tehran’s military assistance, albeit limited, to the Houthi rebels.
Looking north and east, the Saudis see Iran’s hand in Syria, Iraq and Bahrain. The Saudis said Iran’s assistance — in the form of sending Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps personnel and military equipment — and that of its allied Lebanese Hezbollah forces have been crucial in keeping the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad alive and prolonging the agony of Syria’s majority Sunni Muslim community.
In Iraq, the Saudis have never fully accepted the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and say Iran’s support for it plays a role in keeping Iraq’s Sunni population oppressed. Although both Saudi Arabia and Iraq oppose the Islamic State (ISIS), the Saudis seem to believe that Iran’s activities in Iraq and its support for Shia militias there are the overriding problems.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said at a May 29th news conference Iran’s military role in Iraq was “unacceptable” and called on Iran to stop meddling in Iraq’s affairs.
Jubeir has been particularly alarmed at Iran and some of this may be personal. Several years ago, when he was the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Jubeir was the target of an alleged Iranian assassination plot that was thwarted by US authorities.
However, the strong anti-Iran sentiment is shared throughout the Saudi leadership, which sees a nefarious Iranian hand stoking Shia opposition to the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain and among the kingdom’s own Shia population in the oil-rich Eastern province. This hardline policy was evident in the beginning of the year when Saudi authorities executed Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr on terrorism-related charges.
That execution touched off a political (and literal) firestorm between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with demonstrators in Tehran torching the Saudi embassy, leading Riyadh to break diplomatic relations. The execution fed Iranian and broader Shia fears that the Saudis aim to keep the Shias oppressed and in second-class status.
The sectarian aspect of the feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran only seems to be getting worse. In early June, Iran announced that it would not send pilgrims to this year’s haj, citing security concerns among other reasons. This is not the first time that Saudi-Iran tensions have caused Iran to boycott the haj but it comes at a particularly sensitive time in regional affairs.
The Saudis claim that Iran refused to sign the normal haj security arrangements, which all participating countries agree to, and accuse Tehran of trying to politicise a sacred religious event. The Iranians warned that the Saudis would “pay a heavy price” for allegedly preventing Iranian pilgrims from performing one of Islam’s sacred obligations.
The backdrop for all this is the rivalry for leadership and influence in the region. The Saudis are portraying themselves as leaders and protectors of Sunni Muslims and say that Iran, as a non-Arab country and a Shia state, poses a threat to the mostly Sunni Arab world.
The Iranians see the Saudis as corrupt and unfit to be the custodians of Islam’s two holiest sites — Mecca and Medina — and as using their Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam to denigrate and oppress the Shias.
Although Iran’s influence in the Arab world is limited because of its Persian heritage, its role as “protector” of Shia groups gives it significant influence in several Arab countries. Despite the nuclear deal it struck with the West, Tehran’s outwardly anti-Western rhetoric has a certain appeal among large segments of Arab society.
Given these attitudes and policies, no rapprochement can be expected anytime soon.